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Ethnic cleansing intensifies in Ahwaz

 Ahwazi land owners homeless due to mass property confiscations

Iranian regime authorities on Sunday 23 August 2020 began the demolition of a village on the outskirts of Ahwaz city, the eponymous regional capital of Ahwaz region, disregarding the pleas of Ahwazi residents who are being left destitute by this latest state destruction of a community.

Adding insult to injury, regime authorities reportedly issued arrest warrants for all the residents of the village, AlboFazl after they refused to vacate their homes, with the regime demolishing the village, which houses over 300 families, as part of a ‘redevelopment’ programme. A number of the residents of the village of AlboFazl have reportedly already been arrested, with their homes being seized by the regime.

As though this were not traumatic enough for the residents, the regime-run power company has also cut off their electricity supply in searing summer temperatures of over 120o Fahrenheit (48o Celsius) as a way to force them to vacate their homes, although they have nowhere else to go.

The Bonyadeh Mostazafan, a foundation affiliated with the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Khamenei, which plans to seize the area for redevelopment, ordered the village’s electricity supply to be cut off, with the state electricity company and local authorities complying.

The regime has justified this shocking inhumanity towards the residents of AlboFazl with its usual claim that their homes and land are state property, automatically dismissing the residents’ documentation proving their ownership and rights of possession as invalid. This is doubly insulting for the villagers since these ownership documents were issued by the Bonyadeh Mostazafan itself.

 

According to Ahwazi human rights activists, some of the villagers in AlboFazl, many of whom have lived there their entire lives, are refusing to leave their homes for fear of being seized by regime forces and seeing their homes confiscated along with their possessions.

A teenage boy in the village whose father was among the residents arrested for refusing to abandon their homes, told regime’s Mehr News Agency, “The men here are farmers, drivers, security guards or construction workers. They are not murderers or criminals – they’ve have been arrested for not leaving their homes! The men in the village were arrested because of their homes, and we have to post bail of millions to secure their release. Our homes are all we have – we have no official jobs or other property, so what is the fair condition that is imposed on us?”

Another villager is a mother of disabled children who’ll be left destitute if her family is driven from their home. She told Mehr News Agency, “Our houses are being demolished here. I have five disabled children, one of whom has died. Why do they want to evict us from our homes?”

Seyyed Yousef Mousavi, the Imam of Abolfazl village mosque, said, “This area was agricultural land before the [1979] revolution and the village was built later. The revolution began in 1979, and when the Housing Foundation, and later the Bonyadeh Mostazafan were established, they took the vacant lands in the suburbs [around Ahwaz city], including the lands this village is built on, and issued ownership documents for them.

Mousavi pointed out that the village residents being imprisoned or evicted had developed the farmlands and revived the area, saying,  “Even though these lands have been in the hands of farmers who’ve revitalised them, and who even have the right of root, which has been confirmed by experts in the organisations of the Registration and Agriculture ministries, now that the Bonyadeh Mostazafan has claimed ownership, it should identify the former owner of the land before asserting its ownership.”

He added, “The Bonyadeh Mostazafan and the Housing Foundation also announced in their own bureaucratic language that the foundation had seized these lands, which means that the lands are already owned since they’re now claiming ownership. So, the lands belong to the farmers and they should be compensated.”

Mousavi concluded, “The issuing of arrest warrants has frightened the residents of this village and nobody feels calm and safe anymore.”

Another village elder said: “If the regime’s claims [that the state owns the land] are true, why wasn’t this issue raised before recent years? Why do they remember this issue after 300 families built houses and made a living in this village for more than 30 years?!” He added, “In the days when we’ve got Corona disease on the one hand and the sweltering, exhausting heat and unhealthy economic situation on the other, this has further worsened life for people.”

 The elderly man added, “This is the homeland for all of us, and it’s not clear how the Bonyadeh Mostazafan wants to own the lands of our ancestors.”

A third elderly resident of AlboFazl pointed out that regime forces have even destroyed the school as part of their drive to force the villagers to leave: “The respectability and esteemed position of the teacher is clear to everyone, but in this village they’ve destroy the school – are not we from this country? Is that why they’re committed to destroying our homes?”

The knowledge that their village is just the latest in a long line of communities to be razed and seized by the regime is of no comfort to the people of AlboFazl, however.

One young man, sweltering in the heat without electricity or any idea of where he and his family might go when the regime takes the only home he’s ever known told DUSC that the people are terrified by the regime’s eviction orders, with nobody feeling calm or safe. “It’s not fair that the men of the village are arrested for refusing eviction from their homes and released only if they make a commitment to leave the homes that are their only shelter,” he added. But for Ahwazis, cruelty and unfairness are the norm from Iran’s regime.

