Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Human right in Azerbaijan of Iranhttp://www.gozaar.org/template1.php?id=1015&language=english
Human Rights in Iranian Azerbaijan: A Year in Review
April 14th, 2008
After Norouz, one can look back and review the past year’s events. This brief survey focuses on human rights and societal and cultural issues of the Azeri people in Iran. It examines daily predicaments that have plagued the lives of Azeri people and the intentional and unintentional circumstances that undermine their culture and identity. This report also summarizes the pressures and attempts by the Islamic Republic to suppress freedom of expression and the press, and the extent to which Azeri activists and supporters of human and ethnic rights are persecuted. Of course, this report is not a thorough survey of Azerbaijan; nonetheless, I hope it can help us to better understand the crucial significance of this population’s struggles, sufferings, needs, and hopes.
In December, three earthquakes on the outskirts of Tabriz alarmed people and forced them to spend a few days out in parks and streets. The earthquake did not inflict heavy damages, but if it had been a little more powerful, thousands of people would have lost their lives. According to official statistics, more than 600,000 people live on the outskirts of Tabriz in shabbily built houses that are vulnerable to natural disasters. The people of Tabriz have bitter memories of past earthquakes. And yet, Tabriz isn’t alone. In many other parts of Iran, and even the capital, officials do not seem to pay any attention to the dangers that threaten people’s lives and properties. The catastrophic consequences of Bam’s earthquake and the slow process of reconstruction over many years have increased the public’s fear in this regard.
Other important news from the past year, to which the Iranian media paid little attention, was the lack of a yearly gathering at Babak Khorramdin’s fortress. No journalist, in Iran or outside the country, inquired as to why this yearly gathering did not take place. Even Amnesty International’s statement about this event and the suppression of the Azeri people was treated in a rather cursory fashion.
It has been some years since Azeris have turned to their own ethnic symbols and Iran’s historical symbols as a powerful resource to bolster their struggle against the injustices of the current government. Babak Khorramdin is a son of this land, celebrated for his legacy and heroic deeds at a gathering at his fortress (Ouz Ghal-e Si) on his birthday every year. This day also provides people with an opportunity to assert their identity and voice their social and political demands. These celebrations of Azerbaijan’s heroes began at the end of the 1990s. In 2002 and 2003, more than 100,000 people gathered in Babak Khorramdin’s fortress and they continued to linger in the surrounding mountains for a week. They exchanged their thoughts with one another and sought solutions to their problems. This horrified the government, which feared that such gatherings could spread to the cities. That is why the government began to crack down on such gatherings the following year. To discourage them, the government turned the area around Babak Khorramdin’s fortress into a field for military maneuvers by the Revolutionary Guards and the basij on the same day. This strategy became an excuse to arrest and imprison hundreds of supporters of human rights who advocated for the Azeri people. These pressures reached their climax in 2007. People who were intimidated by the government’s unpredictable violence were forced into retreat and the celebration of Babak Khorramdin’s birth was held silently in homes.
Another important development last year was the prohibition of the use of Turkish language in the cities of this region. The government prohibited the people of this region from publicly writing in Turkish. Iranian officials in various social, political, and economic capacities have issued and carried out many directives in recent years to weaken the identity of ethnic groups, especially Azeris. One of these directives, which had been issued by the director of a trade office in Eastern Azerbaijan, exposed the Islamic Republic’s agenda completely. This directive ordered economic associations and unions to avoid using Turkish words in their advertisements and in naming their place of work and trade. Those who violated this directive faced heavy punishments. This affair became so scandalous that Akbar Alami, a Member of Parliament for Tabriz, protested against this directive and demanded its annulment.
Last year, the government also demolished the house of Sataar Khan, the National Commander and the most prominent leader of the Constitutional Revolution who fought against despotism and led the revolts against the Qajar dynasty. The decision to destroy this historical site was part of a systematic plan to downplay and discredit Azerbaijan’s history and culture. This attack against the history and achievements of Azerbaijan intends to erase memories that can unite people and spur collective action. The whispering protests became more resonant when the government felt the danger of a public revolt to a caricature in Iran Newspaper. The government was forced to retreat and promised to reconstruct Sataar Khan’s house and turn it into a museum.
At the same time, the government, just as in former years, interrupted a gathering of Azeri youths in Tehran over the tomb of Sattar Khan in the holy site of Shah Abdol-Azim, with arrests and imprisonment. Nevertheless, Sataar Khan is quite fortunate that he was killed and buried in Tehran because his tomb is becoming more prominent in the worldand the government is more reluctant to pressure his commemorators. In contrast, Baqer Khan (the national leader who has been buried in Tabriz) is deprived of visitors because this year too, the police attacked, beat up, and arrested the people who gathered at his tomb.
