Information about human rights violations suffered by ethnic minorities in Iran is difficult to obtain and to verify. Unlike Iran's persecuted religious minorities, the situations of its ethnic minorities are not closely monitored by international support groups. It is difficult to gain access to many areas where the minorities reside, and the Iranian media does not report on issues of ethnic discrimination.
Article 5 of the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Iran ratified on August 28, 1968, requires states to uphold equality before the law. Article 6 of the same convention requires that states provide to everyone an effective remedy to "any acts of racial discrimination which violate human rights and fundamental freedoms contrary to this Convention." In December 1992, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities.55 This declaration set out to amplify the requirements of Article 27 of the ICCPR for states to protect the rights of minorities. The declaration contains non-binding guidelines for states. The declaration notes that the "promotion and protection of the rights of persons belonging to ... minorities ... contributes to the political and social stability of states in which they live."56 It then sets out obligations for states to protect and promote the identity of minorities.57 In addition to promoting respect for minority languages and cultures, the declaration requires that, "Persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong or the regions in which they live..."58 Thedeclaration emphasizes the requirements that states should not discriminate against minorities and that persons belonging to minorities shall have full equality before the law.59
This report seeks to identify areas in which treatment of ethnic minorities has failed to meet the standard of equal treatment under the law for all Iranians as set forth in the constitution and in the instruments of international law specified above. Given the limited information we have been able to gather, it is not possible to make detailed assessments about the treatment of specific ethnic groups in Iran; rather, we raise areas of general concern in the hope that the government will take measures to ensure that the rights of ethnic minorities will be protected in practice.
There are five to eight million Kurdish Iranians residing mainly in the west and northwest of the country in areas contiguous with Kurdish populations in the neighboring states of Iraq and Turkey. Increasing numbers of Kurds also reside in Tehran and in the southwest, where the oil industry provides employment opportunities. Most Iranian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, which, as has been noted, has been an aggravating factor in the Kurds' relations with the Shi'a central authorities in Tehran.
Kurdish political organizations were enthusiastic supporters of the revolution against the Shah, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. The Shah had shown himself to be no friend of Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy and a loosening of Tehran's control over their affairs. From the early days of the revolution, relations between the central government and Kurdish organizations have been fraught with difficulties. The Kurds, with their different language and traditions and their cross-border alliances, were seen as vulnerable to exploitation by foreign powers who wished to destabilize the young republic. Ayatollah Khomeini expressed the view of many in the new clerical leadership when he said:
Sometimes the word minorities is used to refer to people such as Kurds, Lurs, Turks, Persians, Baluchis, and such. These people should not be called minorities, because this term assumes that there is a difference between these brothers. In Islam, such a difference has no place at all. There is no difference between Muslims who speak different languages, for instance, the Arabs or the Persians. It is very probable that such problems have been created by those who do not wish Muslim countries to be united....They create the issues of nationalism... and such-isms which are contrary to Islamic doctrines. Their plan is to destroy Islam and Islamic philosophy.60
The honeymoon of the new government was short-lived in the Kurdish region. Sunni Kurds, unlike the overwhelming majority of their countrymen, abstained from voting to endorse the creation of an Islamic republic in April 1979. That referendum institutionalized Shi'a primacy and made no provision for regional autonomy.
As early as 1979 armed conflict broke out between armed Kurdish factions and the Iranian government's security forces. The Kurdish forces included primarily the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdestan (KDPI) and the leftist Komala (Revolutionary Organization of Kurdish Toilers). The security forces consisted of Shi'a zealots from the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) and Komiteh.61 Beset by international disputes, the new leadership had little patience for Kurdish demands and set about crushing unrest through military mobilization of the Pasdaran andthrough mobile revolutionary courts under the supervision of infamous Islamic judges like Ayatollah Khalkhali,62 who sentenced thousands of men to execution after summary trials without regard for the rights of the accused. Those executed included civilians, suspected Kurdish fighters, and suspected supporters or sympathizers of other armed opposition groups which centered many of their military operations in the mountainous Kurdish region. Such draconian measures only intensified Kurdish grievances against the Tehran authorities.
During the war between Iran and Iraq, armed Kurdish political groups did not side with the Iraqis against their own government, but neither did they align themselves completely with Iran's war effort. Moreover, during the war years Kurdish regions became a battlefield for many armed opposition groups, including the Fedayan and the Mojahedine, inviting government reprisals that caused casualties among the civilian population.
