One Ahwazi woman has been executed in an Iranian regime prison in recent days, while another has died from a disease believed to be COVID-19, according to reports from human rights activists.
This comes in the wake of the regime’s arrest of five female Ahwazi activists in recent weeks in connection with their support of sexual equality and advocacy of human rights and their work in documenting Ahwazis’ cultural heritage, with two young teenage brothers of one of the women (who is herself only aged 20) arrested along with her for trying to protect her from the brutality of the regime security officials carrying out the arrests.
The Khakzadegan social media account, run by a group of Ahwazi human rights activists based in London, reported that a woman, identified only by her surname, Nissi, died on Monday, 14 December in the regime’s infamous Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz.
The woman reportedly suffered from Crohn’s disease and needed medicine for and monthly infusion, with the prison clinic only giving her generic painkillers which were woefully inadequate (this is the regime prisons’ standard response to every medical complaint, up to and including advanced cancer). Her already poor health was aggravated by conditions in the prison, with warders reportedly placing her in quarantine only a short time before her death, despite other prisoners pleading for help for her when she complained of severe stomach ache, a high temperature, constant coughing and intense pain which drove her to scream in agony. Despite her obvious suffering, prison warders accused her of playing ill and showered her with abuse, refusing to provide any medical help and dumping her in an isolation cell where she died.
Two weeks before this, Khakzadegan reported, another woman had been executed in the prison. The group said that, according to sources in Ahwaz, the woman had been working as a healer, providing people with traditional medical treatment in exchange for money, when one of the people whom she was treating died.
As a result, she was arrested and charged, despite the lack of any evidence, with premeditated murder.
Sepidar is known as an infamously brutal prison amongst the Ahwazi people of Ahwaz, with Iranian labour rights activist Sepideh Gholian writing a memoir about her detention there last year in which she documented the horrendous racist abuse of Ahwazi women in the jail and the humiliation they are subjected to by the regime. During the winter, she revealed, female prisoners in Sepidar are deprived of access to heating and warm water for bathing, being forced to shower in freezing cold water, often leading to illness, whilst in summer prison staff cut the water and electricity supply while the searing temperatures hit 50o C.
Regime personnel also deny female prisoners phone calls and refuse to provide them with clean water or improve the food, which is mostly thin lentil soup or dry bread and cucumber, leading to numerous medical ailments resulting from malnutrition.
The overcrowded conditions and non-existent sanitation in Iran’s prisons mean that a number of prisoners have already died of coronavirus in the worst prisons in Ahwaz region, Sepidar and Sheyban, with most of those who died being refused permission to leave the prison for treatment, even with an escort. When prisoners in the two jails protested at the conditions, the regime responded by torturing the protesters, shooting some dead and burning others alive in their cells.
Meanwhile, there is still no news on the five female activists arrested since 26 November or on the two young teenage brothers of one of them who were arrested for trying to protect her from the regime security officers’ brutality.
The first arrest took place on 26 November 2020, when officers of the regime’s notoriously brutal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stormed the family home of Maryam Amiri in the city of Ahwaz to arrest her. Her family confirmed that no arrest warrant was issued, and no reason was given for her detention.
On Wednesday, 9 December 2020, another activist, 39-year-old Fatima Tamimi, was detained in front of her husband and two young children in a raid on her home in the city of Jarahi, near Ma’shour, with the IRGC forces transferring her, like Amiri, to an unknown location.
The next day, 10 December, a third activist, 20-year-old Azhar Alboghobeish, was arrested in a raid on her family’s home in Falahiyeh, along with her two teenage brothers, Reza and Abbas.
On the following day, regime security forces arrested two more female Ahwazi activists, Zainab Sawari, from the town of Rofayyeh in Missan county, and her aunt, Fatima Sawari in the city of Howeyzeh.
