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Ahwazi Political Prisoners on Hunger Strike as Regime Continues Persecution

Dozens of families of Ahwazi political prisoners have pleaded for support for their sons in Sheyban Prison in Ahwaz who are staging a hunger strike in protest at prison conditions after they were brutally attacked by inmates convicted of violent offences including rape and murder, apparently at the instructions of prison staff.

The political prisoners’ relatives, who spoke with Dur Untash centre on condition of anonymity due to well-founded fears of reprisal by the regime, said that their family members are deliberately incarcerated alongside violent and mentally unstable convicts, many of them drug abusers, as a means of further terrorising the detainees. 

The prison officials at Sheyban Prison, who routinely confiscate or vandalise any goods brought in for the political prisoners by family members, appear to have deliberately placed the violent inmates in the ‘Security Detainees Section’ where the political prisoners are detained as a means of punishing the political prisoners. When the political prisoners complained about this and requested that these violent convicts be moved to other wings of the prison, the warders reacted by inciting the violent inmates to launch attacks on those complaining in a rampage that resulted in many of the political prisoners sustaining serious injuries, including wounds to their heads and faces. 

In response to this and in protest at the prison authorities’ refusal to listen to their complaints, the political prisoners began a hunger strike on February 6 of this year, vowing to maintain it until the violent prisoners are transferred to other parts of the prison.

The eight political prisoners who went on hunger strike have been identified as:

1: Mohammad Ali Amouri, sentenced to life imprisonment after his original death penalty sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

2: Sayed Mokhtar Alboshokeh, sentenced to life imprisonment.

3: Sayed Jaber Alboskokeh (brother of Sayed Mokhtar), sentenced to life imprisonment.

4: Ali Saedi, sentenced to death.

5: Abdul Zahra Helychi, sentenced to life imprisonment.

6: Yahya Nasseri, sentenced to life imprisonment.

7: Abdul-Imam Zayari, sentenced to life imprisonment.

8: Nasser Berihi, sentenced to life imprisonment.

The hunger strikers’ families said that since the hunger strike began, prison authorities banned the men from any phone calls and from weekly visitation rights. The relatives said that they are extremely concerned about their loved ones’ health since the men were already underweight and malnourished as a result of the prison’s grossly inadequate food supply, much of which is contaminated, with the men and other inmates suffering routinely from digestive problems, as well as kidney and urinary infections as a result.  Prison officials will not allow inmates to leave the prison for any medical treatment except in the most urgent life-threatening cases, only distributing ineffective painkillers from the prison’s dispensary. 

The families said that they are appealing to all human rights organisations, media and governments outside Iran to help raise awareness of the injustices inflicted by the regime and to help save their sons, brothers’ and husbands’ lives. The political prisoners’ relatives have also vowed to hold all the regime authorities and prison officials accountable for their loved ones’ wellbeing, adding that their desperate worry is increased by the regime’s silence and refusal to give any details of the men’s condition.

The people of Ahwaz are all too well aware of the atrocities inflicted by the regime within its prisons and its network of unofficial ‘black site’ torture centres there, with former political prisoners who manage to escape Iran revealing some of the details of the regime’s crimes overseas.  For the political prisoners, the prison experience is a horribly inevitable feature of the political and ideological struggle for freedom and human rights, with any activist or dissident who dares to speak out against the regime’s systematic abuses risking incarceration and far worse.  Imprisonment is a nightmarish price of resisting the regime’s cruelty, with incarceration and torture of dissidents being such standard aspects of the regime’s machinery of repression that they have become normalised. Even within the prisons, any act of resistance, however small, is seen as a way for political prisoners to reject the regime’s merciless persecution with hunger strikes, individually or collectively, viewed as a strategic form of resistance ,a means for prisoners denied all other freedom of expression to  declare autonomy and sovereignty over their own bodies and to send a message to the jailers and the regime that the political prisoners’ readiness for self-sacrifice is stronger than the brute force of the regime’s totalitarian repression.

