Ahwazi photographer Mehdi Bahri was last week arrested at his home in the city of Falahiyeh in the southern Ahwaz region and taken into custody by Iranian security forces.
According to the Ahwazi Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), which reported the arrest, the 29-year-old photographer had been active in documenting the devastating flooding that recently hit the Ahwaz region in southwestern Iran in videos and still photographs, as well as playing a central role in providing aid for some of the hundreds of thousands left homeless as a result.
The reason behind Bahri’s arrest is not yet clear, with the regime forces who arrested him and the local authorities refusing to give any information to his family. He is the latest of dozens of Ahwazi volunteer aid workers and activists to be detained by Iranian forces in recent weeks, with many charged with the ‘crime’ of establishing popular committees to help their dispossessed peers.
In related news, Iranian regime security forces last Saturday (11 May) arrested Ahwazi teacher and activist Adel Asakereh in the town of Darkhowin(Dar Khuwain) over his criticism of the regime’s marginalisation and persecution of Ahwazis and lack of basic services amid soaring prices. Asakereh has reportedly been detained in the central prison in the regional town of Shaiban(Sheyban).
Local sources told ACHR that the arrest followed social media posts by Asakereh criticising the local religious seminary and the regime’s allocation of massive amounts of money for the institution at the expense of the poor.
The teacher also reportedly criticised senior regime officials on social media, mentioning their names without giving their official titles.
Asakereh, a teacher and human rights activist, is a popular local figure, offering free lessons to pupils at schools in remote areas around Darkhowin, who are often deprived of education in basic subjects.
He is the latest of several teachers in the region to be arrested by regime forces in recent weeks, with other local teachers detained in connection with voluntary aid work, activism and fundraising for flooding victims. Some of the other detained teachers have been named Naji Sawari, Maher Dasoumi and Ali Obeidawi, who participated in relief efforts in the region to help flooding victims.
Several of the detained Ahwazi activists and aid workers have been charged with offences ranging from ‘disturbance of public order’, ‘endangering national security’, ‘treason’, to ‘separatism’, receiving lengthy prison sentences plus exile or being sentenced to death. Following their arrest, political detainees are usually taken directly to solitary confinement, often in the regime intelligence services’ infamous ‘black prisons’, where they are subjected to brutal torture to extract forced confessions, which are used in the kangaroo trials at the regime’s ‘revolutionary courts’.
These trials, which are largely a bureaucratic formality, often last only a few minutes, with the prisoner not allowed to appoint a lawyer and the verdict decided beforehand. The sentences, even for ‘offences’ such as helping flood victims, are typically draconian, ranging from decades of imprisonment, often in prisons far away from Ahwaz where families are unable to visit the detainees, to the death penalty.
Iranian lawmakers have also proposed amendments to Iran’s already brutal Code of Criminal Procedure that would allow prosecution and judicial authorities to deny those detainees facing “national security” and certain other criminal charges the right to access a lawyer while they are under investigation, Amnesty International reported, although it should be noted that this would be the legitimisation of existing unofficial policy already in use in these cases.
Since the judges often issue their sentences based on national security threats against Ahwazis, Ahwazi rights groups fear that this proposed bill would pave the way for a further crackdown and extrajudicial executions of Ahwazi prisoners whose charges are mostly related to national security issues. One example of this is the case of Hashem Sha’bani Amouri and Hadi Rashidi, two Ahwazi teachers who were arrested in 2011 along with a group of others over running a cultural organisation called al-Hiwar (“Dialogue” in Arabic) to promote Arab culture; after months in solitary confinement the two teachers appeared on the Iranian state TV channel Press TV in December 2011 where they were seen ‘confessing’ to national security ‘offences’ and were sentenced to death after being convicted on charges of ‘enmity against God.’
The two teachers and their colleagues were initially held in an unspecified location without access to lawyers or contact with their family members. There are reports that several of them were tortured in custody. A report issued at the time by Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said, “Making someone ‘confess’ to their crimes on national television before their trial has even started makes a mockery of international fair trial standards.”
