“Death is death, but it has many different forms.” This common saying epitomises one aspect of the Iranian regime’s murderous persecution of Ahwazi activists, whose voices are suppressed by any means available – poison, lethal torture and public execution – all carried out with the silent complicity of an uncaring and unknowing world.
Some, such as the renowned poet Sattar Sayahi, who died in November 2012 shortly after being released from regime intelligence headquarters, are poisoned. The regime liked this gruesome murder method so much that it used it again on another beloved and popular Ahwazi poet, Hassan Haidari, almost exactly seven years later in 2019, with Haidari telling friends before his death that he had been poisoned prior to his release the previous day.
For Iran’s regime, poets like Sayahi and Haidari are dangerous popular cultural totems, admired and respected by the Ahwazi people for raising awareness about the decades of oppression of Ahwaz, and documenting how the Tehran regime systematically strips the indigenous population of their identity and lands, viciously denying them the most fundamental rights.
The number of poets, writers, teachers, peaceful activists tortured to death in the regime’s prisons and ‘disappeared’ into its vast and infamous network of unofficial ‘black site’ torture prisons is too many to be counted.
Many prominent figures who dare to speak out for freedom are simply murdered in the dark of night by the regime’s notorious Basiji, plainclothes thugs who offer plausible deniability since they wear no uniforms and have no official rank in the regime, despite everyone knowing who and what they are.
Consider Jamil Sari, a popular and widely admired figure who campaigned for Ahwazi rights and organised protests about some of the problems afflicting the region. He was recently assassinated, shot in the head at point blank range by a balaclava-clad Basiji militiaman while walking down a street in Al-Thawra( [also known as Alawi]) neighbourhood in the regional capital, Ahwaz city. The regime had apparently decided that assassination was the way to permanently silence Sari, who continued to courageously speak out for freedom and justice, and organised protests across Ahwaz about issues including water scarcity, the environmental catastrophe caused by the regime’s policies, and the worsening economic crisis which disproportionately affects the already poverty stricken Ahwazis. His courage is remarkable, since he persisted in speaking out despite having been imprisoned and tortured for doing so previously.
Sari was first arrested in 2018 during protests against Iranian anti-Ahwaz racism, the protests dubbed the Uprising of Dignity that began on 28 March 2018 following the showing of a short advertisement made to mark the Iranian New Year and broadcast on state TV on 23 March. The advertisement was seen as the latest in a long line of insulting efforts by the regime to denigrate the Ahwazi people and deny their very existence. In the short ad, children used dolls – one of each sex – supposedly dressed in traditional costume for each ethnic region in order to show the ethnic diversity of Iran; for the Ahwaz region in the south and southwest of the country, whose Ahwazi population has been brutally oppressed by the regime for decades and brutally denied even the right to speak their own language or wear their traditional Ahwazi garb, the two dolls shown were dressed in the outfits associated with the ethnically Iranian Lor nomadic peoples.
To understand why this is a particularly grievous insult for Ahwazis, it is important to know that the regime has imported hundreds of thousands of Lor settlers into ancestral Ahwazi areas, providing them with jobs, financial inducements and well-equipped homes in specially built settlements, homes and jobs denied to Ahwazis. Their settlements are given Farsi names such as Kiyan Pars, Kiyan Abad, Korosh, Arya Shar, and Padad Shar, in a sustained effort to alter the demographic balance of Ahwaz and rid it of its indigenous Ahwazi population, as well as to send an insulting message to Ahwazis of their own supposed racial inferiority.
Population transfers of this type are unquestionably illegal under international law, but the regime is able to sustain its decades-long racist programme for two reasons. First, the world does not even know that Ahwazis exist, much less that they are the subject of decades-long oppression. Nor does the world know of the Lor and their ancient enmity towards Ahwaz. Second, the world does not recognise that the Ahwazi people are the unwilling subjects of a colonialist occupying power. Sold by the non-Arab Ottoman Empire to non-Arab Persia to benefit those entities alone, their promised autonomy disappeared after British promises of support vanished in the face of that latter empire’s machinations nearly a century ago. With its people denied any voice, the increasingly brutal Iranian occupation faces no legal challenges from international bodies. And the regime capitalises on the world’s ignorance, and selectively hides behind legal fictions as it commits its systemic hate crimes without repercussion.
Up to 140 Ahwazi protesters were arrested by the security forces during the 2018 protests, which lasted almost four days. Sari was one of a number of protest organisers arrested by regime intelligence agents and detained for several months in solitary confinement; during his detention, he was not only tortured for his role in calling for and organising the protests but threatened with false charges of killing of a plainclothes Basiji agent who had been spying on Ahwazi activists. Unlike so many who were broken and forced to ‘confess’, Sari withstood the torture without surrendering or making the false confession the regime wanted to film as “evidence”. Unable to provide any proof of his involvement in the killing, and facing public anger over his arrest, the regime settled for jailing him for two years on charges of sedition – another convenient and common tool of authoritarian states – before releasing him on massive bail a few months ago.
As his brutal assassination shortly after his release shows, however, the regime found his courageous voice of dissent too intolerable to be endured, having him killed in broad daylight as a warning to others who might dare to stand up in the same way.
Such assassinations are not rare for Ahwazi dissidents, who are not safe even in other areas of Iran. Another young Ahwazi activist, 20-year-old Mehdi Wahbi, was shot dead on 2 September this year in the city of Mashhad. While the motive and culprit have not yet been found, his status as a protester and activist makes it probable that this was another assassination.
The regime doesn’t just kill Ahwazi activists and dissidents directly; the effects of its longstanding brutality also take a terrible toll mentally and physically that can be just as deadly. Mohammed Saeed Asakareh, a former political activist who went to Iraq in the early years of the Iranian regime’s ‘Islamic revolution’ and from there to Oman where he lived peacefully for almost 40 years, was detained after returning to Falajhiyeh to visit family. During his visit, regime forces arrested him without any cause, detaining Asakareh, now in his 60s, and subjecting him to brutal torture for almost four months. Although he subsequently returned to Oman, he died shortly after his return, with most believing that the ordeal he endured in prison had caused his death.
How many more Ahwazis must suffer death dangling from cranes? How many more will be shot in the street, or gunned down in their cars along with their children? How many will be tortured and murdered in the darkest of nights, with their families left to forever wonder of their fates? How many teenage boys will be imprisoned and hanged without ever being allowed to hug their mothers one last time? How many more Ahwazi children will be molested or hurt while trying to scavenge garbage at night because their families are deliberately left to starve?
The Iranian regime is able to carry out these crimes routinely and casually, disregarding international law and even its own constitution to inflict torture and death on a vast scale, particularly against minorities like Ahwazis, because it has de facto impunity, with no international bodies or Western governments willing to stand up for its victims or uphold international law. The fact that Ahwazi and other activists continue to stand for freedom, democracy and justice in the face of this murderous systemic oppression and monstrous injustice inflicted not only to punish those who refuse to submit to tyranny but to deter any resistance, despite the world’s indifference, is a testimony to the tenacity, determination and sheer heroism of the Ahwazi people. This courage stands in stark contrast to the cowardice of the international community, whose silent acquiescence in the face of such evil makes it an accomplice.
By Rahim Hamid & Aaron Eitan
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Aaron Eitan Meyer is an attorney admitted to practice in New York State and before the United State Supreme Court, and a researcher and analyst. He has written extensively on lawfare, international humanitarian, and human rights law. He tweets under @Aaronemeyer