With the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989, the Iranian authorities were again able to devote greater military resources to stamping out Kurdish opposition to its policies. Military deployment was stepped up after the Gulf War and the creation of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq. More than 200,000 troops are now permanently stationed in the Kurdish areas. In the course of combating armed opposition groups, the Iranian military has reportedly destroyed villages, expelled village populations, and mined broad areas. It has also attacked the suspected bases of Iranian Kurdish rebel groups inside Iraqi Kurdistan.63 The destruction of villages has been centered in areas adjacent to the Iraqi border in an apparent effort to close off supplies of arms reaching the Kurdish fighters from Iraq and to put an end to illicit cross-border traffic of all kinds.
Thus, the civilian population has been a major victim of the armed conflict. According to McDowall, more than 271 Iranian Kurdish villages were destroyed and depopulated between 1980 and 1992. Between July and December 1993 alone, during a major offensive against Kurdish armed groups, 113 villages were bombed.64
Kurdish activists complain that the authorities have withheld reconstruction funds for re-building war-damaged villages, directing such funds instead to the construction of housing for non-Kurdish immigrants in what they claim to be a deliberate attempt by the central government to change the composition of the population in the predominantly Kurdish areas of West Azarbaijan and Kurdestan provinces.65
In the cultural sphere, in 1985 the government built a Center for the Propagation of Kurdish Culture and Literature in Orumieh, the capital of Western Azerbaijan province. Kurdish artists and poets can display their work, including books and magazines published in Kurdish, but their content is strictly controlled by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.
In January 1997, Karimullah Tavahodi, a Kurdish historian, was detained in Mashhad. He was sentenced to one year of imprisonment because of the content of the fifth volume of his Historical Movement of Kurds ofKhorasan. Earlier volumes of this history had won official awards, but the fifth volume was banned. The authorities apparently objected to his portrayal of the Kurds' struggle for cultural autonomy.66
Like others outside the closed circle of Iran's political leadership, Kurdish politicians who have sought to compete in the political process by constitutional means have found their way blocked.67 For example, Mohammed Karimi, son of Abdullah, sought to stand as a candidate in the 1992 elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly, Iran's parliament, to represent the town of Bokan. His candidacy was denied because some of his family members had been associated with the KDPI and because he was considered to be insufficiently loyal to the Islamic Republic.68 The decision to exclude him from the election was taken by an administrative body appointed by the central government.
Kurdish political leaders have been the targets of political assassinations by the government inside and outside Iran. The government deals with Kurdish political groups through arbitrary detention, torture and execution of prisoners after unfair trials, according to Kurdish opposition groups. The KDPI regularly releases names and details of the cases of its supporters allegedly subjected to such treatment. For example:
* Kazem Mirzai, son of Adel, died in Orumieh prison as a result of torture on June 19, 1996. He had been detained since 1994 on suspicion of being a supporter of the KDPI.
* Mohammed Ali Nawruzi from the village of Yonesian, Nagadeh region, was detained for ten days and subjected to torture. He died the day after his release in 1995.
* Khoda Karam Ibrahimi died in a hospital in Kermanshah in August 1995 after being tortured. He had been sentenced to two years of imprisonment for membership in the KDPI.69
The KDPI also releases names of its supporters executed for their political and military activities. Each year the KDPI publishes the names of dozens of execution victims and of deaths in custody allegedly caused by torture. However, the true extent of these violations is difficult to gauge because the authorities have not permitted journalists or independent human rights monitors access to this part of the country for many years.
The KDPI also alleges that Pasdaran units stationed in Kurdish areas force Kurdish women to enter into temporary marriage contracts with them.70 The practice of temporary marriage, sanctioned within Shi'a Islamic custom but abhorrent to Sunni Muslims, constitutes a form of rape when carried out by force. The KDPI reports that in August 1994, a Pasdaran commander in the Sardasht region assembled the inhabitants of the village of Beitush and ordered the women to enter into temporary marriage contracts with his soldiers. Human Rights Watch has been unable to find independent confirmation of this incident or to assess the extent of the practice in general.
The situation of Iran's fifteen to twenty million Azari minority differs in almost every respect from that of the Kurds. Whereas the Kurds inhabit a remote and underdeveloped area, far from the centers of political power, Azaris inhabit a strategically important, prosperous area in northwest Iran, relatively close to Tehran. Millions of Azaris live in the capital. Azaris are more urbanized and intermarry with Persians and other ethnic groups more frequently than do Kurds. Azaris are predominantly Shi'a whereas the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, Azaris have a long history of being part of Iran's ruling elite. The Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925, was of Turkic descent.71 Many senior clerics in positions of power in the Islamic Republic are of Azari origin.
