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(Beirut) – Iranian officials should immediately and unconditionally release five Azeri ethnic minority rights activists. The five were sentenced to heavy prison terms solely for their membership in a party that peacefully works for the civil and cultural rights of the country’s Azeri ethnic minority. An appeals court recently affirmed nine-year prison sentences for each of the five men.

The five were convicted in a closed two-day trial for “founding an illegal group” and “propaganda against the state” in connection with their membership in Yeni GAMOH, an Azeri party, members told Human Rights Watch. Yeni GAMOH, which stands for “New Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement” in the Azeri language, has for more than a decade promoted Azeri cultural and linguistic identity, along with secularism and the right to self-determination for the Azeris of Iran, members say.

“Speaking out peacefully for their rights or for more autonomy is no reason to send members of a minority group away for long prison terms,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East directorat Human Rights Watch. “We have seen no evidence suggesting that these men, or their group, have done anything but exercise their right to protest.”

With an estimated population of at least 15 million, mostly concentrated in Iran’s northwest regions, Azeris constitute the country’s largest ethnic minority.

On June 16, 2013, an appeals court in the northwestern city of Tabriz upheld the nine-year prison sentences for Mahmoud Fazli, Ayat Mehrali Beyglou, Shahram Radmehr, Latif Hassani, and Behboud Gholizadeh on national security-related charges. The ruling came less than two months after they were convicted by Branch 3 of the Tabriz Revolutionary Court. The five men are currently in Rajai Shahr Prison, in the city of Karaj, 47 kilometers west of Tehran, the capital.

Security forces arrested four of the men in cities in the Azeri-majority provinces of northwestern Iran between December 31, 2012, and February 16, 2013. Hassani was arrested on February 6 in Karaj. Officials transferred the men to the central prison in Tabriz in early March, after agents from the Intelligence Ministry interrogated them for several weeks in a ministry detention facility, according to information provided by Sajjad Radmehr, the brother of Shahram Radmehr.

Radmehr said that the men were abused physically and psychologically during the interrogation. He said that after his arrest his brother began to suffer from severe headaches and that he had lost consciousness three times during his interrogation.

Several of the other detainees also suffer from ailments that require proper medical care, which the family members say they are not receiving in prison. On July 13 the five men initiated a hunger strike to protest their unfair trial and the conditions of their detention, family members say.

Zahra Farajzadeh, Beyglou’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that none of the defendants’ lawyers had access to their case files during the investigation phase, which was carried out by the Intelligence Ministry. She said that the lawyers repeatedly requested a delay in the trial until they had time to review the charges against their clients and prepare a proper defense, but that the judge convened the trial a week after allowing them access to the files. Farajzadeh also said that the appellate court refused to consider the lawyers’ appeal to vacate the lower court’s judgment on the basis of numerous trial irregularities.

Fatemeh Heidari, Fazli’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that after the men went on the hunger strike, authorities threatened to transfer them to prisons in Tehran as punishment. Hediari said that in early August, prison officials transferred the men to Tehran’s Evin Prison without notifying their families. Officials later moved them to Rajai Shahr Prison, where they are currently being held. All five have ended their hunger strike.

The detainees are all members of Yeni GAMOH’s central committee, and Hassani is the party’s general secretary. Authorities had arrested the men in 2010 in connection with their membership in the group, and revolutionary courts had sentenced them to various prison terms, ranging from six to 18 months, on charges similar to those handed down in April.

Radmehr served his six-month sentence prior to his latest arrest, while the others had not yet been summoned to serve their terms. According to Sajjad Radmehr, 20 members of the group had been arrested in 2010, and the authorities had repeatedly warned the five detainees to stop their activities before this latest round of arrests.

Several of the men, including Fazli and Gholizadeh, had prior arrest records in connection with other activities on behalf of Azeri rights, including the Lake Urmia demonstrations in September 2011, which led to the arrests of dozens of protesters.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, requires authorities to conduct a “fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal,” and allow defendants “adequate time and facilities for the preparation of their defense.” Article 27 of the covenant requires Iran to respect the rights of members of minorities, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language.

Article 15 of Iran’s Constitution designates Persian as the “official and shared language of Iran” but allows for the “use of local and ethnic languages in groups’ press and media and teaching of their literature in schools alongside Persian.” Article 19 of the constitution states that, “the people of Iran, no matter what ethnicity or tribe, have equal rights, and attributes such as color or race or language will not be a reason for privilege.”

On August 1 Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to Hassan Rouhani, then the president-elect, urging him to implement policies “ensuring equal protection of law for all Iranians, irrespective of ethnicity and faith.”

“Iran’s treatment of its largest ethnic minority, the Azeris, says a lot about the government’s attitude toward basic rights and equal protection of the law for all Iranians,” Stork said. “Judging by the treatment of these five activists, there’s a lot to do to close the gap between what officials say and do when it comes to respecting minority rights.”

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