None of the women or their family members were informed of the reason for their arrest during the raids, with their desperately worried families still receiving no information about their whereabouts or the reason for their detention. This is standard regime policy towards Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities and dissidents, Ahwazi human rights activists have noted, with the regime using these brutal tactics as a means of spreading fear and silencing dissent.
Local rights groups in Ahwaz pointed out that the regime routinely detains people without charge and with their families unable to contact them or obtain any details about their wellbeing or whereabouts for many months, often in unofficial ‘black prisons’ used specifically for torture, though torture is also standard in ‘normal’ prisons. During this time, these detainees are tortured and often forced to sign ‘confessions’ to ‘crimes’ such as ‘mohareb’ (enmity to God) or blasphemy to justify lengthy prison terms or execution. Many of the activists detained in this way have ‘disappeared’ with nobody knowing their whereabouts and no way in which to find out.
Fatima Tamimi, a photojournalist, writer and mother of two young children, has produced several short documentaries on issues affecting Ahwazis, including extreme poverty, high unemployment and high drug addiction rates. She has also worked to document the history of Ahwazi folk music, composes, as well as performing folk music as a way to preserve this widely loved traditional Ahwazi musical form marginalised by the Iranian authorities, and has taught many Ahwazi children about their Ahwazi heritage. These activities are frowned on by the regime, which denies the existence of the Ahwazi people’s heritage and history in the region, even denying its people the right to education in their native Arabic language or to wear their traditional Ahwazi garb. This discrimination even goes so far as limiting the names which Ahwazi parents may give their children.
Ahwazi activists in the region say that in addition to being targeted by the regime for their cultural activism and promotion of Ahwazi culture, the female activists are also being targeted due to their humanitarian activism in support of fellow Ahwazis displaced by recent massive flooding across the region; while the regime refuses to provide any aid, it is alarmed at the community feeling among Ahwazis and the organisation of assistance without its involvement.
The regime’s persecution of Ahwazi activists of both sexes is not a new development, but an intensifying continuation of a policy of state brutality practised for decades. The regime has imposed a media blackout on independent coverage of the region, with the international community’s deafening silence on the persecution of Ahwazis and other minorities in Iran helping the regime to perpetuate this grotesque status quo and to ratchet up the violence with impunity.
Since the last large uprising in Ahwaz in April 2005 following the publication of secret documents from regime officials laying out a plan on how to carry out the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Ahwazi people, the regime has launched several arrest campaigns against female Ahwazi activists on patently false charges, once again aided by a lack of any attention from international human rights organisations.
While there is no accurate data on the number of detainees arrested in 2005 and in relation to those protests which were brutally crushed by the regime, Ahwazi rights activists believe that around 25 Ahwazi women have been arrested in connection with the uprising, many of them along with their children. One Ahwazi woman, Masoumeh Kaabi, was arrested in Syria in January 2008 along with her three young daughters, and deported to Iran, where she was placed in solitary confinement and faced physical torture due to her husband’s activity.
Another of the regime’s Ahwazi victims, both directly and indirectly, is Mrs Hoda Hawashem, an Ahwazi activist, who has been living in Sweden since 2008. Hoda Hawashem was previously sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2006 over the activism of her husband, Habib Chaab, who was recently abducted by Iranian intelligence services in Turkey on 9 October, 2020. During her detention by the regime, Hawashem was brutally tortured. Iranian security forces also arrested Nabiyeh Kaabi in 2006 in a rural area of Tester; while she was serving three years in prison, the Iranian authorities executed her husband.
Sakina Saddam Nissi, the wife of the late prominent Ahwazi political leader Ahmad Mola Nissi, was arrested in 2006 and served two years in prison. She was held in one of the regime intelligence service’s secret ‘black site’ prisons for six months. The regime’s intelligence services are also believed to have ordered Ahmad Mola Nissi’s November 2017 assassination, in which he was shot dead at point-blank range in front of his home in the Hague in the Netherlands, with the murder reportedly carried out in coordination with a drug cartel with which the regime has longstanding contacts.