An active political movement in the early years of the twentieth century, Azari nationalism was suppressed by two centralizing governments, that of the Soviet Union (in the formerly Soviet republic of Azerbaijan) and that of Reza Shah in Iran. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, however, and the creation of the independent state of Azarbaijan with its capital in Baku adjacent to the Iranian border, a new consciousness of Azari nationalism has arisen in Iran.
The main grievances of the Azari community are cultural; it is hard to find evidence of discrimination against Azaris in the economic, professional or educational fields. Azaris complain that there is no Azari language instruction in schools for Azari children and no department of Azari literature in any Iranian university. In this latter regard they compare themselves to the much smaller Armenian minority and feel disadvantaged
An example of growing Azari national sentiment came on May 28, 1996, when a rally took place in Ardebil, a city in the Iranian province of East Azarbaijan, to protest the arrest by the government of Azarbaijan in Baku of nine Islamist activists. The policies of the Azarbaijan government and the Iranian government's relations with Baku are among the points of friction between the government and the Azari community. The war in Azarbaijan over the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has placed the Iranian government on a tightrope. While seeking to mediate this conflict, it has generally been regarded as favoring the Armenian side, an orientation it has adopted in order to counter Turkish influence over the government in Baku and to foster its relations with Moscow. Whatever the policies of their government, most Iranian Azaris side with Azarbaijan in this dispute, creating tension with Tehran.
With the growth of Azari nationalism, the central authorities have begun to take measures to counter it. Those who speak up for Azari rights are labeled by government officials and the state-controlled media as separatists or Turkish spies. Talk of a unified Azarbaijan is met with calls for Azarbaijan to be absorbed within the borders of the Islamic Republic. An example of this type of official rhetoric may be seen in the remarks of Ayatollah Mohsen Shabestary, the Friday prayer leader of Tabriz, appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, who stated in May 1996:
The Azarbaijan Republic once was ours. So, if there is any talk of unification of the two Azarbaijans, it is they who should come back to Iran....Some agents of world arrogance are trying to damage our national unity by spreading secessionist sentiments in our region. Unfortunately some of their mercenaries in Tabriz repeat these words, and talk of Pan-Turkism. The policy of the Islamic Republic is to avoid such polemics. We do not want to create a hue and cry. But if we are faced with these satanic plots, we should remind everyone, including the people of the Azarbaijan Republic, that we have lost some Azari cities, and we could one day claim them back.72
The authorities have taken security measures to counter the threat perceived to be coming from Azari nationalists. For example, in April 1996, Information Minister Ali Fallahian announced the arrest of twenty-nine "Turkish spies" in Western Azarbaijan Province. In March 1997, fifty "Turkish spies" were reported to have been detained and to have confessed in Orumieh. Activist lawyer Sepehr-rooz Moloudi has been in prison since October 1996. Azari sources claim that he is detained because of his advocacy of Azari rights. He faces charges of espionage that could carry the death penalty, according to the Iran Nation Party.73 Azari writer Mohammad Hossein Tamasebpour was detained in November 1996 while trying to leave the country and was released more than a month later. No reason was given for his detention.
Muhammad Ali Chehregani, a professor of linguistics at Tabriz University, was a candidate for Tabriz in the March 1996 elections to the Islamic Consultative Assembly (majles). In the first round he was among the leading vote winners from the Tabriz constituency, receiving more than 100,000 votes, despite claims that he was the victim of official manipulation of the vote. His name went forward to the second round of voting, scheduled for April 19, 1996.
Dr. Chehregani's campaign focused on issues of cultural discrimination. He expressed concern that Azari language and culture was in danger of vanishing. He demanded recognition for Azaris as Iranians, not Persians, and called for the teaching of the Azari language instead of Arabic as a second language in schools in Azari areas. Dr. Chehregani is a veteran of the war against Iraq who emphasized his support for the Islamic Republic during his campaign.
On the morning of April 19, 1996, the election committee of Tabriz removed his name from the ballot.74 This summary measure was met by a large protest in Tabriz by as many as 40,000 demonstrators whom Dr. Chehregani described as "faithful revolutionary Muslims."75 The security forces broke up the protest and detained more than 600 people. These protests were reported in the media. For example Azadliq and Yeni Musavat, newspapers published in Tabriz, reported the detention of people who had protested Dr. Chehregani's disqualification.