Prison staff use everything, including food, against the prisoners and profit from their suffering. As Habib Rashedi, an Ahwazi former political prisoner now based in the USA recalled, “Prison officials do not provide any healthy food; instead they set up and ran a store in the jail where I was, where prisoners are forced to buy whatever they want to eat since the prison food is disgusting. The store sells its products to the prisoners at double the normal prices outside the prison. The prisoners have no option; either they eat the low-quality prison food, or they ask their poor families to transfer some money for them so they can buy something to eat. Those prisoners whose families are impoverished, they don’t have any money to send them, so their sons have to eat the disgusting prison food, and after a while they get ill as a result,  just to add even more to their suffering;  of course the officials don’t allow them to leave the prison for treatment, they keep them there to suffer and give them the occasional painkiller till they die.”  

Habib recalled the terrible sanitation and wholly inadequate toilet facilities in the prison which often overflow, resulting in more infections and illnesses, especially among prisoners with open wounds from torture: “Political prisoners’ cells are often flooded with the overflow of wastewater from the toilets, and the prisoners have to clean and somehow get rid of the wastewater from their cells by themselves with no help from the prison guards. The stink from the wastewater floods stays in the cells for months, and many prisoners suffer from illnesses skin diseases, respiratory infections and others as a result.”

Habib also recalled that the non-political prisoners are kept in equally horrendous conditions, saying, “When we’d be allowed out of our cells to get sun in the yard outside, we’d see it crowded with non-political prisoners, mostly drug abusers, many with terrible diseases they’d be sleeping in the yard and obviously in pain, some were rubbing their bodies against the walls to try to get rid of the itching (from scabies or other infectious skin diseases). The prison staff would also bring these ill drug addicted prisoners to the political section so that they would pass on diseases to the political prisoners (Dur Untash centre’s interview with Habib Rashedi, an ex-political prisoner, February 10, 2019).”

Through this self-imposed deprivation, voluntary sacrifice and indomitable spirit of endurance, the hunger strikers make their own bodies symbolic battlefields in the struggle for freedom. There is a long history of Ahwazi political prisoners staging such actions in pursuit of their most basic rights, including the right to be treated as political prisoners and, following the criminalisation of political prisoners, to be allowed to wear their own clothes rather than being forced to wear the same convicts’ uniform as other inmates. 

For the regime authorities and prison officials, criminalisation of Ahwazi political prisoners is an effort to demean and reduce the Ahwazi struggle for freedom to the level of a criminal endeavour.  By treating the political prisoners as being indistinguishable from violent convicts charged with crimes like rape or murder, the authorities aim to break the political detainees’ will, to deny any legitimacy or validity for the cause of freedom and to fundamentally deny the political nature of the conflict which both are engaged in.

The criminalisation of Ahwazi political prisoners starts when the regime prison authorities refuse to recognise their status, with regime officials flatly refusing to acknowledge that any such category as political prisoners even exist in Iran; according to the regime’s claims, everyone imprisoned is a felon who has committed a crime for which they are being punished. This revisionism paves the way for the regime to jail political prisoners alongside thieves, rapists and killers.  In addition to torture, random use of the death penalty and forced confessions that the political prisoners endure, categorising and imprisoning them alongside killers is another effort to force them to abandon hope and give up political activism.

I, the writer of this report, know this from my own experience. As a former political prisoner, I vividly remember arriving at Sepidar Prison after being transferred from one of the intelligence service’s aforementioned black site prisons where I had been kept in solitary confinement in an underground cell and subjected to harrowing torture.  When I was transported to Sepidar, I was handcuffed and blindfolded throughout my journey.  On my arrival, the intelligence officers handed me over to the prison guards before leaving. Once they had left, the prison guards took off my blindfold and removed my handcuffs before taking me to the prison store where I was issued with a pair of sandals and a filthy black and blue striped prison uniform.  Once this was done, the prison guards questioned me, asking me my name, age and the crime I had been convicted of. I gave them my personal information and added that I was a student and had been charged with Arabic-language cultural activities after being arrested in front of the university I attended.  I had not even finished speaking before the prison guards assaulted me, beating and kicking me viciously, adding more bruises to my body already in pain from the previous torture, and subjecting me to a torrent of foul verbal abuse.  Then, one of my attackers ordered his fellow guards to take me to one of the large open areas in prison, which they did, throwing me to the ground before leaving.  I remember looking around me, terrified when I realised that these were the hardcore violent offenders, murderers, rapists, thieves, drug abusers with no prospect of any fellow political prisoner around to protect or welcome me or explain my new surroundings.

