Iran’s campaign of state terror attempts to crush protest from Ahwaz to Baluchistan
The Iranian regime announced this week that it had carried out the death sentences issued against Ali Khasraji, Hossein Silawi, Jasem Heidari and Naser Khafaji (Khafajian) in Sepidar prison in Ahwaz on Monday, 1 March 2021. Ahwazi human rights organisations have condemned the Iranian regime’s actions against the four Ahwazi activists, who were executed by the regime using its customary spurious charges such as “threatening national security”, “enmity to God”, “corruption on earth” and “belonging to secret political organisations”.
In a statement about the executions, the Ahwazi human rights organisations said, “The Iranian intelligence services accused the four activists earlier on flimsy charges related to Iranian national security in order to implement security penalties against the Ahwazi activists, who were executed on Monday without the knowledge of their families, with the authorities showing total disdain for even the most basic legal standards, instead of using kangaroo courts and refusing to allow the accused access to a lawyer.”
In an interview with DUSC, Faisal Maramazi, the Executive Director of the Ahwazi Centre for Human Rights, said, “The four Ahwazis were arrested on different occasions, with Jasem Heidari arrested after his return from Austria when his asylum claim was unsuccessful. Naser Khafajian (also known as Maramazi) is married, has children, and works as a police officer. The Iranian authorities accused him of attacking the same police station where he works, but Naser always denied the allegation because he was at home with his family at the time of the attack. Ali Khasraji and Hossein Silawi were also arrested at two different times, not simultaneously. All the Ahwazi activists were subjected to brutal and severe torture by the regime, with their hands and ribs broken in order to obtain a forced confession.”
Maramazi stated that the four Ahwazi activists were prevented from retaining any independent legal representation to represent them in the Iranian courts, adding, “All of them were arrested without prior notice or a judicial order, and many human rights groups called upon the Iranian regime to stop the executions as their jurisdiction process was vague and unjust.”
Maramazi further noted, “The Iranian regime is currently under severe political and economic pressure due to its terrorist activities in the region and the world. Therefore, the pressure on Iran must be increased due to the human rights issue against non-Persian people such as Ahwazis.” He stated, “The regime fears that an uprising of non-Persian peoples could flare up at any time. Hence, the regime has intensified its arrest campaigns, executions, and deliberately encouraged the spread of the coronavirus among Ahwazis in order to silence them.”
According to human rights activists in Ahwaz, Iranian intelligence services contacted the four prisoners’ families on Sunday, 28 February 2021, telling them to visit their loved ones in Sepidar Prison. During the visit, the prisoners informed their relatives of the authorities’ intention to carry out the death sentences pronounced against them.
A number of international human rights organisations have repeatedly called on Iran to halt the death penalty against the Ahwazi activists, with one example of this being Amnesty International, which previously wrote to the head of the Iranian Judiciary, Ibrahim Raisi, calling on him to withdraw the death sentences issued against the four activists. Amnesty International on 12th February 2021 reported that “three Ahwazi death row political prisoners, Ali Khasraji, Hossein Silawi and Jasem Heidari, have sewn their lips together and been on hunger strike since 23 January 2021 in the prison in Ahwaz, in protest at their prison conditions, denial of family visits, and the ongoing threat of execution. A fourth Ahwazi prisoner, Naser Khafajian, has been forcibly disappeared since April 2020, putting him at risk of torture and secret execution.”
Before that, on 30 April 2020, Amnesty International noted that “Since 31 March, after protests over COVID-19 spread in Shieban prison, intelligence officials have suspended family visits in Sheiban prison and only allowed prisoners to call their families daily for one minute. According to relatives’ accounts, the regime officials have also subjected dozens of prisoners to periods of enforced disappearance accompanied by torture and other ill-treatment. Officials continue to conceal the fate and whereabouts of Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji and Naser Khafaji from their families after transferring them to an unknown location on 31 March. At least seven prisoners who were returned to Sheiban prison by 13 April , after also being forcibly disappeared since 31 March, including Mohammad Ali Amouri. Jaber Alboshokeh, Mokhtar Alboshokeh, Ali Mojadam, Moieen Khanafereh, Jamil Heidary, Jasem Heidari and Abdolrazagh Obeidawi, have since been crammed into a cell intended for solitary confinement, without access to regular phone calls. Relatives learnt that the seven men embarked on a hunger strike on 23 April. Prisoners held in Section 5 of Sheiban prison have told their families that most prisoners in their section are injured and facing new criminal charges for the prison protests.”
In November 2020, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Jassem Heidari on charges related to national security. Heidari was arrested upon his return from Austria in December 2017 and transferred to Evin prison in Tehran and then to a secret intelligence centre in Ahwaz. He was tortured to extract forced confessions from him.