The protests surrounding Dr. Chehregani seem to have shaken the authorities. On April 21, the authorities detained Dr. Chehregani together with 40 of his supporters on charges of involvement in violations of the election law. Dr. Chehregani, who was released from prison after three days of interrogation, told Human Rights Watch that his arrest created a "volatile" situation in Tabriz that he was anxious to alleviate so as to avoid Azaris becoming caught up in political violence. He stated that some Iranian officials "did not mind to sacrifice Azari people who were faithful supporters of Iran and Islam."76
On May 15, 1996, the authorities took drastic action. Five young men, between twenty-one and twenty-three years of age, were hung in public from construction cranes, a practice fairly common in the early turbulent years of the Islamic Republic but more unusual in recent years. The authorities claimed that they had been convicted of drug trafficking. Dr. Chehregani said that the public executions had a chilling effect on the street protests that had been taking place in Tabriz on an almost daily basis. He said that "there was no way of knowing the validity of the chargesagainst the executed young men." He stated that the clear motive for having public executions had been to put an end to the street protests.
Since his release from jail Dr. Chehregani has frequently been summoned for interrogation, and he has been publicly accused by the governor of Western Azerbaijan province of being a ringleader engaged in sabotage. During these interrogations, Dr. Chehregani was warned that he should not try to leave the country. By September 1996, he felt under pressure and set out to drive across the border to Azerbaijan. On the road he was stopped and detained without warrant by security forces. He was held in solitary confinement for sixty days, during which time he suffered a stroke. He was hospitalized for two months and then returned to his home under house arrest. Dr. Chehregani is now partially paralyzed as a result of his stroke.77
Dr. Chehregani's case illustrates how nationalist sentiment among Azaris may be stirred up by government actions viewed as antagonistic by the Azari community. If a serious conflict were to arise with the Azari community, it might not be possible to contain in a geographically remote part of the country; it could threaten the viability of the entire state.
Baluchis are a Sunni Muslim minority residing primarily in the southeast of Iran on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They constitute one of the poorest and least developed communities in Iran, residing in a remote part of the country where the influence of the central government has never been strong. Cross-border smuggling and, in recent years, drug-trafficking is endemic. Moreover, the continuing civil war in Afghanistan, the presence of more than a million refugees from that conflict, and the ready availability of arms through Pakistan have contributed to instability in the region and to clashes between the security forces and the local population.
The Baluchis complain that as a Sunni minority they face institutionalized discrimination in the Shi'a state. In addition they complain of discrimination in the economic, educational, and cultural fields. Attempts by the Baluchis to form political organizations to advance their interests have been blocked by the authorities.78
Baluchi sources claim that during the past two years a systematic plan has been set in motion by the authorities to pacify the region by changing the ethnic balance in major Baluchi cities such as Zahedan, Iranshar, Chabahar, and Khash. It is claimed that the government has forcibly relocated Baluchis to remote desert areas while encouraging non-Baluchis to move in to take their place by providing them with incentives like free land, subsidized housing, and government jobs.79 It is claimed that when Baluchi villagers in fertile agricultural areas resist forcible relocation, they face armed attack. For example, in May 1995, Pasdaran are alleged to have attacked the villagers in Sorvdar and Zardkoh in the Iranshahr district in order to relocate them forcibly to a desert area.80
Baluchi activists report further that the hard-line policy of forced relocation increased in response to the February 1994 riots in Zahedan,81 the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province, protesting the destruction of a Sunnimosque in Mashad. The riots were allegedly, quelled by Pasdaran firing live ammunition into the crowd.82 Some activists were detained, but their fate is unknown.83
In May 1995, in the village of Sourdar in the area of Zadkoh, about forty miles from Iranshahr, security forces met with resistance when they tried to relocate the population forcibly. Two boys, Abdullah and Jabir Zadkouhi, one aged fourteen and the other fifteen, were reportedly killed in the clash. Four villagers were arrested. After these disturbances, the relocation went ahead.
From a distance, political violence in Baluchistan sometimes overlaps with violence surrounding drug trafficking and other illicit smuggling activities. In addition, the political turmoil in Afghanistan, with its warring Islamic factions reflecting the competing interests of regional states including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, spills over into Iranian territory. The authorities are able to mask many of the measures they take against Baluchi political activists by claiming that they are cracking down on bands of smugglers and drug-traffickers. The prevalence of these practices in the region gives these claims an element of credibility. However, in the absence of independent information about the situation in the region, and its inaccessibility to foreign journalists or human rights investigators, it is impossible to assess the validity of the government's claims.
