Protests continue to grow in the Ahwaz region of southwest Iran following the suspicious death of prominent local poet Hassan Haidari soon after his recent release from an Iranian prison. Regime forces have cracked down harshly on the protesters, launching mass arrests and firing tear gas canisters and live bullets at the unarmed demonstrators, a repeat of similar brutal repression of Iraqi protesters by the Iranian regime’s proxy militias in Iraq.
The 29-year-old Haidari was renowned for his impassioned poetry in support of Ahwazi freedom. His death has sparked mass demonstrations, which have spread from the Kut Abdullah and Al-Thawra districts in the regional capital, Ahwaz, to Falahiyeh, Mahshour, Abadan and Muhammarah cities, as thousands of Ahwazis of all ages filled the streets to voice their anger at the death of another revolutionary cultural figure. The protesters scaled flagpoles in order to pull down Iranian regime flags, which are seen as a symbol of occupation and oppression, while chanting slogans in support of Ahwazi freedom. Political activist Hassan Radhi told the United States-based Arabic-language TV news channel Alhurra that the regime has deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces in an effort to suppress the demonstrations, with the IRGC troops using live bullets and tear gas against the unarmed protesters.
#Iran: protesters in #Ahwaz are tearing down Islamic Republic flags following the death of local Arab poet Hassan Haidari, who died 24 after falling ill. People suspect he was poisened by the regime. pic.twitter.com/F8mauumL0N
— Thomas van Linge (@ThomasVLinge) November 11, 2019
The protesters are calling for retribution against Haidari’s killers, as well as demanding an end to the regime’s anti-Arab ‘Persianisation’ policies, brutal attacks, and draconian restrictions on Ahwazis, solely due to their ethnicity. Demonstrators are also demanding that the regime lift the hated bans on Arab dress and on education in the Arabic language, as well as an end to the systemic arbitrary arrests, torture, imprisonment, and often execution, on fabricated charges.
Details continue to emerge about the young poet’s death, with his cousin Jawad Haidari telling Alhurra, “Hassan had been harassed by the regime several times; he’d been arrested on numerous occasions and was threatened literally with physical ‘liquidation’ by the Iranian intelligence services because of his literary and political activities.”
Haidari, who was recently married, was first arrested for a poem in which he criticised the oppressive theocratic regime and its anti-Arab racism against the Ahwazi people, with these being central themes in his work.
In his poems, which are widely shared and memorised by many young Ahwazis, Haidari spoke out against many of the issues causing widespread anger amongst the people of the impoverished region. Hassan’s poetry was unflinching in condemning Iran’s regime for its theft of Ahwazis natural resources, including its damming and diversion of rivers once plied by oceangoing vessels, whose waters made the region an agricultural heartland, but which are now rerouted to other, Persian regions of Iran, leaving Ahwaz increasingly desertified.
Jawad Haidari also told Alhurra that his cousin had been subjected to torture and systematic abuse during his recent imprisonment, which lasted for several months though no criminal charges were brought.
Jawad explained that on Friday 8 November 2019, Hassan was detained by agents of the regime’s infamously brutal intelligence services and taken to an unknown facility for interrogation, then released after 24 hours. When he returned home, he complained of severe stomach pain and told family members that he suspected he had been deliberately poisoned by food he’d been given to eat whilst in custody. His cousin also told Alhurra that according to a friend of Hassan’s with whom he’d been arrested, the normally dynamic and energetic young poet had suffered from severe fatigue during his detention, falling into a deep sleep for long periods in the cell they shared.
When Haidari complained of severe pain, his family rushed him to the hospital. Despite doctors’ attempts to help him, he continued to complain of agonising physical pain before suffering a massive stroke and heart attack, with doctors informing his family that he’d also suffered heavy cranial bleeding, and a ruptured liver that caused heavy internal bleeding. Needless to say, these were not normal findings for a previously healthy 29-year-old man.
Following his death on Sunday, doctors confirmed that he had died as a result of poisoning due to a high dose of thus-far unidentified toxic substances. Jawad Haidari further revealed that Iranian intelligence services had forbidden medical staff to carry out an autopsy on his cousin’s body, which would have permitted doctors to determine the substance responsible. This move has added to the family’s certainty that he was deliberately poisoned, with the regime simply attempting to hide its culpability. Further adding to the family’s grief, the body was been released for burial but was instead buried in an unmarked grave. Intelligence agents only allowed one of his brothers to attend the unceremonious internment of the body, by regime personnel.