I remember – and wish I could forget – my encounter there, with one of the inmates who approached me and tried to intimidate and threaten me.  I could see the guards watching through the small window in the door, taking great pleasure in seeing my fear.  The thuggish inmate who had approached me said to me, “Hey boy, will you befriend with me?” very clearly attempting to sexually proposition me. He then took his penis out, saying “Let’s celebrate”, and began masturbating while standing over me, as other prisoners laughed.  Repulsed and terrified, I got up and ran to the door, hammering on it with both hands. One of the prison guards outside slid the window open and spoke to me, saying, “What is wrong? Do you miss your family or do you want to do ‘cultural work’? Shut up.”  Then he slid the window closed again.

I went and sat back down again near the door, and an elderly prisoner came and sat beside me. He told me quietly, “They want to scare you and break you. Do not eat and refuse to talk with anyone till the guards move you to the political prisoners’ unit – they call it the security ward.”

I did as he said and sure enough, after two days and numerous beatings, the guards allowed me to be moved to the other unit where I was welcomed by fellow political prisoners and real Ahwazi freedom fighters.

The reason behind the regime’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the existence of Ahwazi political prisoners is very straightforward; acknowledgement that these are political prisoners rather than ordinary criminals would entail recognition of the legitimacy of the Ahwazi people’s struggle for freedom and demands for human rights and autonomy. Unable to face the consequences of any such recognition, the regime instead refuses any acknowledgement.

The head of the Iranian judiciary, Sadegh Larijani, again denied the existence of political prisoners in Iran recently. Speaking on Monday, February 4th, 2019, at a meeting of judiciary officials, he sharply criticised some requests for the “pardon” of prisoners including political prisoners, asserting brusquely that “We do not have such political convict at present.”

Regime officials have repeatedly insisted that there are no political prisoners in Iran’s prisons, referring to political prisoners as “security” detainees who have been condemned based on crimes such as enmity to God, supposed contacts with overseas movements, creating propaganda, or posing a national security threat to Iran national integrity. The court’s choice of charges is arbitrary and meaningless, as are the sentences which usually depend on the judge’s mood when sentencing, which can lead him to impose the death penalty, exile, long imprisonment or life imprisonment. 

The judicial authorities are not the only officials lying blatantly about the regime’s imprisonment of dissidents, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif telling American journalist Charlie Rose in an interview that “Nobody is imprisoned for his belief in Iran.”

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution states in its original article 168that the investigation of political and press offences must be conducted publicly and in the presence of a jury, this principle has never been applied in practice to any political offence.

According to Ahwazi rights groups, in Ahwaz alone, hundreds of Ahwazi political dissidents are imprisoned, with the regime’s prisons in the region housing far more detainees than their maximum capacity. 

Reporting on the grim reality of life in the Iranian regime’s prisons in Ahwaz, Kamil Alboshoka, an Ahwazi rights advocate, said, “Those imprisoned suffer from overcrowding and continue to die of severe heat, dehydration and lack of ventilation. The political prisoners are also routinely incarcerated alongside those who have committed criminal acts.  It is yet another way the regime uses the prison system to humiliate and break the resistance spirit of political prisoners like Ahwazis.”

   Karim Dahimi, another Ahwazi rights activist, based in London, said that every time the Ahwazi people demand their legal rights, and the Ahwazi civilian, political and cultural movement gets stronger, the number of those kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by the regime increases.

