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(New York) – Iranian authorities should allow peaceful protests against government policies that may be accelerating the drying up of Lake Urmia in Western Azerbaijan province, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release people arrested for exercising their right to assemble or speak out against the government. Family members and other witnesses told Human Rights Watch that several hundred protesters and activists have been arrested since late August 2011.

The mass arrests in recent weeks took place in cities throughout Iran’s Azerbaijan region. The arrests are part of a pattern of detentions and threats against environmental and civil society activists who believe Lake Urmia is drying up because of a network of dams that divert water from the lake, and construction and commercial projects in and around the lake. They say declining water levels are increasing salinity and may harm plants and wildlife and cause additional ecological damage, such as by provoking salt storms. Lake Urmia is the largest lake in Iran and the world’s third largest saltwater lake.

“This latest round of arrests shows how intolerant Iranian authorities are toward any form of public criticism,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should free Azerbaijan region residents who appear to have been arrested solely for gathering peacefully, and if there is credible evidence that any of them acted violently, either charge or release them.”

The first round of arrests was on August 24, when security forces raided a private gathering in the home of Sadeq Avazpour in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan province. The guests had gathered for a ceremony marking eftar, the breaking of the day’s fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The security forces arrested approximately 30 people. Family members said that none of the detainees had been freed.

Azeri activists based both inside and outside Iran told Human Rights Watch that security forces also have arrested activists and demonstrators who had gathered beginning on August 27 in Tabriz, Orumiyeh, Ardebil, and other cities throughout the Azerbaijan region to protest what they consider to be the government’s unwillingness to rescue Lake Urmia. Several thousand demonstrators, some of whom clashed with riot police, attended a large rally in Orumiyeh on August 27. Authorities arrested approximately 300 demonstrators in Orumiyeh alone, local activists told Human Rights Watch, but have since released dozens. Dozens of others were arrested in Tabriz, Orumiyeh, and several other cities on September 3 after local activists called for additional demonstrations.

Among those arrested on August 24, family members said, are Mostafa and Morteza Avazpour, sons of the host who are well known activists in Tabriz and who have been previously arrested for Lake Urmia protests. More than two weeks later, authorities have still provided no details regarding the reasons for the arrests that day or where they are keeping the detainees, several family members told Human Rights Watch.

Mostafa Avazpour’s wife said she had tried to enter her father-in-law’s home several hours after the raid but that security forces had blocked her. She said that around 11:30 p.m., authorities summoned her and several other family members, including her father-in-law, to a police station in Tabriz. The police held them there for two hours. Mostafa Avazpour called the next day only to tell his wife he was doing well but provided no further information.

Family members denied media reports that authorities have released 15 of those arrested at the gathering and said they believe some of the detainees have been transferred to Tabriz’s central prison. The wife of another detainee told Human Rights Watch that she visited the local police and Intelligence Ministry offices in Tabriz several times after the arrest and was told her husband would be released on September 6. When she returned to the police station on that date she was told to come back on September 11. Another family member of a detainee said he had gone to inquire about the status of his brother at least six times but the authorities refused to provide any information. At this writing, according to the family members, none of the detainees had been freed.

The Tabriz gathering took place after Iran’s majlis, or parliament, rejected an emergency bill on August 17 to raise the water level of Lake Urmia by diverting water into it from the Aras River. The vote triggered a call by many Azerbaijani activists for protests on August 27 in Tabriz, Orumiyeh, and other cities in northwest Iran. Azeri activists who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that a large number of security forces were present in Tabriz on that day and that they arrested a few dozen protesters and prevented any gatherings.

In Orumiyeh, thousands of people gathered and chanted slogans like, “Lake Urmia gives life, Majlis orders its death!” and, “Let us cry, so that with our tears we replenish Lake Urmia.” A witness at the protest told Human Rights Watch that anti-riot police shot teargas at protesters and beat them with batons. He and several other activists said that protesters in Orumiyeh were largely peaceful, but that some fought back as the anti-riot police shot teargas and rubber bullets. YouTube videos reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that the demonstrations turned violent, with some protesters throwing rocks at riot police and others burning motorcycles used by security forces. Human Rights Watch cannot independently verify the events shown in the videos.

Demonstrations resumed in Tabriz, Orumiyeh, and several other cities on September 3. A witness told Human Rights Watch that at about 6:10 p.m. a crowd of demonstrators in Tabriz started marching toward a government building and chanting slogans to demand action on Lake Urmia. He said that after a while, security forces blocked the crowd’s advance while another group of officers showed up behind the demonstrators and began taunting them. Security forces began lobbing teargas and chasing and clubbing people, the witness said. There were unconfirmed reports of serious injuries caused primarily by security forces using batons.

Another witness to the Tabriz events told Human Rights Watch he saw security forces attack demonstrators with electric batons and teargas.

“They were beating up everybody, even women and children,” he said. “[I saw] a young man just crossing the street – he wasn’t even among the demonstrators. Seven security forces attacked him and started beating him up so badly that a group of women from the crowd went to rescue the guy. We [men] couldn’t do that; the [police officers] wouldn’t let us move.”

The Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran, based in Vancouver, Canada, told Human Rights Watch that it received reports indicating that security forces used live ammunition during some of the protests and that they killed a handful of protesters during the August 27 and September 3 protests. Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm any deaths or the identities of those killed.

Reports also indicate that security forces have arrested a handful of other protesters in Ardebil, Maragheh, and other cities in northwestern Iran since late August. Among them is Vahid Faezpour, a well known blogger and student activist who graduated from Tabriz University and is believed by his family and others to have been arrested in connection with the Lake Urmia protests. Human Rights Watch spoke to a family member, who said that Faezpour was arrested by Intelligence Ministry forces in Ardebil on August 28. The relative said he had no information about the reason for Faezpour’s arrest or where he is being held.

Authorities and pro-government newspapers have for years rejected government responsibility for the drying up of the lake, and have instead contended that global warming and other uncontrollable environmental factors are at play.

On September 5 authorities announced they would dedicate 950 billion toman (US$95 million) to divert water from rivers to rehabilitate Lake Urmia. Local activists have largely dismissed the measure as a disingenuous face-saving measure, and there are reports that more demonstrations have been planned.

In April, security forces arrested dozens of protesters who had gathered at Lake Urmia carrying signs and chanting slogans in Azeri calling for authorities to save the lake. Government authorities maintain that the anti-government protests in Iranian Azerbaijan were unlawful despite article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Iran, which guarantees the right to peaceful assembly. Article 27 of the Iranian constitution guarantees the right to protest as long as demonstrations are peaceful and do not violate the principles of Islam.

On September 6 the deputy governor of Western Azerbaijan province, Ebrahim Fatollahi, told reporters that authorities are willing to issue a permit to demonstrators seeking to draw attention to the plight of the lake, but that protesters had failed to submit an official request. Human Rights Watch does not know whether demonstrators in Tabriz, Orumiyeh, and the other large cities had applied for permits. But to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, authorities have not approved any anti-government demonstrations during the last few years.

“Time and again Iranian authorities have shown, both in Iranian Azerbaijan and elsewhere, that they are unwilling to tolerate any anti-government protests,” Stork said. “Instead of criticizing protesters for not getting proper permission for previous protests, authorities should free all those arrested for demonstrating peacefully and allow them to participate in future protests.”

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