The impending execution of five Arabs on charges of “terrorism” underscores the long-term plight of Iran’s Arab minorities.
Iranian officials have reportedly cracked down hard on this ethnic group recently through mass arrests and the imposition of death sentences based on dubious evidence.
The five Iranian-Arabs currently facing execution -- Hadi Rashedi, Hashem Shabani, Mohammad-Ali Amouri, Seyed Mokhtar Alboshokeh, and Seyed Jaber Alboshokeh – are incarcerated in Karoun prison in the southern city of Ahwaz.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes the men were convicted on trumped-up charges.
The judiciary has put forth no public evidence suggesting that these men should spend one more day in prison, let alone hang from the gallows, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.
The lack of transparency surrounding these men's convictions and sentences is just one more reason why these execution orders should be quashed.
In June, three Ahwazis were executed on charges they killed a policeman. Other Ahwazis have been sentenced to long prison terms on a variety of charges -- and convicted in courts sealed off from the public and with dubious legal representation.
In 2005, a massive demonstration in Khuzestan (with some calling for a separatist state) was met with extreme violence from police, with at least 50 protesters killed and hundreds of others detained.
Human rights activists allege that some Arabs in Iran have been tortured into issuing forced confessions, leading to long prison terms or even execution.
“The high number of reported arrests and killings in Khuzestan province in recent years, combined with the information blackout, suggests that the [Iranian] government has terrible things it wants to hide,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division.
“Simple justice requires the authorities to open independent and transparent investigations into the fate of those arrested and the allegations of torture.”
An estimated 5 million Ahwazi Arabs live in Iran, principally in the oil-rich Khuzestan province in the southwest, near Kuwait. As non-Persians, they have long faced discrimination, particularly with respect to employment, housing, and civil rights.
“The Iranian authorities marginalize anyone who is not Persian,” said Taha Amjad, a spokesman for the London-based European Ahwazi Human Rights Organization (EAHRO).
“Arabs are persecuted in particular due to their geographical position and the [poor] diplomatic situation [with Arab neighbors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia].”
The Khuzestan province presents a number of ironies – it is rich in oil and gas (Iran’s most important industry), but its people are among the poorest in the country, indicating they have been locked out of the region’s immense wealth. Persians and Azeris who have moved into the region dominate the oil jobs.
Ahwazi Arab lands represent about 90 percent of Iran’s oil revenues and 10 percent of OPEC output – boasting greater oil reserves than the super-wealthy states of United Arab Emirates and Kuwait combined.
EAHRO notes that more than half the population of Khuzestan lives in poverty, with very high child malnutrition rates.
A group called the Ahwazi Arab Solidarity Network (AASN) indicated that at least one-third of Ahwazi Arabs are illiterate, twice the national Iranian average.
AASN also noted that the Ahwazi lands are being destroyed by heavy pollution and river diversion projects carried out by Iranian authorities.
But Iranian authorities are keen to maintain order in Khuzestan due to its economic and strategic importance, with an eye towards stamping out any signs of Ahwazi unrest.
“Attacks on pipelines by Ahwazi militant groups have shaken a [Tehran] regime that is desperate to sustain oil exports amid increasing isolation,” EAHRO said.
“It has claimed, without proof, that Ahwazis are supported by an array of Arab and Western governments as well as Israel, al-Qaeda and international oil producers.”
The Ahwazis were also not rewarded for fighting on Iran’s side against their fellow Arabs in the brutal Iran-Iraq war.
AASN laments that despite their dire circumstances in Iran, the Ahwazis have little hope of leaving the country.
“In the Middle East [Ahwazis] were once warmly welcomed by Syria and Iraq when the governments of these countries were hostile to Iran,” the group stated. “But with the political establishments of these countries favoring Iran, many… Ahwazi refugees have been illegally repatriated to Iran where they have been arrested and often imprisoned and tortured. Others have gone into hiding or have fled the Middle East.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.