On The 9th Anniversary of Khuzestan's Unrest

Khuzestan: A Tragic Cycle of Mismanagement, Injustice, and State Violence

Ali Batrani was a 17-year-old youth, whose tortured body was found on April 18, 2005, in the Karun River in Ahvaz, a city in the Arab-majority Khuzestan province in southwest Iran. He had been arrested on April 15, the first day of a 10-day-long protest that had begun in Ahvaz and, following the shooting deaths of protesters, spread to other towns. A brutal crackdown ended the protest, but Khuzestan has witnessed chronic unrest ever since. Each following year, the members of Iran’s Arab minority attempt to commemorate the deadly events of April 2005, while the security forces take over neighborhoods, control communications, and preventively detain scores of activists. The result is a build-up of grievances and a cycle of violence with no end in sight.

Discrimination in access to education, employment, and adequate housing are among the host of issues raised by members of the Arab minority in Khuzestan, who also demand respect for their Arab identity and cultural rights. As more families join the ranks of those stricken by grief and anger, successive governments have made no serious attempts to address these grievances. Rather, by severely restricting the Arabs’ fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of association and expression or that of enjoying their own culture, the authorities have contributed to creating an environment of fear that silences peaceful activists, isolates victims, prevents the circulation of information, and encourages some to resort to violence.

The April 2005 protests did not take place in an extraordinary context. In fact, it was the absence of significant change and hope that has and continues to feed dissatisfaction in Arab-dominated and oil-rich Khuzestan Province.

In his report, following a visit to Iran in July 2005, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Milan Kothari, drew attention to “neglect” and the “uneven distribution of development resources from the national authorities in Tehran.” In some poor neighborhoods of Ahvaz, he had observed:

“… a complete lack of basic services impacting negatively on the populations’ health status, in addition to contributing to severe security problems. Most poor neighborhoods were unpaved, open-air sewage was sometimes observed and uncollected garbage blocked streets, obstructing traffic and access from the outside in case of emergencies.”

The Special Rapporteur also pointed out that:

“... lands traditionally cultivated by Iranian Arabs, which were expropriated by the Government for remarkably low prices, in order to provide space for development projects and plantations, such as the Dekhoda sugar-cane project. The affected population had no access to legal remedies to challenge the legitimacy and legality of the expropriation orders.”

It is in such a context that the publication of a letter - ascribed to then-President Khatami’s Chief of Staff, Mohammad Ali Abtahi - led to days of unrest. The letter, the authenticity of which was denied by the government a day after its publication, emphasized the promotion and encouragement of the migration of non-native populations, thus reducing Khuzestan’s Arab population to one third of the total population of the province.

Demonstrations protesting the letter broke out on Friday, April 15, in Shelangabad, a poor neighborhood in Ahvaz. The protest spread to towns such as Mahshahr and Hamidiyeh, drawing thousands of protesters after the security forces opened fire on protesters in Malashiyeh and Shelangabad. The use of excessive force against an initially peaceful protest and the death of several protesters, including Razi Abayat and Musa Shamusi, led to several days of unrest and violence in the province, during which protesters blocked roads and took control of some government offices and police stations.

The protest organizers had highlighted “the central government’s policies in expropriating Arab farmers’ lands for various projects, such as sugar cane development,” and “marginalization of, as well as profound discontent among, Khuzestan’s Arab population, as a result of the regime’s efforts to obliterate Arab identity.” They also demanded an official apology to the Arabs of the region.

Scores of protesters were killed during the April 2005, unrest and hundreds were injured before the demonstrations subsided. Official government sources, quoting the Islamic Republic’s defense minister, announced the death toll as standing at three or four. (ISNA, April 19, 2005) Estimations from unofficial sources vary, but the most recent published list of victims includes 64 names. Furthermore, the Ahvaz General and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office announced the arrest and arraignment of 447 individuals. (IRNA, April 25, 2005) Local sources, however, announced the number as being greater than 1200.

In the aftermath of the protests, local authorities added to the population’s grief and anger by refusing to return to their loved ones, immediately, the bodies of those who had been killed. In some cases, they even demanded the payment of a fine before doing so. Ali Batrani’s family told Amnesty International that the authorities returned Batrani’s body more than three weeks after he was found in the river, and they had to pay for the authorization to bury him.

There is no indication that an official investigation into the shooting of the protesters in Shelangabad and Malashiyeh, on the 15th, the continued persecutions and silencing of civil society in the province were not conducive to calm. In the months following the protests, a series of bombings in Ahvaz (and Tehran) claimed 22 lives. Further clashes, attacks of security forces, attempted terror attacks, and the bombing of gas pipelines were also reported. As a result, scores of people were arrested, coerced into confessing, tried summarily, and executed. The blatant violations of due process in these prosecutions led to widespread protests by human rights defenders inside the country.

The death toll has continued to rise in Khuzestan over the years, as the Iranian authorities suppress, heavy-handedly, attempts at gathering or protesting on various occasions, including on the anniversary of the April 15, 2005, events.

In November 2005, following the annual Eid al-Fitr prayer, and in respect to the Noeid tradition, Ahvazi Arabs marched peacefully towards Lashgarabad to visit the families of those who were killed in April. On their way back, protesters were caught on the 5th bridge of the Karun River between two contingents of revolutionary guards and bassij forces. Many were arrested, and some jumped into the river to avoid arrest. At least two people, Ahmad Na’ami and Yaser Savari, drowned.