The repression of Baluchi language and culture out of fear that a movement for Greater Baluchistan would endanger the territorial integrity of Iran predates the formation of the Islamic Republic. Mohammed Reza Shah had banned the use of the Baluchi language and prohibited the wearing of Baluch national dress in schools. The publication of Baluchi books, magazines and newspapers was a criminal offense. The administrative and political districts were arranged so as to avoid the creation of any Baluchi majority province or district, thus preventing the election of Baluchi local elected officials. Immigration of non-Baluchis into the area was encouraged under the Pahlavi state to the extent that almost forty percent of the population of Zahedan were non-Baluchi immigrants.84
The Islamic Republic has done nothing to reverse these trends. In 1980 the government closed down three Baluchi-language publications that had emerged after the revolution, Mahtak, Graand, and Roshanal. In the educational field, Baluchi language and culture has continued to be disregarded in schools. Most teachers are non-Baluchis. According to Baluchi activists interviewed in London in January 1997, only nine students out of a student body of 2,000 at Zahedan University were Sunni Baluchis during the 1995-96 academic year. Zahedan University is the major education institution in the area.85
Arabs make up 70 percent of the three million inhabitants of Khuzestan Province in the southwest of Iran, on the eastern shore of the Persian Gulf. Although the great majority of them are Shi'a Muslims, they have grievances against the Persian rulers of contemporary Iran.
An Arab-Iranian activist stated that in the past two years alone more than 180 Iranian Arabs have been detained and prosecuted on charges of espionage for Iraq or other Gulf Arab states. Like all detainees held for suspected political offenses, they have been held in indefinite pre-trial detention without access to lawyers, vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment, and without access to fair judicial processes.86
Arab activists claim that the attitude of the present government does not differ from that of the previous regime in its efforts to stamp out Arab culture. There is no Arabic-language newspaper dealing with domestic issues in Khuzestan; Arabic newspapers published in Iran are directed at an audience in the Arab world beyond Iran's borders. Arabic is not taught in elementary schools, and the Arabic teaching in secondary schools focuses exclusively on religious texts. The governor of Khuzestan is not an Arab, and very few high-ranking government officials are from an Arab background. One exception to this is Ali Shamkhani, who in August 1997 was appointed minister of defense by the newly elected president Mohammad Khatami.
A new irrigation scheme designed to boost sugar cane production in the Caroun River region has led to the expropriation of land from Arab peasants. Iranian Arab activists complain that local people are not being hired to work in the Caroun River Project. Instead, workers are being brought in from outside Khuzestan, and new settlements are being built for them.87 In February 1997, Iraji Sefati Dezfouli, a parliamentary representative for Abadan, protested about the lack of employment provisions for local people in the Caroun River project.88
Human Rights Watch/Middle East
Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world.
We stand with victims and activists to bring offenders to justice, to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom and to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime.
We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable.
We challenge governments and those holding power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law.
We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.
The staff includes Kenneth Roth, executive director; Susan Osnos, associate director; Michele Alexander, development director; Cynthia Brown, program director; Barbara Guglielmo, finance and administration director; Patrick Minges, publications director; Jeri Laber, special advisor; Lotte Leicht, Brussels office director; Susan Osnos, communications director; Jemera Rone, counsel; Wilder Tayler, general counsel; and Joanna Weschler, United Nations representative. Robert L. Bernstein is the chair of the board and Adrian W. DeWind is vice chair.
Its Middle East division was established in 1989 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in the Middle East and North Africa. Eric Goldstein is the acting executive director; Joe Stork is the advocacy director; Virginia N. Sherry is associate director; Clarissa Bencomo, Elahé Sharifpour-Hicks, and Nejla Sammakia are research associates; Gamal Abouali is the Orville Schell fellow; Georgina Copty and Awali Samara are associates. Gary Sick is the chair of the advisory committee and Lisa Anderson and Bruce Rabb are vice chairs.
Web Site Address: http://www.hrw.org
Listserv address: To subscribe to the list, send an e-mail message to email@example.com with "subscribe hrw-news" in the body of the message (leave the subject line blank).
[Note: As this report went to press in late August, no reply had
been received to the letter reproduced below.]
May 13, 1997
H.E. Dr. Javad Zarif
Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs
Ministry Of Foreign Affairs
Human Rights Watch is an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting human rights worldwide. We are writing this letter to inform you that Human Rights Watch/Middle East is currently investigating the situation of religious and ethnic minorities in Iran. In order that the report we issue be as accurate as possible, we are seeking your government's comments on the following observations and questions. All pertinent information you provide will be reflected in the final report. For that to be possible, we ask that we receive your response by June 11, 1997.