New York-based international human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman told The Dur Untash Studies Centre (DUSC), “As an attorney in the human rights field, I find this affront to due process unconscionable and unjustifiable. Blatant discrimination against the Ahwazi population of Iran on the basis of their identity is now being enhanced by the perversion of the entire justice system to undermine their claims for the equal protection of civil rights. The silence of the international human rights community and in particular, lawyers around the world is deafening and disturbing. It seems that because the plight of the Ahwazis does not receive front page 24/7 news coverage, they are deemed unworthy of political campaigns or international pressure on Iran. In light of Iran’s recent aggressive posture in the Gulf, one would think that internal matters of gross injustice would be highlighted; in fact, the regime’s treatment of Ahwazis reflects the culture of impunity that has come to permeate Tehran. Essentially, they have made a mockery of national sovereignty and laws by making patently false claims, engaging in frequent acts of torture – and yet getting away with everything. While Ahwazi prisoners are being accused of national security crimes for entirely peaceful activities, such as teaching the Arabic language to children, the offspring of regime apparatchiks attend American, Canadian, and European universities and regime officials are free to travel around the world.”
She continued, “Where are the Red Notices for these human rights violations, while Iran itself is responsible for actual attacks on security interests of other countries?
The irony is that it is Iran that is the biggest national security threat in the Middle East, while it projects its own crimes on its citizens.
“If the international community is serious about combating Iran’s threat to the rest of the world, it should start by holding Iran accountable for the sham system it has created to justify and cover up its own crimes. Using the national security crime excuse, it not only imprisons and tortures innocent Ahwazis but has found justification for sending terrorist and intelligence apparatus to hunt and try to assassinate them around the world, including in Europe.
“We see that Iran’s terrorism abroad actually starts at home. Iran’s ability to accuse anyone who opposes its grossly abusive policy of national security crime should be seen for the farce that it is and nipped in the bud. The best way to bring down the regime is to stand with the Ahwazis and other ethnic non-Persian minorities who are en masse being rounded up for defending their rights. These are the real allies to the West, not the mendacious, hypocritical regime.
“If the people it persecuted had a voice, if their stories were told and pushed as much as the media pushes the pro-regime narrative, the ayatollahs would have been gone by now.
“The United States and other Western countries should hold everyone that contributes to this terrible system responsible. Sanctions should be imposed on any judges and other members of the law enforcement that contribute to torture, oppression, and violations of due process rights of the Ahwazis and other prisoners. Parliamentarians that are working to deprive innocent citizens of access to legal counsel should be banned from travelling anywhere in the West. The international community should demand transparency or else automatically assume anyone who has been convicted of these political crimes by the regime to be innocent and deserving of full support and non-stop pressure. That also means that the West needs to demand more of its own media and self-appointed human rights watchdogs, who do not even spend an iota of time investigating these false claims and violations by the regime as they do undermining any attempt to hold Tehran responsible and defending its proxies.”
The Tehran regime’s denial of the most fundamental rights to Ahwazis and its constant and brutal repression of media continues up to the present day. This, in turn, has led to growing protests, with the long-suffering Ahwazis are now protesting in greater numbers than previously, despite knowing what they face for doing so in the face of the regime’s absolute and merciless inhumanity. Whilst most Western media and human rights activists have followed the lead of their Iranians in remaining silent on the victimisation of Ahwazis, with what coverage is available left to Ahwazi activists in exile and some principled prominent Western activists like Ruth Riegler, Peter Tatchell, Aaron Eitan Meyer, and Irina Tsukerman, raising their voices in support of the Ahwazis, despite facing vilification for doing so. Needless to say, Western activists who support the rights of Ahwazis and other groups are the subject of the regime’s customary slanderous smears, being accused of being agents of English, Israeli or American plots to undermine the regime.
The unwillingness of most Persian-Iranian activists and groups to recognise the regime’s bigotry towards and racist persecution of Ahwazis and other ethnic groups and to stand in intersectional solidarity with these groups in acknowledging and supporting much-needed real grassroots change and equality for all only helps to perpetuate division and resentment. Rather than helping Ahwazis and the regime’s other long-suffering victims to attain their freedom, dignity and human rights, this wilful blindness helps only the regime itself, strengthening its strategy of divide-and-rule. In order to attain freedom and expose the regime’s propaganda, the people must first achieve unity.
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.