Two years later, again on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr (12 October 2007), a demonstration in Hamidiyeh led to numerous arrests. Though no casualties were reported that day, several detainees were found dead a few weeks later. In a January 2008 letter to Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization reported:

“According to the relatives of those held in custody, the Ministry of Information and Security has refused to divulge any information on their whereabouts, condition and the charges against them. Recently some of the families were told to collect the dead bodies of their family members from morgues in the barrack of Army 92nd Division. We have received reliable reports that they have died under torture.”

The letter names seven victims, including Ali Obidavi (Savari), Ghayban Obidavi, and Ali Chaldavi.

Every year, prior to the anniversary of the April protest, authorities cut off internet connections, closely monitor phone conversations, establish checkpoints, control the residents, and intimidate and arrest activists and young people.

On April 15, 2011, however, and in conjunction with the “Arab Spring,” demonstrations were organized in Khuzestan. The protests intensified in Hamidiyeh and Ahvaz and, again, the official response was to brutally crack down on protesters. The reported death toll was 12, including Ali Nisi, Abdolrahman Badavi, and Mohammad Shakhi Mo’arabi, 20 were injured, and hundreds arrested. Another six Iranian Ahvazi Arabs have reportedly been tortured to death in the custody of security and intelligence forces in connection with anti-government demonstrations that swept across Khuzestan on the 2011 and 2012 anniversaries of the 2005 unrest.

In February 2012, referring to local activists, Human Rights Watch reported the arrest of 65 Arab residents during security sweeps since late 2011. In the towns of Hamidiyeh, Shush, and Ahvaz the authorities carried out arrests “in response to anti-government slogans and graffiti spray-painted on public property, expressing sympathy for the Arab Spring and calling for a boycott of Iran’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 2, 2012.” At least two of the detainees, Mohammad Kaabi and Nasser Alboshokeh Derafshan died in detention facilities run by local intelligence officials in Shush and Ahvaz.

The execution, on trumped-up charges, of the poet and teacher Hashem Sha’baninejad and his cellmate Hadi Rashedi, a chemistry teacher, in January 25, 2014, was a reminder of the tragic losses brought about by the current status quo. Sha’baninejad taught Arabic language and literature in a high school, while studying for a master’s degree in political science. Rashedi used his free time to teach students who did not master Persian language and had difficulties in school. The peaceful activities of the two men, founders of the group Al-Hewar (Dialogue), were aimed at eliminating discrimination and defending the culture, identity, and heritage of Iran’s Arab minority. They were killed convicted of “Moharebeh” (“waging war against God”), and “acting against the country’s national security.”

So far, Iranian authorities’ response to the Arab minority’s unrest has been harsh. They have executed, imprisoned, and silenced activists or forced them into exile. Little has been done, however, to improve living conditions in the towns and neighborhoods in which the 2005 protests started. Years after the Special Rapporteur, Milan Kothari, visited the area, persisting problems feed the local population’s frustration and anger, and lives are lost. The February 2014 list of demands presented by a City Council member from Malashiyeh - an incubator of protest with about 50,000 inhabitants - reveals the dismal living conditions of the population.

The Malashiyeh representative’s demands to the Ahvaz City Council include, among other things, asphalting streets, setting up a hospital with 24-hour health units and ambulances, bringing public buses to the area and creating bus stations, setting up a fire station, solving the gas problem, solving the sewer issue, which for 6 years he has unsuccessfully brought to the attention of the relevant administration, and finding a solution for swamps and sewer wells and channels that are surrounding the area and overflowing, setting-up police stations and solving security problems, looking into the education problems in schools, and, a luxury item, creating green spaces.

The government’s neglect in investigating and implementing policies, with a view of eradicating discrimination and poverty in Khuzestan, the lack of remedy for protests’ victims, and impunity for perpetrators will continue to trigger protests, arrests, violence, and casualties. President Rouhani has pledged moderation in his electoral campaign and has committed to addressing minorities’ grievances. The anniversary of the April 15th protests is a good opportunity to take steps towards addressing these grievances.

Releasing those who have been arrested, preventively, before the April 15th anniversary could be a good first step, as would be the creation of an independent commission of inquiry, including independent experts and members of civil society in Khuzestan. The commission should be tasked with hearing the families of those who died in the 2005 protests or in its aftermath and investigating reports of abuse by security forces and the judiciary. The commission should publish a report of its investigations and make recommendations on remedies.

The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation believes that addressing the legitimate grievances of Iran's Arab minority is a necessary step towards ending the cycle of violence in Khuzestan and urges the Iranian government to follow the recommendations made over the years by the United Nations human rights rapporteurs.

The Government should respect and fully protect the rights of Iran’s minorities “to assemble peacefully and associate freely … and take all necessary measures to ensure that any restrictions on the free exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are in accordance with Iran’s obligations under international human rights law,” as recommended by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association and other UN rapporteurs.

The government should also start implementing the 2006 recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. For example:

Improve the quality of basic services provided to poor neighbourhoods, including access to drinking water, taking note of the CESCR general comment No. 15, which lists the elements to the right to water as including availability and quality;

Develop specific policies to expand access to basic amenities to distant and minority predominant regions;

Be increasingly transparent in the development of policies, including by the publication of data concerning not only beneficiaries, but also the population not yet covered by the programmes, and open in the assessment of priorities and results, with space for public monitoring, including full participation of the intended population;

Conduct in-depth investigation of property confiscation cases, especially when involving ethnic and religious minorities, and ensure that no abuses were or will be committed against those groups