We also wish to obtain your permission to visit Iran in the very near future, in order to investigate the status of ethnic and religious minorities. In Iran, our delegation would seek meetings with pertinent government officials, as well as with other groups and individuals of our choosing. While we would naturally prefer to visit Iran before publishing our findings, we intend to publish a report, which we have striven to make as accurate as possible, even if permission is not granted.
As a State Party to many international human rights treaties, including the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic and Social Rights, Iran has committed itself to protecting the rights of minorities and to outlawing all kinds of discrimination. Human Rights Watch is concerned that several areas of legislation appear to discriminate against non-Muslims.
For example, a number of articles of the penal code are directly discriminatory in their treatment of non-Muslims. For example, Article 207 states that if a non-Muslim kills a Muslim, then the killer is liable to legal retribution, qisas, and subject to the death penalty. The principle of qisas requires that the nature and severity of the punishment should be equivalent to that of the offense. Therefore, the qisas punishment for murder is death. However, in some cases the penalty may be replaced by the payment of blood money (diyah) to the family of the victim.
If a non-Muslim kills another non-Muslim, qisas applies. However, if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, the law does not require qisas and does not specify a punishment. Article 2 of the penal code makes clear that the existence of a specified punishment denotes the existence of an offense. Therefore,
in the absence of a specified punishment in this instance, the judge may even rule that no offense has taken place in the willful killing of a non-Muslim by a Muslim. Thus, the penal law seems to attach less value to the life of a non-Muslim than the life of a Muslim, and may even permit the murder with impunity of non-Muslims by Muslims. Your government's comments on these observations are encouraged.With regard to the Baha'i community, Human Rights Watch is concerned about the sustained persecution of individual members of the Baha'i community and severe restrictions on organized religious activities by groups of Baha'is. Since 1983, Baha'i assemblies have been banned, and participation in Baha'i activities, such as festivals or acts of worship in private homes, is liable to prosecution.
The case of one Baha'i, Zabihullah Mahrami, is of particular concern. The judge stated that his conduct was "a clear insult to the beliefs of one billion Muslims," and sentenced him to death. In addition, since Mr. Mahrami had no Muslim heirs and his Baha'i family was ineligible to inherit, all of his property was confiscated by the state.
According to our information, prosecution for apostasy is a relatively unusual form of persecution directed at Baha'is. It is more common to charge Baha'is with other offenses, such as espionage. In February 1997, the head of the revolutionary courts announced that Mr. Mahrami had been sentenced to death on charges of spying for Israel. Mr. Mahrami remains in detention in Yazd facing a death sentence. We would appreciate being informed of the basis for the charges against him.
On February 18, 1996, the Supreme Court confirmed death sentences against two other Baha'is, Kayvan Khalajabadi and Bahman Mithaqi. The two men were detained without charge in April 1989 and sentenced to death by the revolutionary court of Karaj on November 23, 1993. On appeal, the Supreme Court reduced their death sentences to prison terms. However, they were brought to trial for a second time in November 1993 on charges of "engaging in Baha'i activities" and sentenced to death.
We welcome your comments on these cases. We also seek to know how these cases, the ban on the Baha'i organization, and the criminalization of "engaging in Baha'i activities" can be reconciled with Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which grants a person the right, "individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."
According to information we have collected, other minority religious groups have been the target of persecution. For example, in December 1990, Reverend Hossein Soodmand, a pastor in the Evangelical Christian Church who had converted to Christianity from Islam, was sentenced to death by a revolutionary court in Mashad and executed. He was charged with apostasy and insulting Islam through his own conversion and by his efforts to convert other Muslims.
In December 1993, Reverend Mehdi Dibaj was sentenced to death by a revolutionary court in Sari. He had been detained in 1983 in Babol, where he was a minister of the Church of the Assemblies of God, and held for ten years without trial on charges of apostasy and insulting Islam. Rev. Dibaj had converted from Islam to Christianity in 1948.
Soon after Rev. Dibaj's sentencing, Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, president of the Council of Evangelical Ministers of Iran and secretary-general of the Church of the Assemblies of God, issued a public statement listing violations of human rights suffered by members of the evangelical Christian community. These included the closure of churches, the beating and intimidation of converts from Islam, and the situation of Rev. Dibaj.
On January 16, 1994, Rev. Dibaj was released from prison after more than ten years, apparently in response to the international pressure generated by the campaign initiated by Bishop Hovsepian Mehr. Just three days later, on January 19, 1994, Bishop Hovsepian Mehr was abducted in Tehran. According to official reports, police discovered his body in the street in Shahr-e Rey; unable to identify it, they buried it immediately in a Muslim cemetery. After the family protested, the body was disinterred and reburied in a Christian cemetery.
