The Iranian government should immediately release Yusuf Azizi Banitaraf, an Iranian journalist of Arab descent, and allow independent journalists and human rights monitors to report on a government crackdown on protests in the southern province of Khuzistan, Human Rights Watch said today.
Plainclothes agents arrested Banitaraf, who has written 20 books on ethnic minorities in Iran, in Tehran on April 25 during a press conference held by the nongovernmental Center for the Defense of Human Rights. During this event, Banitaraf publicly criticized the government’s violent suppression of protests by ethnic Iranian-Arabs in Khuzistan’s capital, Ahwaz. He spoke out about the killing of local residents during the protests, which began on April 15. According to government critics, at least 50 people were killed by the government’s security forces.
“The Iranian authorities have again displayed their readiness to silence those who denounce human rights violations,” said Joe Stork Washington director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “We have serious allegations the government used excessive lethal force, arbitrary arrests and torture in Khuzistan.”
Protests erupted in Ahwaz on April 15 following publication of a letter allegedly written by Mohammad Ali Abtahi, an advisor to President Mohammad Khatami, which referred to government plans to implement policies that would reduce the proportion of ethnic Arabs in Khuzistan’s population. The province is home to nearly two million Iranians of Arab descent. After security forces tried to disperse the demonstrators and opened fire on them, clashes between protestors and security forces turned violent. The violence spread to other cities and towns in Khuzistan. The next day, Abtahi and other government officials denied the existence of the letter and called it fake.
On April 18, the authorities closed the Tehran bureau of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network, after its correspondent reported from Ahwaz on the clashes. The government has since banned foreign and Iranian journalists from traveling to Khuzistan.
Following a visit to the region on April 19, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani told the Iranian Students News Agency that the security forces had detained 310 people. He put the number of deaths at “three or four.” However, Ahwaz residents contacted by phone told Human Rights Watch that the government forces killed at least 50 local residents during these clashes. The Ahwaz Human Rights Organization, based in the United States, provided Human Rights Watch with a list of the names of those it claims were killed in the protests, including two boys aged eight and 12.
Residents of Ahwaz told Human Rights Watch that the government has been releasing only two bodies a week to families, even after collecting fees from them. They said that the government initially demanded a payment of 50,000,000 Iranian rials (US $6250) for each body, allegedly to compensate for damages to public buildings sustained during the protests. This amount was later reduced to 15,000,000 rials (US$1875).
Local residents said the government arrested as many as 1200 people on April 16-17, many of them Iranian-Arab professionals, including Kazem Asad, Sadegh Sewikiare, Ghasem Nasserian, Kazem Mojadam, Abdolghader Hamadi, Jaber Naam Yahuri, Mojahed Baldi, Salem Beradea, Nabi Manabi, Reza Bani-Saeed and Abood Bani Saeed.
Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned about the condition of the detainees and possible use of torture.
The Ahwaz Human Rights Organization told Human Rights Watch that Sadegh Shoiki, an engineer with the government owned South Fishing Enterprise (Shilat Jonoob), was detained on April 16 and severely tortured “to a point that he cannot talk, walk or stand.” The organization said that this information came from Shoiki’s family, who had visited him in Ahmadabad prison in Abadan.