By Edward Carney
For years now, critics of the Islamic Republic of Iran have described it as being in the midst of a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent and perceived threats to the regime’s hardline Islamist ideology. Among those perceived threats are a number of ethnic and religious minorities that have long been targeted for repression and deprived of equal status with their Persian Shiite countrymen.
The regime has been quick to capitalize upon relevant developments to justify the further expansion of that crackdown, with one of the latest examples being a terrorist attack on a military parade in October, which Tehran simultaneously blamed on a number of “enemies” including an Arab separatist group, the US, and Israel.
Without citing any evidence of connections between that attack and persons targeted in the government crackdown, Iranian authorities have used the incident as a pretext for the arrests of hundreds of people in Khuzestan Province, specifically members of the Ahwazi Arab ethnic minority.
Iran Human Rights Monitor reported upon the crackdown on Saturday, pointing to an Amnesty International statement as an example of international condemnation for the regime’s conduct. The same report highlighted a series of contradictory “claims and denials” regarding responsibility for the October terrorist attack, which undercut the regime’s justifications of the crackdown but have done nothing to slow the pace of the arrests themselves.
IHRM described Amnesty International as having obtained “credible information that students, writers, civil society, minority rights and political activists have been arrested at their homes, places of work or in the streets.” Both outlets also rejected regime authorities’ denials on this part, noting that the newfound “climate of fear” permeating the Ahwazi community was only the escalation of a situation in which they already face persistent persecution and discrimination on the basis of their ethnic identity.
The Ahwazis are, of course, not unique in this regard. Specific reports emerge from time to time regarding an upsurge in persecution of one or more minority groups, but these reports almost always fit within a larger pattern of behavior stemming from the highest authorities in the Islamic Republic. What’s more, these escalations are not typically driven by developments as significant or as challenging as domestic terror attacks. And the regime’s effort to use October’s attack as justification for the Ahwazi crackdown is diminished by the fact that that crackdown appears to be part of a much less specifically targeted crackdown on minority groups.
Another report by IHRM indicated that in late October two female Azerbaijani activists were severely beaten by agents of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, as part of an apparent effort to secure false confessions to national security crimes. The Islamic Republic is frequently accused of eliciting such false confessions through physical or psychological torture, after which the detainees’ statements are often aired on state media to manipulate public sentiment and justify further repressive action against relevant activist or minority groups.
One of the Azerbaijani women, Nasim Sadeghi, reportedly told her family by phone that she had been forced to confess to “propaganda” charges after experiencing beatings and threats against her children and her sister’s children. Meanwhile, in absence of a confession from the other woman, Hakimeh Ahmadi, no formal charges have yet been announced. As of the IHRM report on Sunday, she had been hospitalized with broken fingers, cracked teeth, and two broken ribs. Her husband has been barred from visiting her, yet authorities have demanded that he pay for her hospitalization and treatment.
Whereas the targets of the Ahwazi crackdown have been spuriously connected to a terrorist attack, the assaults on Azerbaijanis apparent stem only from their participation in peaceful protests, for which Sadeghi was detained over five days in July. The same is true of members of the Sufi Muslim religious minority, who have been under particular strain ever since a clash between activists and security forces in February 2018, when members of the Gonabadi Sufi order expressed concern that their leader was being targeted for arrest alongside other activists in the government’s response to nationwide anti-government protests at the beginning of the year.
On Friday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran indicated that consequences were still mounting for the Sufis and particularly for those who have remained in detention for the past several months. The report specifically focuses on the Great Tehran Penitentiary, wherein no fewer than 300 Sufis have been detained since February. Additionally, since August, 52 of these detainees have been moved to Ward 1 of the institution, which is otherwise reserved for drug-addicted inmates, and which is characterized by poor sanitary conditions and frequent conflicts among prisoners.
This sort of arbitrary transfer is in violation of Iranian laws that establish the separation of prisoners according to type of offense. But this practice has been cited as part of Tehran’s treatment of other religious minorities, as well, and thus it underscores the unequal treatment given to different groups by Iranian legal institutions. In the GTP and elsewhere, inquiries into the unlawful mistreatment of the Sufi prisoners have been blatantly ignored for a period of months, according to CHRI, which described the Sufis as a perceived “threat to the prevailing Shia order” and thus targets of an “ongoing persecution campaign.”
Accordingly, the unlawful transfers are just one in a series of developments targeting either the Sufis as a whole or individual members of that group. IHRM pointed out on Monday that the transfers to Ward 1 were the result of a violent raid by jailers, wherein they used batons and tear gas to break of a sit-in that had been organized to protest unlawful arrests and ongoing mistreatment. The raid also sparked a hunger strike by one of the detainees, Saeid Soltanpour, who is presently being deprived of medical treatment despite having surpassed 65 days of self-imposed starvation. IHRM reported that prison authorities told him he “will not be treated until he is one step away from a stroke.”
The disregard for Soltanpour’s medical needs is also part of a broader pattern of behavior by the Iranian regime, especially as it applies to minority detainees. Ignorance of hunger strikes, along with the maintenance of harsh conditions for elderly or infirm political prisoners, has potentially fatal consequences for detainees, albeit without adding to the regime’s world-leading statistics on formal executions.
Relevant to this behavior is the case of Rabihollah Raoufi, whom IranWire featured in a report on Friday. Raoufi is 70 years old but has been ordered to begin a sentence of one year in prison and one year of exile in the city of Minab, on charges of “propaganda” and “assembly and collusion against national security.” The sentence follows a warrantless raid of Raoufi’s home, as well as multiple arrests and other forms of pressure directed at him, his family, and his friends, all apparently stemming from his membership in the Baha’i religious minority. According to IranWire, acquaintances who were interrogated over the case were informed that even though Raoufi had not attempted to spread his faith as authorities alleged, he was nonetheless guilty of proselytization simply by virtue of answer direct questions regarding his religion.
Amidst escalating crackdowns on a variety of ethnic and religious minorities, Baha’is remain among the most persecuted groups in the Islamic Republic. The regime’s antipathy for the pre-revolution, Iranian religious movement is so severe that even government officials and well-connected individuals face consequences for the slightest defense of Baha’is in the face of coordinated persecution. As evidence of this fact, CHRI reported on Thursday that the Iranian judiciary had banned Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati from serving in his position because he had moved to secure the release of two Baha’is who had been arrested for their faith.
Hajati was arrested two days after saying via Twitter, “Our generation has a responsibility to make an effort to correct judicial or other actions that undermine social justice.” He has since been placed under “judicial surveillance” for six months, as well as being barred from his city council seat. CHRI also noted that higher authorities issued warnings against those of Hajati’s fellow council members who initially sought to speak out in his defense.