The Iranian regime also carried out arbitrary mass arrests of Ahwazi activists in 2018 when a large number were arrested on false charges. Among those detained was Ameneh Hattab Sari, with other Ahwazi activists reporting, “The Iranian regime arbitrarily arrested the 26-year-old activist Ameneh Hattab Sari without any apparent charges.” Iranian intelligence agents and the IRGC forces have routinely carried out campaigns of arrests against activists in Ahwaz, with the vast majority of female activists being arrested over their civil activities and their peaceful calls to exercise their rights in freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly, or defence of their Ahwazi identity.
Speaking about the wave of arrests of activists in 2019 following an attack on an IRGC military parade, which took place despite the attackers being killed during the attack and those detained playing no part in it, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Director of International Research and Advocacy for the Middle East and North Africa, said, “The volume of arrests in recent weeks against Ahwazis is very worrying as the timing indicates that the Iranian authorities are using the Ahwaz attack as an excuse to attack activists in Ahwaz, including civil society activists, with the aim of crushing opposition in the Ahwazi region.”
Amnesty reported that many women were among those detained at the time, among them Lamia Hammadi, a civil society activist who was arrested on 6 October 2018 at her home in Khafajiyeh, as well as Zawiya Afrawi and Qaisiya Afrawi from the same city who were arrested on 22 October that year. Others arrested at the time, according to Ahwazi sources, have been identified as Ms Heidari, Maryam Zubeidi, Laila Khanfara and Zahra Sarkhi, with activists in the region stating that many of the women detained, as well as the men, were killed under torture.
Others have been detained on different pretexts, with Maedeh Amouri, a child at the time of her arrest, and Zakia Nissi being arrested for environmental activism and advocacy for Ahwazi cultural rights respectively. It was subsequently revealed that Amouri, who was 15 years old when regime intelligence agents detained her in the city of Abadan, was subjected to physical and verbal abuse and torture during her detention due to having an Ahwazi flag in her home.
In an interview with DUSC, Hoda Hawashem revealed that Iranian intelligence agents had arrested her while she was about to leave Ahwaz to join her husband, Habib Chaab, along with her older brother and one of her children, recalling how the agents surrounded her car with their vehicles on all sides in order to arrest her.
Talking about what she endured during detention, Hawashem said, “I was in prison being subjected to endless questions about my communication with different activists, my aim in leaving Ahwaz and my communication with my husband.” She recalled,
I was detained in an unknown place belonging to the Iranian intelligence services for about 19 days. Then I was transferred to another secret cell, which lasted for more than five months.”
From the start of her detention, Hawashem recalled, she was subjected to relentless interrogation and physical and mental abuse. “I faced serious accusations by the Iranian intelligence services, such as participating in military action and dealing with foreign parties against the Iranian regime, but I knew nothing about any of these things I was accused of. I was interrogated day and night; they tortured me severely and demanded that I confess to bogus charges.”
Another activist, Kamila Alboghbeigh, known as Nahal Mohammad Kaabi, told DUSC, “The Iranian authorities have a long record of assassinations, imprisonment and torture over the past four decades against Ahwazis, most notably the series of killings and arrests that affected many Ahwazi women in the early days of the Iranian revolution.”
Kaabi said that female Ahwazi detainees face two types of prisons in Ahwaz: the ‘black site’ secret prisons and ordinary prisons. The secret prisons specialise in the torture of Ahwazi political prisoners, as well as cultural activists, civilians, and media workers. As for the ‘ordinary’ prisons, these are a mixture of political prisoners, dissidents, people detained on fabricated charges, and actual criminals.
Nahal Kaabi said that female Ahwazi detainees face physical torture, such as including pulling out their fingernails and toenails, as well as being subjected to flogging, electrocution, psychological torture, sexual abuse, including rape, and various other forms of torture; these horrific processes are repeated several times, he added, until prisoners confess to whatever their interrogators want them to or sign a ‘confession’ previously prepared by the intelligence services simply in order to end the torture. Often these detainees are kept in solitary confinement for long periods as an additional punishment.