For Ahwazis, this is simply the latest in a longstanding pattern of forcible regime appropriation of their homes and lands. The regime routinely gives Ahwazis only a few days’ or even a few hours’ warning before demolishing homes, farms and entire villages across the Ahwaz region. Regime forces carried out mass arrests of demonstrators who took to the streets of the capital in  3 December 2017 in solidarity with the residents of Jalizi village in the north of the region who had been violently attacked by the Iranian internal security forces when they tried to protect their homes and lands from regime efforts to drive them out and raze the village completely.

In AlboFazl, as in jalizi and other destroyed villages, residents have nowhere to turn to and no hope of any compensation or mercy from the regime, whose officials ordered the demolitions, with any complaint likely to see the complainant being arrested and imprisoned on fabricated charges.

 Ahwazi citizens in Khorosi residential area face imminent confiscation of their properties

For the past 60 or 70 years, the residents of the Khorosi area in Ahwaz, which is one of the many disadvantaged and marginalised neighbourhoods in Ahwaz city, have been living in the property originally bought from the namesake of the area. However, in this latest oppressive measure, the Iranian regime officials claim that these lands are occupied and that the Ahwazi residents must pay the cost of repurchasing their properties to obtain the title deed.

The landowner of this eponymous area had originally exchanged the properties sold to Ahwazis for sheets which had served as purchase agreements. The buyers would keep them as proof of purchase, and some residents still carry them around.

One of the local rights activists explained to DUSC, “These desperate people are walking on eggshells due to fear of confiscation of their houses. The Ahwazis spend their lives building their homes, constructing their lands and securing homes for them and their families without any support from the government, which denies them employment, essential services, or mortgages.

The Ahwazis live in a state of constant dispute with the authorities, which confiscate their lands., Ahwazis are in pursuit of stability, in light of demolitions of homes, confiscations of lands, and evictions.

The chain of events in the land confiscation saga was revealed last week when the residents of Khorosi area approached the authorities to renew their ownership documents. They were informed that all the homes of Khorosi area have been put at the disposal of the government agency in charge of collecting and selling government properties affiliated with the ministry of finance and economic affairs. This happened despite the local residents possessing the sale contracts they had inherited.

In a shocking update, the residents learned that these repossessed lands would be auctioned off. A settler or a foreign firm would take hold of these lands and obtain the title deeds.

Those who wish to remain in the area have to buy these lands at current prices set by the authorities. Even with such extreme hardship, they can only do that if the land is not acquired by the government for eminent domain reasons, such as a plan to build a new settlement on the international road linking the capital – Ahwaz City – with Abadan.

This situation also arose in several other Ahwazi areas, where the government resorted to similar measures, in an effort to force out the Ahwazi residents from the region. The pattern repeated when the residents of those areas contacted the authorities to renew their deeds.

The reason for these displacement and depopulation schemes is linked to the regime’s interests in taking control of the lands, in part due to the China-Iran deal for profit, and in part due to the plans to redistribute it among Persian loyalists, and to loot whatever is possible. The ultimate objective is to change the demographic area in Ahwaz in favour of the Persian settlers through a process of displacement.  According to local sources, nearly 30,000 Ahwazis in Khorosi area will find themselves homeless. It is the biggest displacement in Ahwaz after the events of the Iran-Iraq war.

The demolition of 30 buildings under construction in Toster

Another house demolition campaign was carried out in the Toster (Shushter) area on Thursday 20 August 2020. The regime officials announced the demolition of 30 buildings under construction belonging to Ahwazi citizens in the Toster district last week, under the pretext that their owners did not obtain building permits.

The land on which the houses were built is about 14 hectares, and some of these buildings were populated despite their incomplete construction, according to local eyewitnesses.

The eyewitnesses told DUSC that the Iranian police forces ordered the locals to evacuate the buildings, using excessive force and violence against the residents and threatening with arrest if the residents resisted the police and tried to halt the demolition of the buildings.

Land confiscation in Muhammarah

In a related incident, the regime confiscated 50 hectares of arable land owned by Ahwazi citizens in the village of Mandwan in Muhammarah district last week, under the pretext that the ownership of land belongs to the authority of the Iranian state.

Ahwazi local farmers interviewed by DUSC anonymised to protect them from the regime persecution denied the allegations of the Iranian authorities, stressing that the regime’s flimsy pretexts are no longer fooling anyone.  They said, “we are aware that the regime is planning an extensive land grab and illegal taking of the Ahwazi farms for settlement development.”