On June 20, 1994, Rev. Dibaj disappeared after leaving a Christian conference in Karaj. Nothing was heard regarding his whereabouts until July 5, 1994, when Tehran police reported finding his body in a forest west of Tehran. The authorities denied the family's request for an independent autopsy to be carried out on the body. He was buried on July 13, 1994.
After Bishop Hovsepian Mehr's death, Reverend Tateos Mikaelian, senior pastor of St. John Armenian Evangelical Church, took over the position of president of the Council of Evangelical Ministers. On June 29, 1994, he too disappeared. On July 2, 1994, his son received a telephone call informing him that his father's body was in the morgue, having been shot in the head three times in an execution-style killing.
After an initial silence from the authorities, the government blamed the killings on the armed opposition group, the People's Mojahedine Organization of Iran (PMOI). A young woman, Farahnaz Anami, was arrested and accused of involvement in the killings. The government claimed that the PMOI had planned the killings in order to create strife between Christians and Muslims, and to discredit the Iranian government at a time when its treatment of religious minorities was an issue of international concern.
From the outset, the manner in which Ms. Anami's prosecution was handled created doubts about the validity of the government's claims that the killings were the work of its opponents. Even if the government's case is accepted at face value, it only accounts in part for the killings.
In televised confessions, Ms. Anami confessed to her complicity in the murder of Rev. Tatavous Michaelian. She stated that she was the killer, having lured the priest to his death by professing an interest in Christianity and then, with the help of an unidentified accomplice, shooting him and placing his body in a freezer. The killers in the other cases have not been identified.
In a highly unusual development, Ms. Anami was brought to trial in 1995 before a revolutionary court whose proceedings were open to the public, including observers from Western embassies. The defendant was assigned defense counsel, and she gave every appearance of confessing freely to her crimes. The trial was televised, and the judge opened the proceedings by describing how the case demonstrated that Iran was the victim of international terrorism. He said that the message of the trial was that Christian countries should not trust the PMOI because they kill Christians, and he urged the international community not to provide a haven for what he referred to as "anti-human hypocrites." The sentences, handed down by the court in September 1995, were remarkably lenient by the standards of the Islamic Republic. The court agreed to leniency because, it stated, the woman had been misled by the opposition group.
Even if one accepts the government's assertion that Ms. Anami is Rev. Michaelian's assassin, the government still has not to our knowledge pursued its inquiries to identify the killers of Rev. Dibaj and Bishop Hovsepian Mehr. For the government's version of events about these killings to be credible, it also needs to explain why procedures in this trial differed so markedly from those followed in other trials before revolutionary courts; what evidence there is-beyond Ms. Anami's statement-of PMOI involvement in the killings; and why her treatment in prison is so much better than that provided to other opposition party members.
There are reports that in clashes following the death of a Sunni Kurdish religious leader, Molla Mohammad Rabi'i, in Kermanshah in December 1996, Revolutionary Guards fired on unarmed civilians, and that many people remain in detention as a result of these clashes. Access for independent observers to this part of Iran has been limited, so information about what occurred in Kermanshah after Molla Rabi'i's death is hard to obtain. Human Rights Watch would welcome your comments on these incidents.
There is a basis for suspecting the Iranian government's complicity in the killing of Baluchi religious and political leaders. For example, Haji Mohammed Ziaie was killed in July 1994 after being summoned by the authorities in Laar. Molavi Ahmad Sayyad's body was discovered near the town of Bandar Abbas in February 1996, bearing signs of torture. The last time he was seen alive, he had been in government custody. Human Rights Watch would welcomeyour government's clarifications concerning the cause and circumstances of death in these cases. We have also been informed that as many as sixty Sunni religious leaders, mainly Baluchis, are reported to be in prison for their support of demands for parity for Sunni Islam in Iran. We would be grateful for your comments concerning these reports.
Azari candidate Muhammad Ali Chehregani was removed from the ballot for the Islamic Consultative Assembly in April 1996. Mr. Chehregani was later briefly imprisoned after seeking to leave the country, complaining of unbearable pressures placed upon him by the authorities. Human Rights Watch would appreciate being informed of the reasons for Mr. Chehregani's removal from the ballot and the basis for his subsequent imprisonment.
