According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every human being has rights that must be fully respected, which are incontrovertible and absolutely related to one another. These rights are non-selective, applying to every human in the world regardless of nationality, ethnicity, gender, faith, cultural background or any other factor.
Accordingly, public international law, or The Law of Nations, is a set of rules to defend these human rights, which has led to the creation of pacts between countries that are valid in all the world’s nations. In this context, it is vital to understand that prisoners are also subject to the same rights, including protection against cruel and unusual punishment, even whilst being deprived of freedom and denied other constitutional rights.
Prisons, as penal institutions of the State, exist to provide places of confinement for criminals, though in many totalitarian states they also exist to imprison dissidents convicted solely for protesting or campaigning for human rights. For the regimes and dictators in such countries, the threat of imprisonment and torture is a means of terrorising the people into obedience. One prime example of a regime that acts in this way and a group which it subjects to this abuse is the Iranian regime and the Ahwazi people, who are routinely imprisoned, tortured and often executed simply for speaking out against injustice, campaigning for human rights or attending demonstrations, with the regime staging shameful kangaroo trials often lasting no more than five minutes apiece and using false ‘confessions’ extracted under torture to convict countless innocent people. In Ahwazi prisons, as in Stalinist Russia, political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are more numerous and receive worse treatment than murderers and rapists, with the regime subjecting these detainees to atrocious abuse, in addition to relentless racism.
Whilst all prisoners should be treated with humanity and with respect for the essential dignity of the person under international law, for Ahwazi prisoners international law is a meaningless, unapplied abstract, with the reality being degrading abuse and woeful punishment, with rights being withheld automatically to political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. Any effort to defend their rights and their dignity as Ahwazis simply results in more abuse.
While torture and extrajudicial execution are nominally outlawed under international law, along with withholding food, water or essential medical treatment, all of these are standard treatment for Ahwazi detainees, with Iran’s government so confident of its impunity from any censure by the international community that it blatantly ignores all the legislation and openly disregards the detainees’ fundamental rights.
One example of this is seen in the infamous Sheyban prison, where the overcrowding and neglect, which, coupled with the relentless abuse and inhumanity towards Ahwazi detainees, means that diseases and contagious illnesses spread constantly; many prisoners who enter the jail healthy contract diseases. Those who fall ill can be given medical treatment or hospitalised only in the most exceptional circumstances. Even on the rare occasions when prison staff agree to provide medical treatment, only generic painkillers are provided, no matter what illness the patient is suffering from or how serious or painful the condition; from torture injuries to scabies to multiple diseases, the “medical treatment” is a couple of aspirin. One recent recipient of this “medical treatment” was the activist Naji Sawari, imprisoned for being one of the founders of Al-Hilal cultural institute, a cultural organisation established to promote Ahwazi culture and history. Naji was transferred to SheybanPrison after being subjected to horrendous and prolonged torture and forced into making false confessions. Even after being transferred, the abuse and torture didn’t end, with Naji suffering unimaginable agony and multiple injuries as a result; when he asked for medical treatment, he was given the standard painkillers, according to his family. Other activists such as Moher Dassoumi and Ahmed Daghagheleh were also subjected to months of torture there as a means of forcing them into making false confessions to crimes, including ‘acting against God’, being members of opposition parties based overseas, spreading insurrectionary ideas, or spying for foreign powers. These pretexts were a means of psychologically debasing and destroying them. Torture also serves the purpose of attempting to terrorise other Ahwazis into abandoning the struggle for freedom.
In fact, the fate of Ahwazi activists who founded the Al-Hilal cultural institute is exactly the same fate of members of Al-Hiwar Institute, an organisation that aimed to raise cultural, civil and political awareness among Ahwazi activists by organising cultural events and free education classes for deprived Arab youth.
All six activists and founders of Al-Hiwar were widely respected community figures. Some of them were teachers. They were sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of terrorism after an unfair trial. The sentences of three of them were later commuted to life imprisonment, and the sentence of Rahman Asakereh, a chemistry teacher, was reduced to a ‘mere’ 20 years. But Hadi Rashedi, also a chemistry teacher and Hashem Shabani, a lecturer in Arabic literature, and a noted poet, were executed in 2014. The charges against them included Moharebeh (“enmity against God”), Mufsid-fil-Arz (“corruption on earth”) and spreading “propaganda” against the political system.
Hadi Rashedi and Hashem Shabani, were subjected to similar horrific torture to force them into making false confessions to such crimes as ‘enmity against God’, a charge commonly used against dissidents and political prisoners, before being executed. Most recently, another two Ahwazi activists, 38-year-old Abdullah Karamullah Ka’ab and 32-year-old Qassem Abdullah, were executed at dawn in another infamous prison, Fajr, following months of torture and abuse. The regime will not even permit their bodies to be returned to their families for burial, likely due to the clear evidence of horrific physical abuse that is upon them.
What is the destiny of the Ahwazi people? For as long as the Iranian regime continues in its current form, the only hope is that human rights activists worldwide will stand up for and help to be the voice of those silenced and subjugated by Iran’s inhuman regime; without such help, there is only a bleak future of torture and execution. Time is running out for the detainees in the regime’s prisons and for the people in wider society enduring the Iranian regime’s relentless injustice and persecution that is the norm for the Ahwazi people. Until the world’s human rights activists help raise their voices, the future seems hopeless.
Teuta Orgocka: Human rights advocate based in Canada.