The protests quickly grew after news of the young poet’s death spread on social media, with crowds of protesters blocking roads around the family’s home and gathering in front of it to mourn Hassan and recite his poetry, in open defiance of a curfew imposed by the regime. The regime further reacted to the demonstrations by arresting other members of the bereaved family, although they had nothing to do with the protests and were simply mourning their loss. These protests have been growing ever since, with tens of thousands now demonstrating across Ahwaz.
The Iranian regime routinely targets prominent Ahwazi poets, writers, singers and other cultural figures, seeing them as dangerous revolutionary icons symbolising Ahwazis’ aspirations for freedom, with some imprisoned for decades or executed, and others dying, like Haidari, in suspicious circumstances. Such incidents have become almost routine since the 1970s. One of the first such deaths after Ayatollah Khomeini first seized power in the wake of the 1979 revolution was that of renowned Ahwazi poet Nabi Neisi, who died in a car accident that year. His ‘accident’ was widely believed to have been staged by regime agents in retaliation for his strong condemnations of the new theocratic regime. Other victims include another poet Ayoub Amir Khanafereh who died in 2006 in another car accident believed to have been staged by the regime, while three more poets, Taher Al-Salami, Abbas Awla and Nazim Al-Hashemi all died in similar suspicious accidents in 2008. Another Ahwazi poet, Sattar Sayahi, who was known as Abu Surour, died of poisoning sustained in a regime prison in November 2012.
Any dissent is seen as a threat to the regime’s power, with political and cultural figures routinely targeted in an effort to intimidate others into silence. Even those Ahwazi dissidents who manage to escape into exile abroad are not safe from the regime’s lethal long arm; prominent Ahwazi political activist Ahmad Mola was assassinated, shot dead at point-blank range in front of his home in the Netherlands on 8 November 2017.
Now in Canada, Ahwazi rights activist, Mostafa Hetteh added, “Hashem Shabani Amouri, also a leading poet was carrying the notebooks including his poems with him. He stood in the face of the regime, defying all the security apparatuses. He participated in several poetry evenings. He spoke out in defence of the Ahwazi people. He was arrested along with his fellow activist Hadi Rashedi, tortured, tried, hanged and buried in an unknown place that nobody knew anything about for nothing but refusing the policies of the Iranian regime and fighting this regime with his poems and words. The political motives were the foremost reasons which led to executing Federico García Lorca. They are the same reasons behind executing extrajudicially the writer and poet Hashem Shabani and assassinating Hassan Haidari. Ahwazi poets’ conflict with the terrorist regime is nothing but a battle between good and evil, light and darkness. The conflict is not over yet. Ahwazi poets will continue to pay the price of uttering the truth and defending Ahwazi rights for freedom and justice. But they will remain in the memory of Ahwazi peoples and history.”
The European-Gulf Centre for Human Rights has called for international investigations to be launched into Haidari’s death, condemning the international community’s silence on this latest targeting of an Ahwazi cultural figure, and warning that international organisations’ negligence in ignoring this issue and on the marginalisation and oppression of the Ahwazi people and activists gives the regime carte blanche for its programmed killing and arbitrary arrests, which are gross violations of international human rights law. In a statement on Haidari’s death, the EGCHR also emphasised its belief that responsibility for the safety of citizens lies not only with the government but also with the wider international community, which it said provides further impetus for international organisations to follow up on Hassan Haidari’s case and obtain full details of the causes of death. The EGCHR further warned that neglecting this case will lead to repetitions of the same scenario against other cultural figures and activists in Ahwaz and elsewhere in Iran.
For too long, Ahwazis have suffered in silence, the ultimate invisible victims. It is difficult to understand just how isolated and betrayed the Ahwazi people feel, brutally persecuted by Iran for almost a century with the silent, treacherous complicity of the international community. Compounding this problem is the media blackout surrounding events in Ahwaz, with the current regime’s effective hermetic sealing off of the region assisted by the collusion of the world which is either wholly indifferent or swallows the Iranian regime’s obscene lie of ‘resistance to occupation’ wholesale. Ahwazis face immense challenges in bringing attention to the plight of the people in a world constantly preoccupied with “more pressing concerns” and a region awash in systemic violence, much of it directly or indirectly courtesy of the same regime responsible for their suffering.
How many young poets must die, whether violently and by poison in the dark, before the suffering of the Ahwazis is recognised? How long will the world sit back and allow the Iranian regime – the same regime otherwise near universally despised – to abuse the Ahwazi people without any attention? Perhaps young Hassan’s murder by poisoning, and the massive protests it has caused will finally get the world’s attention. May he be the last murdered poet.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.