(New York) – Iran’s judiciary should immediately quash execution orders against five activists from Iran’s ethnic Arab minority and allow the men’s lawyers and family members to visit them in detention. Human Rights Watch expressed grave concern for the safety of these and other Iranian-Arab detainees following reports on June 17, 2012 that authorities had executed four Arab men charged with terrorism-related activities.
Hadi Rashedi, 38, Hashem Shaabani(nejad), 32, and Mohammad-Ali Amouri(nejad), 34, are at imminent risk of execution, a close family friend of the men told Human Rights Watch. A revolutionary court convicted the men behind closed doors of terrorism-related charges that carry the death penalty for their alleged membership in an armed Arab separatist group and participation in armed activities. The judiciary has also issued death sentences for two Iranian-Arab brothers – Seyed Mokhtar, 25, and Seyed Jaber Alboshokeh, 27 – who were arrested around the same time. Due to the information blackout and secrecy surrounding security trials in Iran’s majority-Arab Khuzestan province where all of these men live, there is little information available about the evidence used against the men except for televised confessions.
“The judiciary has put forth no public evidence suggesting that these men should spend one more day in prison, let alone hang from the gallows,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of transparency surrounding these men’s convictions and sentences is just one more reason why these execution orders should be quashed.”
Security forces arrested the five men sentenced to death in February 2011 in connection with their alleged membership in a terrorist organization and involvement in shootings that authorities say occurred in and around the town of Ramshir (also known as Khalafabad) in Khuzestan province.
The family friend told Human Rights Watch that the same court recently sentenced four other men from the same town to prison following what seem to be politically motivated charges. The men are Rahman Asakereh, 34, sentenced to 20 years; Esmaeel Abiat, 29, to 5 years; Ali Badri, 31, to 6 years, and Shahid Amouri, 42, to one year. Except for Abiat, all of the men sentenced in the case are currently residents of Khalafabad, a small town 120 kilometers southeast of Ahvaz. Most are well-known educators or cultural activists, and a few, including Asakereh and Amouri, had previously been targeted by authorities for their political activities and ties to reformist parties during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency.
The source told Human Rights Watch that the nine men are among at least a dozen Iranian-Arab activists from Khalafabad arrested by security forces since February 2011. Authorities have since released several others on bail, but Human Rights Watch has no specific information regarding the status of their cases.
According to some Iranian-Arab rights groups, authorities arrested the twelve or so Arab men from Khalafabad in anticipation of planned demonstrations on April, 15 2011, which commemorated the six-year anniversary of protests by the province’s ethnic Arab majority who have long complained about the lack of socioeconomic development in the region. Khuzestan’s Arab residents also accuse the Iranian government of systematically discriminating against them, particularly in employment, housing, and civil and political rights.
In April 2011, Human Rights Watch documented the use of live ammunition by security forces against protesters in cities throughout Khuzestan province, killing dozens and wounding many more. No Iranian officials have been investigated in connection with these killings.
The source told Human Rights Watch that Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court in Ahvaz, headed by Judge Seyed Mohammad-Bagher Mousavi, issued the five death sentences. He said that the authorities informed the men’s lawyers and family members of the execution orders after Iran’s Supreme Court apparently affirmed the sentences, but did not know exactly when the trial court had originally issued its rulings.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to obtain a copy of either the execution orders or the convictions against the men, nor can it independently verify that Iran’s Supreme Court has affirmed the lower court’s ruling. But Iranian-Arab rights groups report that the revolutionary court convicted the men of terrorism-related charges including moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and efsad-e fel arz (“sowing corruption on earth”), for which the penalty is death. Under articles 186 and 190-91 of Iran’s penal code, anyone found responsible for taking up arms against the state, or belonging to an organization taking up arms against the government, may be considered guilty of “enmity against God”and sentenced to death.
On December 13, 2011, Press TV, a government English-language station, aired a documentary featuring Rashedi, Shaabani, and another Arab man, Taha Heidarian, who has since been reported to have been executed. In the documentary, Rashedi and Shaabani appear to confess to being part of an armed Arab terrorist group called the Al-Moqawama al-Shaabiya (“People’s Movement”), which was responsible for shooting at four government employees, a few of whom are named in the program. The program said the terrorist group is supported by the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as foreign-based Iranian Arabs who fronted as human rights activists.
The Press TV program did not provide any additional information regarding the date of the alleged attack or whether anyone was injured. The informed source told Human Rights Watch that he is not aware of any terrorist shootings that have taken place in Khalafabad in the past couple of years, and that the individuals named during the program as victims of the armed attack are alive and well.
Iranian-Arab rights groups maintain that the confessions by Rashedi and Shaabani were coerced under duress and torture during their detention at a local Intelligence Ministry facility, and that they denied the charges against them in court. The informed source told Human Rights Watch that Rashedi has injuries in his pelvic area as a result of torture. In May, Al Arabiya reported that intelligence ministry agents forced Shaabani to confess to crimes he had not committed by pouring boiling water on him.
Since May 2011, authorities have executed at least 11 Iranian-Arab men and a 16-year-old boy in Karun prison for their alleged links to groups involved in attacking security forces, Human Rights Watch said. Rights activists previously told Human Rights Watch that at least another six people have been tortured to death in the custody of security and intelligence forces in connection with anti-government demonstrations that swept across Khuzestan province in April 2011 and 2012.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases in which Iranian security forces used physical and psychological coercion including torture to secure false confessions in security-related cases, and courts have convicted defendants on terrorism-related charges in trials in which prosecutors relied primarily, if not solely, on confessions and failed to provide any convincing evidence establishing the defendant’s guilt.
“No terrorism trial in Iran will have credibility as long as the government’s primary evidence is televised confessions and the proceedings are masked in secrecy,” Whitson said. “Death penalty verdicts produced at breakneck speed without a modicum of due process protections for the accused invites nothing but skepticism about the merits of the government’s case.”
Human Rights Watch has previously expressed its serious concern regarding the condition of Rashedi, Shaabani and other Iranian Arab activists detained by security and intelligence forces, and is particularly worried about their fate in light of reports regarding the execution of Taha Heidarian and three other Arab men in June for their alleged role in the killing of a police officer. On June 9 officials in Ahvaz’s Karun prison transferred brothers Taha, Abbas, and Abdul-Rahman Heidarian, as well as another man, to an unknown location. About a week later authorities informed the men’s family members that they had been executed.
Several days after reports surfaced regarding the men’s executions, Iranian-Arab rights groups circulated a video purporting to show the men reading a plea to save their lives to Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the newly appointed United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, after their arrest by security forces. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of the video.
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its irreversible, cruel, and inhumane nature.
“What we are witnessing today in Iran’s Khuzestan province is state-sanctioned killing that, by many accounts, is aimed at silencing voices that are critical of the government’s policies in the region,” Whitson said.