Along with Sataar Khan’s house, which was partly saved from demolition, the historical site of Arge Alishah (Alishah’s Castle) is still in danger. The government also plans to demolish some surviving parts of Robe Rshidi, the oldest university in Iran, in order to build a new university in its place. But if the government’s intentions are in fact sincere, it is possible to repair and reconstruct what has remained of the old site and build the new university alongside it under the same name. The government has also engaged in the destruction of parts of Tabriz’s “Samovar-Makers’ Bazaar” and Maraghe’s “Twin Towers,” an action which is either motivated by political and cultural objectives or stems from the officials’ regrettable ignorance and naïveté.
In the same fashion, the permit of the political monthly Dilmaj, which was published in Turkish, Farsi, and English, was revoked by the order of the Press Supervisory Board on October 9, 2007. Dilmaj was the only important publication in Iran which had taken Turkish language seriously. Around 100 newspapers and magazines are printed in the Iranian Azerbaijan, and two pages of each of their editions are normally published in Turkish. But most of these publications use Turkish in a way which is at times insulting to their readers, mainly because the writers of these publications are amateurs without any academic training in Turkish. Dilmaj, however, uses a group of highly professional writers who have strong knowledge of Turkish to publish a magazine which was unique.
Along with the crackdown on Dilmaj, some Turkish-language student publications at universities were also shut down. Supporters of Azerbaijan’s culture and language, however, continued their resistance and dozens of internet sites and weblogs—both engaging in transmitting news and producing analytical pieces—were born in both Turkish and Farsi languages in the Iranian Azerbaijan.
It is not only Azerbaijan’s language and culture that is imprisoned in the dungeons of the Islamic Republic. A number of Azeri political, religious, labor, and civil society activists are held in Iran’s prisons. These prisoners are held in almost 40 different prisons throughout Iran. At a certain point last year, the Evin Prison held the most Azerbaijani prisoners. There are ten prisons in Eastern Azerbaijan, 13 prisons in Western Azerbaijan, five prisons in Ardabil, and four prisons in Zanjan, and these are only the known prisons that are managed by the Organization for Iran’s Prisons and Security and Educational Affairs. Besides, there are many other secret prisons, which are run and supervised by the municipal office of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the Revolutionary Guards, the basij, or others.
In 2007, a number of Azeri female human rights activists were arrested. Contrary to normal procedure, they were transferred not to the prisons’ general wards, but rather, were held in solitary confinement. Since August 28, 2007, Leyla Heydari was held in the detention of the Ministry of Information. She was later released on a heavy bail of 85,000 dollars along with her husband who had been in prison since June 17, 2007. During this time, Heydari was permitted to contact her family only once. She is a writer and women’s rights activist who showcased and sold her work alongside other women authors in her bookstore.
Shahnaz Gholami is another Azeri woman who was arrested for her activities to advance women’s rights. She also spent the entire duration of her imprisonment in solitary confinement. Gholami was arrested by plainclothes police in her house last summer for launching an internet site about the problems of women, with the help of other female activists. Gholami’s family had no inkling of her condition or whereabouts for many weeks. Shahnaz Gholami, who is also a member of the Association of Iran’s Women Journalists (RZA), had been previously imprisoned for six years during the 1980s.
In the same year, Saleh Kamrani, a Turkish lawyer who was defending political and civil society activists in courts, was arrested and detained. He is now in prison and his wife has stated in interviews that her husband’s license to practice law has been revoked by the judiciary. Saleh Kamrani is a well-known Azerbaijani lawyer who has defended some key figures of Azerbaijan’s National Movement, including engineers Amani and Abbass Lesani. Kamrani was arrested on June 14, 2006, after leaving his law office in Tehran. After a few days search by his family, it became clear that he was being detained by the Ministry of Information. For a long time, his family and close friends had no news of his whereabouts, and even his lawyer was not permitted to meet with him. Charged with “propaganda against the system,” he was conditionally released on September 18, after three months of confinement in Evin Prison.
During this year, radical Shi’a conservatives, who have overtaken the government completely, increased their attacks on other religious minorities and non-Shi’a Muslims in various parts of Iran. The atmosphere became so stifling that some Jewish families migrated to Israel.
The temples of the Sufis in Qom and Boroujerd became the objects of perpetual attacks by government agents; these temples were eventually razed to the ground and destroyed completely. The Iranian media condemned these assaults and defended the Sufis by publishing the news about these attacks widely. But when the turn of Azerbaijan’s Ali-Alahis (a branch of Sufism) came, most of these media remained silent, and offered only inadequate explanations. Like the followers of any other religion or belief, the Ali-Alahis of Azerbaijan have a right to their faith and to practice it freely. The population of Azerbaijan consists of the only people in Iran who are entirely Shi’as; indeed, the Safavids, who relentlessly spread Shiism in Iran and turned it into the official religion, were of Azeri origin. That is why the beliefs of religious minorities in Azerbaijan have the color and flavor of Shiism and the Ali-Alahis of this region, in their adoration of Ali (the first Shi’a imam), have elevated him to the status of God. But even these mystics did not remain immune to the government’s onslaughts. Unfortunately, almost all Iranians chose to ignore this encroachment on the rights of Ali-Alahis. It has been many months since four members of this sect (which has close affinities with Shi’a beliefs) were held in a remote prison in Western Azerbaijan. Almost forgotten and wiped from memory, it seems no one even bothers to inquire about these prisoners, let alone demand their freedom.