In another related development, the authorities announced the allocation of 1.5 trillion rials for accomplishing the second phase of the free agricultural zone, a settlement project in Ahwaz. In light of this project, 550,000 hectares of the Ahwazi lands will be confiscated from the local people, facilitating the population transfer of Persians and non-Ahwazi to the region.

The Iranian regime allocated a colossal budget of 1.5 trillion rials from the National Development Fund to accomplish the project on orders from Khamenei. The Iranian-Chinese fund pledged to allocate $613 million to partake in the project. The plan of the project revealed that the Jahad Nasr Foundation, owned by the IRGC, is overseeing the project.

It is distributing the usurped land in 19 districts in Ahwaz, starting in the Mousian district and ending in Ras al-Bahr in central Ahwaz. It is worth noting that north Ahwaz produces annually 17 million tons of agricultural crops, including one million tons of wheat. But recently, this production has been challenged by the burdens placed by the Iranian government. It seeks to seize the lands of Arab farmers and grant them to non-Arab settlers.

House demolition in Arjan city

One of the crimes of the Iranian government in recent years has been the destruction of local homes under the pretext of non-standard constructions or illegal constructions. For example, on 27 May 2020, Iranian municipality personnel along with security forces forcibly have demolished several Ahwazi residential’ houses in Arjan city known as Bhabhan in Farsi.

Human rights groups have reported that these Ahwazi citizens were living in Ahwazi areas such as Sableh and Chathabeh (Chazabeh) areas bordering Iraq and due to sever clashes and bombardment and destruction of their villages during the Iran-Iraq war, the entire population had to flee the area and resettle in other, safer Ahwazi areas. A number of these war-stricken and displaced Ahwazis were resettled on the outskirts of Arjan first in tents and then have built their houses on those areas without receiving any assistance.

Once the war ended, the displaced Ahwazis and other displaced residents sought to come back to their villages, hoping to get help from the government for rebuilding their houses and reviving their farmlands. However, this time the regime officials prevented their return, stating that the area is not cleared of landmines and other explosives.

They were told to wait until the area is officially confirmed cleared of landmines. However, a few years later, the regime’s oil companies have confiscated their lands without compensating the displaced population, leaving the locals landless and homeless in the impoverished peripheral areas of Ahwaz city and other towns. After over 30 years after the war, the regime municipality personnel followed by security forces brought their bulldozers have destroyed their only shelter stating that they obtained no legal permit when first erecting the houses.

The desperate Ahwazi civilians who were witnessing the demolition of their homes had a sit-in protest, but the security forces used threats of arrest and intimidation, forcing them to evacuate and destroying the houses leaving the already displaced people homeless.

This amateur video shows how traumatised women and men are imploring the officials not to bulldoze their houses saying where are we going to go, we have children, and elderly people.   “You are dirtier than a dog if you destroy it (his house). You are an animal. By God, this is lawlessness. Who brought it? Who made this house for me? Did Khamenei make it? We made it ourselves. Who made it for me? Did the leader make it for me? I came here from Bestitin (Bostan in Farsi). I built this house myself.”

The families said, our lands and properties in Bestitin (Sableh and  Chathabeh areas) have been seized by oil companies, which are all in the hands of the authorities. We were forced to move to Arjan and built our houses for ourselves in the vicinity of Arjan and continued our lives during these years. Now, years later, by the regime’s inhuman policies, the security forces have destroyed the only roof over the head of us, the same regime who raise slogans for supporting the oppressed but when it comes the Ahwazi deprived people, they destroy our houses leaving us defenceless in the desert heat.

Land confiscation and house demolition in Ahwaz city

 The regime’s confiscations and expropriations of Ahwazis’ homes and lands take place routinely on the small, individual scale as well as the scale of entire villages and towns. In this footage from June 2020, a desperate homeowner sits in front of his home in the  Zergan neighbourhood of Ahwaz city refusing to allow regime contractors and municipality workers with a bulldozer to demolish it. The homeowner and his family had not even been notified beforehand of the regime’s plans, with regime officials simply arriving and telling the family to leave, showing them official documents claiming their home was being expropriated by the state.

As noted in a recent report by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI), despite prohibitions against these actions in the Iranian regime’s own constitution and despite Iran’s status as a signatory to the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “there is strong evidence that Iranian authorities are orchestrating a systematic and ultranationalist policy of land confiscation and forced migration, in line with the ethnic reconstructing scheme  outlined in a top secret letter written by former Iranian vice president, Sayed Mohammad-Ali Abtahi.