The Iranian state-run “IRNA” news agency claimed that Jasem Heidari was linked to several political groups hostile to the Iranian regime, and predictably alleged, without any corroborating evidence, that he had received funds from unnamed foreign parties and some Arab countries in order to destabilise Iran’s security and stability. Heidari’s family rejected the regime’s allegation, however, pointing out that he was living in Austria, not Iran, on the date mentioned.
As Faisal Maramazi noted, “The Iranian regime fabricates accusations on the one hand and connects activists to external parties, on the other; this comes within the framework of [the regime] spreading terror inside Ahwaz after the Baluchistan uprising, as well as to settle regional and international scores at the expense of these citizens’ lives.”
Maramazi stressed that Iran has committed a crime in executing the four detainees, adding that one of them had been forcibly disappeared since April 2020, with a strong probability that he died under torture in detention, although Iran did not previously announce his death, while the second was a refugee in Austria at the time he supposedly committed the crime he was charged with. Maramazi urged greater international pressure on the regime, saying, “Iran violates international laws in killing citizens under torture, so the international community must hold the Iranian regime accountable for all crimes committed in Ahwaz.”
We must stress that the regime’s crimes are not limited to those committed against Ahwazi. As the world recently saw, despite the regime’s efforts to suppress the news, a number of Baluchi fuel traders were slaughtered in the region on Iran’s eastern border for protesting over the Iranian regime’s efforts to stop them from doing business which they rely on for survival. Seeing many unarmed and defenceless young Baluchis mowed down by regime forces’ live fire, the massacre reminded many Ahwazis of the Ma’shour Massacre of late 2019 in which a considerable number of young Ahwazis peacefully protesting against the systemically racist lack of employment were slaughtered by regime forces in the streets and in the nearby marshes.
Regarding the recent massacre of Baluchis, Abdullah Aref, a Baluchi human rights activist, said that around 12 people were murdered by regime forces in the mass killing while nine more were wounded, with at least 10 others detained. Other Baluchi sources stated that the number of deaths has exceeded 23, putting the number arrested at around 100. Aref confirmed that the Iranian intelligence services have begun reviewing all video footage and photos from the protests in order to arrest the participants.
Abdullah Aref added that the Iranian regime’s strategy in committing these crimes in Baluchistan achieves several goals: Firstly, it terrorises citizens and prevents them from demanding their rights and crushes dissent, including the demand for liberation or federalism at best. Second, the increase in the pace of violence by the regime, especially during the recent period, is an acceleration of the implementation of the current plan for demographic change in Baluchistan, according to which more than two million ethnically Persian people from major Iranian cities will be transferred to the region.
Aref revealed that the number of people who have been executed, killed under torture or shot by the regime forces in Baluchistan has increased massively in recent months, noting that “there is no independent statistic to prove the number of victims, but the number is high compared to the usual annual death sentences in Iran.” In this context, Maramazi said that the Iranian regime uses the policy of violence, killing and execution through the revolutionary courts, security services and the Revolutionary Guards to spread terror, fear and chaos in Ahwaz and Baluchistan in order to justify continuing with its policy of demographic change. “These policies are in order to suppress voices demanding basic rights,” Maramazi emphasised.
At least 60 prisoners have been executed in Iran so far in 2021, including 27 in January and 29 in February, as well as four to date in March. Four Ahwazi political prisoners were executed in January and several others in February and March. At least 10 Baluch citizens and more than 10 Ahwazi were executed. This figure does not include prisoners who were secretly executed and whose identities cannot be registered due to the regime’s lack of transparency. The Iranian regime executed Baluch political prisoner Javid Dehghan, aged 31, who was arrested in 2015, as well as Ahwazi political prisoner Ali Matiri, and several other activists were also executed. The death penalty was at least 284 in 2020, 298 in 2019, and 328 in 2018.
Shoot to kill policy
Two types of extrajudicial execution are favoured by the Iran regime, particularly against the Ahwazi population. While execution by hanging is, by now, well known to the international community, a lesser-known type of killing, generally ignored by the media is execution by shooting of young men as they pass through checkpoints. These unarmed young people are attacked under various pretences, and are killed in cold blood without having committed any crimes or being subject to any trial. The result is the same in both cases – the devastation of an entire generation of the Ahwazi youth.
Such killings are not unusual. According to Ahwazi human rights sources, the regime’s infamous plainclothes security forces, known as Basiji, shot and killed a civilian identified as Maher Heidari, aged 37, and injured one of the passengers in his car today (5 March 2021) in cold blood in the regional capital, Ahwaz; as usual, no reason was given for this extrajudicial assassination.