Shand-Ali Mohammadi, Bakhsh-Ali Mohammadi, and Abdolah Ghasemzadeh, all from the village of Ouch Tapeh (in Qoshachay-Miandoab, Iran) are the members of the Atash-Beygi Sect. After an armed confrontation with military forces in Miandoab in October 2004, some members of this sect were arrested and, after a summary trial, were condemned to death. Alireza Javanbakht, the spokesman of Asmak, an association which actively defends the rights of Azerbaijani people, has issued a statement about the unfortunate condition of these prisoners:
“According to the reports that we have received from Oroumieh’s Central Prison, these four individuals are not the only Ali-Alahis who have become the target of harassments by prison officials. The members of other religious minorities, who have been held in prison for non-ideological crimes, are also subject to these pressures. These prisoners are also ceaselessly harassed by thuggish and criminal inmates who are encouraged and instigated by prison guards. Sahand-Ali Mohammadi, Bakhsh-Ali Mohammadi, Abdolah Ghasemzadeh, and Mehdi Ghasemzadeh have written a letter protesting against the torture of Mola-Gholi Mohamamdi, another Ali-Alahi prisoner, by the guards of Ward 3 of the Central Prison. These individuals also protested against the violation of Ali-Alahis’ rights and some of the murders in Azerbaijan in a six-page letter dated on October 20, 2007.”
Suppression, harassment, and turmoil still abound, but, in the lead up to the elections, the Islamic Republic’s politicians suddenly remembered the people of Azerbaijan. Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, made a trip to Azerbaijan to campaign for his reformist colleagues for the upcoming elections. Throughout this trip, Khatami and his entourage exhibited a special concern for Azerbaijan and its problems. To attract the votes of this region’s population, Khatami’s political rivals also utilized similar methods. During this time, a few articles about Iran’s Turkish personalities also appeared in the press, commemorating prominent figures such as Ayatollah Khoei and Ayatollah Shariatmadari. Ayatollah Shariatmadari was the only religious authority in Iran who in the early turbulent years of the Revolution firmly criticized the ratification of Article 110 of the Constitution, which provided the Velayat-e Faqih with unrestrained powers. For that very reason, other religious authorities denounced Ayatollah Shariatmadari and then forced him into silence through persecution, pressure, and house arrest.
The truth is that most Iranian politicians and reformists do not concern themselves with the pressures and injustices that the Azeri activists experience; they do not care about the damages that are inflicted on Azerbaijan’s language, history, culture, music, art, and heritage. Nonetheless, when election time approaches, these politicians travel to Azerbaijan and utter a few Turkish words and speak of some Azeri historical figures to bring people to their side and secure their votes. However, their promises are as empty as their words and their sole intention is to perpetuate the already existing pressures on people.
In 2007, a number of political activists in Azerbaijan were charged with “espionage” for Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan. One of these individuals is Hussein Foruhideh, who has since been condemned to death. As a form of psychological torture, the prison officials have given the news of his execution to his family several times. Fortunately, he is still alive and his execution has not yet been carried out. The Iranian government and the enemies of the rights of Azeri people, inside and outside the country, accuse the Azeri activists of espionage and separatism in order to curtail support from human rights and freedoms defenders in hopes that they abandon them in their struggle for the acquisition of their rights.
The Iranian government calls the Azerbaijani activists “spies,” and yet their policies are perfectly in line with those of Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan in suppressing the Azeri intellectuals. Although one naturally expects Turkey and the Republic of Azerbaijan to advocate for the ethnic and cultural rights of people in Iranian Azerbaijan, these governments have remained silent and even supported the position of the Islamic Republic to safeguard their own economic interests.
On November 20, 2007, the Canadian government presented a proposal to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding the repression of freedoms and human rights in Iran. Many countries, which had not even been aware of the issues inside the region of Azerbaijan in Iran, voted for the condemnation of Iran. Not only did the Republics of Turkey and Azerbaijan refuse to condemn Iran, but the latter—without taking into account the situation of ethnic minorities in Iran, especially the Azeris and their trampled rights—went as far as to claim that Iran is a country that does not violate the rights of minorities.
This account has been so far bleak and disappointing; nonetheless, not all the news was disheartening. In the final days of 2007, five Azerbaijani political prisoners, who have been mentioned previously in this article, were released from prison and their freedom bolsters the hopes of defenders of freedom and human rights in Iran and Azerbaijan. Although abandoned, the people of Azerbaijan have begun a new year full of hope and struggle for the freedom of all prisoners and the elimination of all pressures.