It is a simple statement of fact, rather than hyperbole to say that Ahwazis are abducted rather than detained, because the Iran regime does not even abide by the basic, legal conditions of detention which include the need to provide an arrest warrant, let alone abiding by the conditions for providing access to lawyers and not torturing prisoners to extract false confessions.  The actions of the regime violate every single human right that Ahwazi citizens should possess.

There is a direct observable correlation between certain events in the country and the rise in arrests and executions of Ahwazis.  During periods of political turbulence, Ahwazis automatically brace themselves because they know what is coming.   One example is from October 2018 when more than 1,000 Ahwazis were arrested after an attack targeting a military parade in Ahwaz.  Whilst some international media covered the attack itself; they notably failed to report on the aftermath, during which the Iranian regime targeted innocent Ahwazis to vilify and demonise them, carrying out mass arrests, raiding homes and ransacking people’s possessions, without any permission from the courts.  To further intimidate the population, the regime indiscriminately arrested women, children, the elderly and youths. 

 Dahimi reports: “Amnesty International also issued a report that the regime had executed 22 Ahwazi nationals, refusing to hand over their bodies to relatives. Afterwards, the regime informed the bereaved families of those executed that they would not be allowed to hold the traditional bereavement remembrance rituals, nor would the regime allow them to open their houses to receive condolences from people, as is customary. This is a grave violation of human rights for Ahwazis, and an insult to the whole community, as well as being cruel and inhumane.” 

Torture of political and other prisoners is another standard feature in regime prisons. In the words of another former political prisoner Ghazi Haidari, “Torture in prisons is known to everyone and is documented in many local and international human rights reports. The Iranian regime pursues two approaches when it comes to dealing with the Ahwazi prisoners in the Iranian jails located inside or outside Ahwaz. One of them is direct, and the other is indirect.”

He explained, “Annoyances towards the Ahwazi prisoners are most likely perpetrated by guards at these prisons or the intelligence personnel. This happens directly through direct meddling by prison security guards of the prison who ransack the belongings of the political prisoners with the aim of confiscating them or messing up with them.”

“Also, staffers at the Iranian prisons resort to beatings and systematic physical and psychological torture. They may also let prisoners languish behind bars in solitary confinement cells that lack the most basic requirements. Poor medical care provided in the prisons has led to the death of several prisoners, not to mention others who contracted chronic diseases as a result of conditions there.”

“The indirect approach is based on the regime prison guards inciting thugs and criminals to harm the Ahwazi political prisoners. They move the criminals to the wards of political prisoners and vice versa. Ahwazi prisoners are always moved to the wards where criminals, murderers and drug runners exist. In these cells, Ahwazi prisoners find no place to sleep or rest.”

“Yet these cells are plagued with endemic and chronic diseases such as tuberculosis, Hepatitis, AIDS and other diseases that spread among the Ahwazi political prisoners because of the lack of the proper environment to combat these diseases.”

“Based on my personal experience inside the Iranian jails, I was moved several times for long periods to the wards where criminals and killers are locked up. I had languished for months in solitary confinement cells in a bitter cold and roasting heat. This led me and some of my colleagues to contract tuberculosis.”

“In these tiny cells, you may find 200 people squashed in a cell, sharing the narrow areas and a few sinks that lack warm water in the bitterly cold winter.”

Racism is a systematic feature of the regime’s treatment of prisoners to the racism and discrimination practised by the Iranian authorities against the Ahwazi people. This also includes the Ahwazi political and non-political prisoners. They also bear the brunt of the racist practices of the Iranian authorities. During my jail term, I did not find a single Persian political prisoner that was tortured or mistreated. The approach taken [by regime personnel] with them differs from that pursued with the Arabs. At Karoon prison, Arab prisoners made up about 90 per cent   of the total number of inmates (Dur Untash centre’s interview with Ghazi Haidari,  an ex-political prisoner, February 10, 2019).”

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account:https://twitter.com/samireza42

Notes:

 1: Dur Untash centre’s Interview with Habib Rashedi, an ex-political prisoner based in the USA, February 10, 2019.

2:  Dur Untash centre’s Interview with Ghazi Haidari, an ex-political prisoner based in the Netherlands, February 10, 2019.

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