Human Rights Watch would very much appreciate it if you could forward these concerns to the responsible officials of your government. We would welcome any comment your government may wish to make on these issues. All pertinent comments that we receive by June 10, 1997 will be fully reflected in our forthcoming report about the rights of minorities in Iran. We also hope to receive your favorable response to our request for permission to conduct a mission in Iran.
I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have. Thank you for your consideration.
Acting Executive Director
cc: H. E. Dr. Kamal Kharazi, Permanent
Mission of Iran to the United Nations
55 GA Res. 47/135, Dec. 18, 1992.
56 Ibid., preamble.
57 Ibid., Article 1.
58 Ibid., Article 2 (3).
59 Ibid., Article 4 (1).
60 Ayatollah Khomeini, Radio Tehran, December 17, 1979. Quoted in David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1996, hereafter McDowall 1996), p. 271.
61 For a detailed account of the fortunes of the Kurds under the Islamic Republic, see McDowall 1996, Chapter 13, "Subjects of the Shi'i Republic," pp. 261-287.
62 Ayatollah Khalkhali's actions as a judge who sentenced to death large numbers of the government's suspected political opponents were documented by Amnesty International in the early eighties. His activities were not hidden, and he continued to boast about them as a member of the Islamic Consultative Assembly until 1992. He continues to be active in public life.
63 David McDowall, The Kurds, rev. ed. (London: Minority Rights Group International, December, 1996), p. 22.
65 Human Rights Watch interview with Iranian Kurdish political activists, Washington, D.C., August 1996.
66 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with the head of the Association of Iranian Writers in Exile, Germany, February 1997.
67 For more detail on the exclusion of independent candidates from the electoral process, see Human Rights Watch/Middle East, "Power versus Choice, Human Rights and Parliamentary Election in the Islamic Republic of Iran," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 1 (E), March 1996.
68 Human Rights Watch interview with Kurdish activist, Berlin, February 1997.
69 Statements issued by KDPI during 1995 and 1996, on file at Human Rights Watch.
70 Human Rights Watch interview with Kurdish activists, Washington D.C., August 1996.
71 Azaris speak Azari, a Turkic language closely related to Turkish and to the Turkic languages of Central Asia.
72 "Ayatollah Shabestary addresses religious students in Tabriz," Sobh newspaper, Tehran, May 28, 1996.
73 Telephone interview with Iran Nation Party, Tehran, April 7, 1997. The Iran Nation Party, headed by Darioush Farouhar, is an unrecognized opposition party that is barely tolerated by the Iranian authorities. It has been a public critic of the government's human rights practices.
74 For a description of the procedures by which candidates were arbitrarily removed from the ballot in the 1996 Iranian parliamentary elections, see "Power versus Choice," Human Rights Watch/Middle East, March 1996.
75 Telephone interview with Dr. Muhammad Ali Chehregani, July 27, 1996.
77 Telephone interview with Dr. Chehregani, March 27, 1997.
78 Human Rights Watch interview with Baluchi activists, London, January 1997.
79 Telephone interview with Baluch Human Rights International, U.S.A., July 1996.
80 Human Rights Watch interview with Baluchi activists, London, January 1997.
81 Ibid. There were earlier reports of clashes arising out of the forced relocation policy. For example Amnesty International in its annual report for 1992 reported clashes arising from attempts to relocate the Naroui tribe from the area of Roudmahi, near Zahedan. Forty-two were reported to have been killed in clashes, including women and children. Twenty menwere reported to have been publicly executed in Zahedan in 1992 in connection with these disturbances.
83 Baluchi activists supplied Human Rights Watch with a list of eight men detained after the Zahedan riots. They had no information about their current status or whereabouts.
84 Selig S. Harrison, In Afghanistan's Shadow: Baluch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations (New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1981).
85 Interview with Baluchi activists, London, January 1997.
86 The Iranian Arab Cultural Center in Germany gave Human Rights Watch the names of detainees allegedly held for political reasons in Ahvaz: Sha'i Torfi, Abdulzahra Muhavi, Mehdi Navasari, Samir Muslemina, Saleh Sa'idi, Farajullah Shahrhani, Majid Youssef, Farnous Heydari, and Rahim Shahrhani.
87 Resalat newspaper #3193, January 20, 1997, reported an interview with Mohandes Amili, deputy director of the Caroun River Project, on plans to create a new town called Shirinshahr on the east side of the Caroun River for 10,000 households. Arab activists point out that local people already have houses, and they could be employed in these projects without having to construct new towns. Meanwhile local unemployment remains very high.
88 Resalat newspaper #3202, January 30, 1997.