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Show Trials and Torture against Ahwazi Prisoners in Iranian Prisons


Ghazi Heidari is an industrial engineer and Ahwazi cultural activist who was tortured at an interrogation centre in Ahwaz City, the capital of the Ahwaz region. He was first arrested on 06 May 2009 and sent to the notorious Karun prison in August 2009 at the age of 34. He was tried without any court appearance, not allowed to present evidence in his defence, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his research on the history of Ahwazis, which includes their social-political statuses. In 2012, after protesting brutal death penalty sentences issued against 17 Ahwazi political prisoners, his sentence was increased – following additional torture – from 10 to 15 years, along with transfer to Adel Abad prison in Fars province, effectively exile. His ‘crimes’ included leaking a video that showed five prisoners who were calling on the UN, from prison, to urge the Iranian regime to quash the execution penalty against them. He was threatened with death on multiple occasions.  

On 20 October 2016, following a mistake by the prison, he managed to escape. Following approximately a month in hiding, Ghazi was able to smuggle himself over the rugged mountains to Turkey. He arrived in Turkey on 18 November 2016 and initially sought refuge from UNHCR based in Ankara. Due to his fear of deportation to Iran by Turkish authorities, he had to once again risk his life and smuggled himself to the Netherlands in 2018. Currently, he is awaiting resettlement. 

Below is his account on the brutality and oppression that his fellow political prisoners went through, ending in executions or life imprisonment, typically based on confessions extracted under relentless torture or following solitary confinements. 

“On 12 August 2009, I was transferred from one of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence’s secret detention facilities to Karun Central Prison, in the Ahwaz region. Leaving the regime’s infamous intelligence prisons alive when so many die there felt to me like being given another chance at life. I felt proud that despite enduring 98 days of unimaginable physical and mental torture at the agents’ hands, I had managed – through reserves of strength I didn’t know I possessed – to withhold the most sensitive information that they wanted and hadn’t betrayed any of my fellow activists and colleagues. I was forced to give up some information, but thankfully nothing that could be used to harm other people; I was doubly glad of this after seeing the horrendous abuses that Ahwazi activists are subjected to in prison, knowing that others would not suffer the same terror and pain due to my actions. This being my first experience of prison, I was terrified, visualising it as being something out of horror movies – and I wasn’t too far wrong.  

 “On first entering the prison, I was taken to the “Quarantine” area, where I saw my uncle who had been accused of ‘drug trafficking’; he was extremely happy to see a familiar face and told me about some of the events that occurred after my arrest. I also asked him about my parents, as I was very worried about them, as well as concerned that some of my friends might have been arrested after my arrest. I caught up on a lot of news from talking with him and was able to learn about some people from our area, most of them activists, to find out some information about their fates and what might happen to them, as I’d been closely following their stories before my arrest. My uncle, who was scheduled to leave prison that evening, refreshed my mind about some incidents, gave me some tips about prison life, and added happily that he’d let my family know about my transfer to Karun Prison.  

“After a short period of staying in quarantine, I was transferred to Section No. 6, Room No.3. The cell was 12 metres long and six metres wide, and had 39 bunk beds of three tiers each. About 70 political prisoners were there, mostly from Ahwaz, although several prisoners from different parts of Iran and various organisations were also there. Among them were members of the Kurdish PJAC organisation, Youssef Fatouhi, Aslan Dudkanlu and Mousa Muhammadian, also known as Amu Mousa, and from the Baloch Jundullah organisation, there was Ismail Wafai. After a while, I also met Mr Ibrahim Riggi and Sakhey Riggi, and from the Mujahideen Organisation, Gholam Khalbby, then from the Green Movement (Jonnbesh Sabz) Javad Ali Khani and Syed Zia Nabavi.

“The first thing that caught my attention there was a group of young men among the Ahwazi political prisoners, Abdl-Imam Zairi (Abd al-Ilah), Abd al-Zahraa Hilichi (Zuhair), Yahya Nasiri, Nazem Berihi and Hamza Sawari, whom I’d known before my arrest.

“In mid-2005, after the April uprising and the events that followed, hundreds of activists were arrested throughout Ahwaz, and the Iranian Intelligence service fabricated charges against some of the detainees, like inventing a group called ‘Aoun’ in the name of an old martyr named Jassim Alwan Al-Naseri; the regime didn’t provide any evidence to prove the existence of this supposed group or its activities – there was none since it didn’t exist. During my time in prison, this scenario and these fabricated charges were repeated several times against other young innocent prisoners.

“Among the group was the since-martyred teacher, Muhammad Ali Sawari, whom I met during some events and cultural festivals between 1997 and 2000; he was known for his cultural and awareness activities In the Kot Abd-Allah area in the city of Ahwaz and was executed by the Iranian authorities in 2007. There I also met Ali Halfi, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison in Arak, Iran. I remember during that period, I’d founded the Maysan News Agency with a number of young people and we were following and publishing news of demonstrations, arrests, martyrs, and the situation of their families in Ahwaz.

“One day, a friend of mine, the poet Jumaa Yaseen Al Sharhan (Abu Khaldoun), came to me – he was following news about his wife’s brother, the political prisoner Nazim Berihi – and he told me that he had received a letter addressed to the chief judge, Shahroudi and signed by seven well-known veteran lawyers, four of whom had doctorates in law, as well as by professors working in several universities. In this letter, these attorneys confirmed that during the trial of this alleged group, the Revolutionary Court did not observe even the most basic legal standards according to the ‘Islamic Punishment law’, and the defendants only met their clients at the moment of the trial. The document also indicated that lawyers were prevented from reading their clients’ case files, and had read only 70 of 800 pages. Abu Khaldoun told me about the death sentence passed against six members of this alleged group as ruled by the Revolutionary Court. One prisoner, Ali Halfi, was also sentenced to life imprisonment and added that he would go to Tehran with the families of the detainees to deliver the message to the Iranian head of justice and try to meet him and appeal to some other officials in Tehran, that they might be able to stop their execution.