Speaking with DUSC, American lawyer Irina Tsukerman said, “Iran’s theocracy, in general, is misogynistic and views any form of female empowerment as an ideological threat to the premises on which the entire society under its control functions. It has fed its followers a doctrine where women are viewed as inferior beings to be subjugated and controlled; it thrives on a fake modesty/honour culture, where women’s active role in society beyond the home is to be limited in circumscribed functions to be delineated following specific rulings and what is convenient for the regime. It has no problem using women as mouthpieces for its propaganda in the West, but any sort of activism that challenges the internal structure is to be discouraged even more so than male activism because allowing women to play that sort of role means the entire premise of that sort of society comes crumbling down”.
Tsukerman noted that Iran is particularly brutal against Ahwazi women because it considers Arab culture inferior to mainstream Persian culture, and in general, considers Ahwazi women to be a greater threat because of their ability to inspire what the regime views as a “rebel population”. Furthermore, she noted, until recent years, Ahwazi women were less visibly involved in activism, so the breakdown in these boundaries means that their expanding social role empowers the Ahwazi movement as a whole.
Tsukerman added, “Iran’s illegal and prejudicial detentions and arrests of women is neither in accordance with the international law and norms nor with Iran’s own laws and constitution”, stressing that “these women are not accorded due process; Iran uses terror to stigmatise and isolate them, brings them to prisons with unsanitary conditions, where they are brutalised, abused, tortured, beaten, sexually harassed, and raped.” “All of these practices are banned internationally; furthermore, as a matter of cultural issue, in conservative societies, women who are raped are subjected to an additional social stigma,” she noted.
Tsukerman strongly condemned the silence of the international community on Iran’s persecution of Ahwazis, saying, “The international community and international organisations only pick up on campaigns that have some level of backing like the anti-chador campaign by Masih Alinejad.” She added, “In fact, thousands of women with far more serious campaigns and confrontations with the regime do not get even a fraction of that attention. Such campaigns are a distraction from the plight of women who disappear in Iranian prisons and either die or emerge broken and unwanted.”
She added: “No Westerner has even heard of any of the Ahwazi women activists who have been arrested because their story breaks the narrative carefully constructed by the regime, which uses women to distract from the real issues plaguing women and shuts down any possibility of a real discussion and outrage over these practices in the West, by creating the impression that the Ahwazi movement is a danger to the entire society and that its women are the worst of the lot.”
Tsukerman called for greater solidarity and support for female Ahwazi activists persecuted by the regime from those who have managed to escape, saying, “I think Ahwazi women in the diaspora should absolutely be speaking out on behalf of the Ahwazi women imprisoned unjustly by the Iranian authorities. However, their families and communities should empower them to do so.” She added: “It is culturally difficult for them to become active; they face pressure. On top of that, the societies do not typically provide platforms for such marginalised voices; on the contrary, there are many social obstacles facing them in the West, including domination of the press by pro-Iranian journalists and those who specifically do not wish the Ahwazi perspective, even on women’s issues, to get out.”
The Iranian regime’s constant brutality against Ahwazi female activists, as well as against their male peers, as documented above and as also seen in horrific events like the infamous Ma’shour massacre in November 2019, emphasises that the Iranian regime fears female activists as much as men. For Iran’s regime, female activists are despised on multiple levels, not only because of the regime’s anti-Arab racism, theocratic fundamentalism and totalitarian nature, but because of its deep-rooted misogyny.
The persistent silence of the international community in the face of the regime’s crimes against Ahwazi women and against Ahwazis generally continues to embolden the regime and to reassure it that it can literally get away with murder. Without real solidarity and real action to end these monstrous crimes, this suffering will continue.
Co-authored by Rahim Hamid and Kamil Alboshoka
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.
Kamil Alboshoka is an Ahwazi researcher and international law specialist. He tweets under @KAlboshoka