Maher Heidari was a married businessman and resident of Golestan neighbourhood in Ahwaz city; he was reportedly driving to the Aldayreh neighbourhood this morning with two employees when his car was stopped by intelligence forces who opened direct fire at the vehicle without warning at close range.
According to local witnesses, Maher and the two men were shot by Basiji thugs who have recently begun setting up checkpoints in and around marginalised neighbourhoods of the Ahwaz city, which is the capital of the region, under the guidance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
So far, nobody knows the reason behind this deliberate shooting, but the car was checked for any suspicious materials, with nothing being found.
In the Ahwaz region, security forces are given carte blanche by the central state in Tehran to open fire against anyone who they deem ‘suspicious’, day or night, with the regime enforcing brutal security measures against all cultural, political and social activities involving Ahwazis.
Heidari was not the first to be killed in this way this year, with January and February 2021, seeing four documented similar killings by the Basiji of young Ahwazi men, all on motorcycles, all unarmed, and all shot dead at close range. The first to be murdered was 25-year-old Mohammed Zarqani, who was shot in the head at close range while riding his motorbike in Al-Zarqan neighbourhood of Ahwaz city.
According to local people, Mohammed was returning from grocery shopping, with three bags containing okra, cucumber and other vegetables. As always, there was no punishment for the murder, with the Basiji, like Iran’s official forces and proxy militias, enjoying total impunity.
In January, the Basiji and other regime forces shot and killed three more young motorcyclists, named as Nabi Helfi, Sayed Rasoul Hosseini and Ebrahim Hazbawi, in Howeizeh and Falahiyeh under equally flimsy pretexts and justifications.
The regime’s deliberate impoverishment of the Ahwazi population in the Ahwaz region in the south and southwest Iran leaves most young Ahwazis wanting to drive and have some independence with few transport choices apart from motorcycles and scooters.
Young men especially are aware that police are likely to target them using any excuse and often to confiscate their bikes, which are essential to their everyday lives, both for work and recreation, resulting in demands for ‘fines’ or simply massive bribes to return it – money that Ahwazis simply don’t have. As a result, when they run into one of the regime’s many impromptu checkpoints or see police approaching them, they often automatically try to flee; police react to this by chasing them and savagely beating them before arrest if caught, more especially if they don’t have the bribe money demanded, or often simply opening fire, either wounding or killing them. Excuses for this wildly disproportionate violence include the charge that the motorbike didn’t have a number plate.
There is no punishment for these attacks on young Ahwazis, whose only ‘crime’ is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; indeed, the most vicious police and Basiji members are often promoted for their murderous brutality in the name of rewarding their diligence in the performance of their duties.
Such killings are a common occurrence; on 26 January of this year, two young men, Sayed Rasoul Hosseini and Ebrahim Hazbawi, from the town of Falahiyeh, were shot as they fled from a police checkpoint in the city, known as Shadegan in Farsi; as a result, Rasoul’s bike, which they were on, crashed into a wall, killing both youths instantly.
Similarly, Nabi Helfi, a 30-year-old shepherd from the city of Khafajiyeh (Susangered in Farsi) at the Iranian-Iraqi border, was shot dead by Iranian regime forces on 29 January of this year while on his way to negotiate a livestock sale.
Despite all these crimes, however, the Iranian regime’s well-documented pattern of extrajudicial murder and other human rights violations continues to be frustratingly downplayed internationally, with nothing but occasional empty condemnations not backed by any action, meeting its escalating crimes against minorities. For example, on 4 February 2021, several United Nations Special Rapporteurs responded to the hanging of Baluchi prisoner Javid Deghgan, by stating, “We are shocked that Mr. Dehghan’s execution on 30 January was carried out despite our urgent appeal last week to the Iranian Government to halt it, as well as calls by the UN Human Rights Office and civil society”.
The UN experts’ empty expressions of shock show the effectiveness of Iran’s sustained illegal practices and demonstrate that the regime is aware of its impunity. As noted above, dozens of ethnic minority prisoners have been executed regardless of whether this caught the passing attention of international organisations. In reality, there should be no ‘shock’ at the Iranian regime’s continuing policy of large-scale torture and murder of prisoners; anyone who has been paying attention can easily track the regime’s favoured and standard strategies of murderous suppression, in which the only real shock would be if any of these mistreated prisoners were actually released, unharmed. These ongoing and escalating human rights violations are not a side effect or byproduct of the regime’s brutal and fundamentally racist ethos, but remain an integral part of its long-term strategy to sow terror and death in its increasingly desperate and vicious attempts to retain power over the peoples under its merciless subjugation.
By Kamil Alboshoka, Rahim Hamid, Aaron Meyer and Irina Tsukerman
Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. He tweets under @Aaronemeyer
Irina Tsukerman is a New-York based Human Rights Lawyer, National Security Analyst. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.