“I told Jumaa Yaseen that in the Iranian courts they annually open more than ten million cases and asked him, if we assume that one sheet with a million files reached the office of the chief justice, how much time would he need to read them, especially since ruling on political cases is not in the hands of the judiciary but in the hands of the Ministry of Intelligence? He said, ‘So what’s the solution?’ I said that the best thing would be to send the files to Ahwazi activists abroad so that they can hand them over to Amnesty International, other human rights organisations and the United Nations. He agreed, and then I took a screenshot of the message and sent it to Ahwaz abroad. 

“The Iranian court’s role was revealed there, and its false, invalid and unjust claims. After that, international organisations pressed the Iranian Revolutionary Court to stop the death penalty from being carried out against these guys. Of course, the lawyers did not know how the letter got leaked, but the courage of some Ahwazi lawyers must be recognised in defending the cases of Ahwazi political prisoners, despite the pressure exerted on them by the Iranian intelligence services. I have no idea if it suits the circumstances.

We have attorneys who are able to follow the path of the most famous senior lawyers, such as Gandhi in India and Mandela in South Africa, who changed the history of their countries.

“Following that unfair trial, and after a detailed analysis of the case, the sentences were reduced for all the activists accused of membership of the alleged group by a decree, except for the martyr Muhammad Ali Sawari, who was executed by Iranian intelligence on the date of 11 September 2007, although he had committed no crime other than defending the rights of his people and his homeland. Muhammad Ali Sawari was well-known and respected as a quiet teacher with a long, distinguished record of defending the rights of the people of Ahwaz. Unfortunately, he left behind his wife and five children, who continue to suffer the bitterness of life and the inhumane practices of the Iranian intelligence services on their own, out of the world’s reach.

“Hamza Sawari, used to tell us about his experience in prison and the day of his arrest, where he was studying in the last year of preparation [for university] at that time and how he was preparing for the Koncor exam (university entrance examination). Even during his time in the intelligence detention centre, he explained, ‘I was planning in my cell how to read physics and chemistry; I prepared myself to enter the university after the arrest. Then an intelligence official entered [the cell] and informed me of the death sentence, by hanging, against me, as well as against my brothers Muhammad Ali and Jaffar, and against my schoolmates, my friends, and a number of young people from our neighbourhood who were arrested after the April Intifada. For me, it will take a lifetime to understand or forget what that criminal intelligence official told me.’ 

“After I heard the stories of Hamza and his experience, an old prisoner told me more about Muhammad Ali Sawari, how the torturers brutally tortured him into confessing and signing documents about things he did not know about, and how he resisted the torturers for hours, days, and weeks, until they took him away. I heard about what they did in front of him to his younger brother Hamza, who was the age of his son, covered in blood and screaming from the severity of the torture, and they told him [Muhammad], ‘If you don’t confess and sign what we dictate to you, we’ll kill your brother under torture.’ Thus, Muhammad Ali Sawari signed what these tyrants dictated to him in exchange for stopping the torture of his younger brothers, Jaafar and Hamza, in front of him.

“What I’ve written isn’t some long-ago historical event from an earlier age, but concerns ongoing living facts; six of these youths have been languishing in the Iranian intelligence service’s dark, terrible prisons for 14 years without a fair trial. They still suffer today, as their families suffer, from various types of torture, deprivation and trauma. 

I did not intend to write all the sad and painful memories I saw and knew during my stay in various prisons in Iran. Therefore, I am satisfied with these lines that can deliver my message to the world as I have written down these words and facts with all my grief and sorrow that are still accompanying me. I have carried them with me at various stations, just as these fellows carry their living dream and the real freedom within them from one prison to another.” 

As the Secretary-General of the United Nations reported to the General Assembly 15 years ago, “Laws that are consistently breached without consequences are unlikely to be respected. This, regrettably, is the case with many international human rights provisions at the national level. Where cases of torture go unpunished, where general amnesty laws allow perpetrators to go free, where “investigations” of excessive use of force drag on without result, where court orders demanding redress for victims of discrimination are not enforced and where economic and social rights cannot be defended in court, human rights law loses its credibility.”

On 18 July 2019, Javaid Rehman, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, reported that “Arab Ahwazis have continued to be subjected to violations of their rights…. [as] Iranian authorities have reportedly applied broad national security laws to target human rights defenders and activists.” This was one of many instances in which the international community has noted the ongoing abuses, yet sadly, it was one of the countless cases where the world merely offered tepid condemnation, unaccompanied by any action.

The Iranian regime’s systemic use of political imprisonment, torture and show trials is also best understood as the antithesis of the Rule of Law, defined as “the foundation for the development of peaceful, equitable and prosperous societies” typified by equality under the law, transparency of law, independent judiciary, and accessible legal remedy. These principles, which have been inverted by the regime, should form the cornerstone of democratic governance and protection for the human rights of all peoples. 

Under its current regime, Iran cannot legitimately claim to meet a single one of these criteria, especially when Ahwazi Arabs are concerned. They are not treated equally under laws that are anything but transparent. The judiciary is a mere arm of the regime’s intelligence entities, and legal remedies are less than even a dream for prisoners who are deprived of even the barest semblance of an impartial trial, and the regime has continually refused to permit entry and inspection of the varied United Nations Special Rapporteurs whose briefs include torture, human rights violations, and extrajudicial killings. This must end.

Coauthored by Rahim Hamid and Aaron Eitan Meyer

 Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42

Aaron Eitan Meyer, 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.  Meyer tweets under @aaronemeyer. 


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