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Iran: alarming increase of arbitrary detention and execution of ethnic minorities

Human rights groups have raised concern for the lives of ethnic minorities in Iran over increasing arbitrary arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances and executions. The Centre for Human Rights Iran (CHRI) and 35 other civil society organisations have called on the international community to give urgent attention to the matter.

“We, the undersigned 36 civil society and human rights organizations, call for the urgent attention of the international community to an ongoing wave of arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, and enforced disappearances by the Iranian authorities, targeting scores of people from Iran’s disadvantaged Kurdish minority in the provinces of Alborz, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Tehran, and West Azerbaijan.”

CHRI statement

According to the CHRI’s sources, at least 96 individuals (88 men and 8 women) from the Kurdish minority group have been arrested by the intelligence unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards or ministry of intelligence agents since 6 January 2021. “This includes civil society activists, labour rights activists, environmentalists, writers, university students and formerly imprisoned political activists as well as individuals with no known history of activism,” they reported. The arrests took place in at least 19 different cities all across Iran, and in most cases authorities did not provide a warrant. The prosecution authorities of Mahabad and Urumieh in West Azerbaijan province, where many of the detainees are being held, told the detainee’s families that they did not issue any arrest warrants and are unaware of the detainees’ fate or whereabouts. CHRI reported as of 2 February, seven people have been released, three on bail and four unconditionally, but the rest remain in detention for an undisclosed period of time and without access to lawyers or contact with their families.

The Iranian authorities have not given reason for the arrests, but the concern amongst rights groups is that they are due to “the individuals’ peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association, including through involvement in peaceful civil society activism and/or perceived support for the political visions espoused by Kurdish opposition parties seeking respect for the human rights of Iran’s Kurdish minority.” Whilst a few of those arrested are activists with public profiles, the majority are young men and women who have pursued “nascent activism through informal circles focused on the civic and political empowerment of Iran’s Kurdish minority.”

“Based on past patterns of documented human rights violations by the Iranian authorities, the undersigned organizations are seriously concerned that those detained are at risk of torture and other ill-treatment aimed at extracting forced “confessions”, and that these may be later used in grossly unfair trials for spurious national security related offences.”

CHRI statement

Small pieces of information regarding the whereabouts of the detainees came after some were permitted to make brief phone calls to their families several hours or days after their arrests, but since then authorities have cut communication. CHRI’s sources also confirmed that out of the 89 individuals who remain in detention, at least 40 are being subject to enforced disappearance, with no information given to their families about their whereabouts. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have allegedly threatened the families of the detainees when they sought information and warned them against speaking out to the media or UN human rights bodies.

It is not uncommon for Iranian authorities to arrest Kurdish activists or anyone involved in support of the Kurds, they are routinely targeted normally with little to no evidence of crimes being committed. Kurdish human rights groups estimate over 500 people from Iran’s Kurdish minority were arrested in 2020, most for politically motivated reasons and charged with broad and vaguely worded national security-related offences. At least 4 Kurdish individuals were executed in 2020 after grossly unfair trials.

Execution of detainees

Amnesty International, one of the signatories to CHRI’s statement, also raised concerns over the lives of four ethnic Baluch and four ethnic Arab men who are on death row after what the human rights watchdog called “flagrantly unfair trials”. Diana Eltahawy, deputy director for the MENA region, said in a statement on 4 February:

“The recent escalation in executions of Baluchis and Ahwazi Arabs raises serious concerns that the authorities are using the death penalty to sow fear among disadvantaged ethnic minorities, as well as the wider population. The disproportionate use of the death penalty against Iran’s ethnic minorities epitomizes the entrenched discrimination and repression they have faced for decades.”

The four Baluch prisoners on death row are in Zahedan prison in Sistan-Baluchestan Province and in Dastgerd prison in Esfahan Province, and they have all “been subject to a catalogue of human rights violations, including enforced disappearance and torture” according to Amnesty. Three of the ethnic Arabs on death row are in Sheiban prison in Ahvaz, Khuzestan Province. The human rights watchdog reports that they have been on hunger strike since 23 January and have sewn their lips together in protest of their prison conditions, denial of family visits and ongoing threat of execution. The fourth ethnic Arab man has reportedly been “forcibly disappeared since April 2020, putting him at risk of torture and secret execution.”

The statement called for “concerted action” from the international community, including UN human rights bodies and the EU. Citing figures obtained from the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, at least 49 people have been executed in Iran since 1 December 2020, with more than a third of those being Baluchis. Javid Dehghan, a Baluch man, was executed last week on 30 January for killing two members of the Revolutionary Guards Corps five years ago. The Iranian judiciary’s official website reported his death, describing him as a “leader of a Sunni militant group known as Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice).” He was sentenced to death in 2017 for “taking up arms to take lives or property and to create fear.”

The UN had urged Iran to halt his imminent execution and “to review his and other death penalty cases in line with human rights law.” The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) tweeted on 29 January:

“We strongly condemn the series of executions – at least 28 – since mid-December, including of people from minority groups.”

Amnesty International accused the Iranian court of convicting Dehghan based on a “torture-tainted confession”. The OHCHR recognises that the Iran authorities crackdown on minorities from mid-December onwards has seemingly targeted Kurdish, Ahwazi Arab and Baluch communities in particular.

Assadi verdict – will there be possible backlash?

Amidst the condemnation for its domestic affairs, Iran also made headlines internationally with the verdict of Assadollah Assadi. Assadi, a 49-year old Iranian diplomat, has been convicted of a plot to bomb a rally in France and given a 20-year sentence by the court in Antwerp, Belgium.

The rally was held in 2018 outside Paris, with tens of thousands of people in attendance, including high profile figures such as Rudy Giuliani. It was held by the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), with the bomb plot targeting exiled Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi. Assadi, who worked in the Iranian embassy in Vienna, was arrested in Germany in June 2018. He was convicted alongside three others of Iranian heritage for participating in the plot, receiving the longest sentence of the group. He is the first Iranian official to face such charges in the EU since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Maryam Rajavi described the conviction as “a brilliant victory for the people and resistance of Iran and a heavy political and diplomatic defeat for the regime.”

The NCRI is considered to be the “political arm of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK)”, a dissident group that backs the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has designated the group a terrorist organisation, but denies the bomb plot and insists it is fabricated. France has blamed the Iranian intelligence ministry for the planned attack, and has frozen the assets of two senior Iranian officials. The Iranian ministry tried to prevent Assadi’s conviction by citing diplomatic immunity, but this was rejected by the courts.

One concern is the potential backlash of the verdict against dual nationals held in Iranian prisons. In particular, Swedish-Iranian dual national Ahmad Reza Djalali, who is being held in Evin prison in Tehran and is on death row. Djalali was arrested in 2016 by Iranian intelligence services and sentenced to death for allegedly passing on classified information to Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency to help them assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. His lawyers said his confession was elicited by torture. He was moved to death row in December 2020, prompting international outcry over his potentially imminent execution. With Assadi’s conviction, human rights organisations and international bodies should stay alert to retaliation by the Iranian regime and the use of arbitrarily detained dual nationals like Djalali as pawns in political affairs. Other dual nationals from Europe who are currently detained in Iran are: Kamran Ghaderi (Austrian-Iranian), Massud Mossaheb (Austrian-Iranian), Nahid Taghavi (German-Iranian) and Fariba Adelkhah (French-Iranian). With the risk of further charges, extended sentences or even being put to death, it is imperative that the international community work with Iran to ensure their lives are not further endangered as a result of Assadi’s conviction.

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