The Abtahi letter, leaked to the international media in 2005, led to an unprecedented popular uprising, which engulfed the entire Ahwaz region and resulted in more than 100 people being killed by the security forces. The letter, written in 1999, suggests a time-frame of 10 years to accomplish the ethnic restructuring programme. Iranian authorities are encouraging the forced migration of Ahwazis out of Ahwaz and their replacement with loyal ethnic groups, (particularly ethnic Persians), and constructing separation walls to segregate indigenous Ahwazis from non-indigenous settlers and the privileged migrants.”

Whilst this time-frame appears to have been over-optimistic on the part of the regime, which has still been unsuccessful in its drive to make the region majority-Persian, this is not for want of trying. As the ISCI report further notes, “Ethnically exclusive settlements such as Shirinshahr and Ramin have been built in recent years to house Persians from Yazd and Fars provinces who have been brought into the area to take up jobs denied to Ahwazis. The regime is encouraging ethnic Persians to settle on the land confiscated from Ahwazi farmers by placing incentive advertisements in Farsi-speaking provinces and cities, which promise cheap fully furnished apartments with all amenities.

In fact, since the military occupation of Ahwaz, the Iranian regime has begun to implement the ethnic cleansing agenda by constructing exclusive settlements to bring Persian settlers to Ahwazi lands and thereby change the demography of Ahwaz. Moreover, the regime has systematically attempted to increase poverty and unemployment among the Ahwazi people while the Persian settlers enjoy priority in achieving employment opportunities.

It is estimated that more than 12,000 hectares of Ahwazi farmland north of Susa (Shush (andToster (Shooshtar) have been taken to resettle non- indigenous Persians, in accord with directives by the ministry of Agriculture and the Revolutionary crop command. In recent years, Iranian officials brought many of Persian settlers to this region by building new settlements for Persians settlers. These Persianisation policies have forced Ahwazis into poor shanty towns around the city.”

These policies have also continued through the opportunistic flooding of Ahwazi-owned farmlands in the spring 2019.  The regime had diverted the waters to these lands, depriving the landowners of livelihood. While the increased environmental disasters are due to Iran’s overall mismanagement of climate-related policies, the diversion of waters was likely more than just another thoughtless gesture on behalf of the authorities. This diversion was systematic, with no compensation offered to the farmers. Furthermore, there was no effort to address the issue of the dams or to take mitigating measures that would prevent the destruction of the crops.

One of the reasons for taking this extreme step to accelerate the process of depopulation was due to the increased entry of Chinese companies renting out the oil fields in the Ahwazi lands. To prevent the return of the population to the “liberated” areas and to avoid additional uprisings in reaction to this policy, the regime had invited its proxies from all over the region, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Since then, the policies aimed at expelling Ahwazis from their territories continued. These steps included, most recently, an order by the regime for the oil companies operating in the area not to hire any local Ahwazis and to hire Persians, who had been moving to the vicinity from the centre of the country for this specific reason. Moreover, Ahwazi presence and risks of revolts present a business risk to the 25-year China-Iran business deal revealed recently, which in addition to the oil-related arrangements, also includes elements of defence cooperation between the two regimes.

Amnesty International and other international human rights organisations have periodically issued reports about the Iranian regime’s brutal racism towards the Ahwazi people, with a 2006 Amnesty International report stating that “Expropriation of land belonging to or occupied by members of the Arab minority is reportedly so widespread that it appears to amount to an unofficial policy aimed at dispossessing Arabs of their lands, and noting, “This is linked to measures such as zero interest loans for land, not available to Ahwazis, which encourage or facilitate the relocation of non-Ahwazis to Khuzestan [the Farsi name for Ahwaz].”

The 2006 report also included quotes from an interview with the then-UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing following a visit to Iran, in which he emphasised his concern over the effects of the Iranian regime’s massive ‘development projects, warning that these were leading to “the displacement of entire villages – with thousands of people not consulted on the projects, informed of the impending displacement, nor offered adequate resettlement and compensation”.

The UN Special Rapporteur also questioned the Iranian regime’s policy of transferring ethnically Persian citizens from other provinces of Iran to live and work in Ahwaz, asking pointedly why the jobs and houses respectively reserved and specially constructed for them (and provided with amenities not available to the indigenous Ahwazis) could not be allocated to the local population.

2008 report from the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization (UNPO) in the Hague again makes it clear that the regime’s land expropriation policy is not limited or a new innovation, noting, “Land confiscation in Ahwaz continues, creating a new town in north Ahwaz called Gotwand. This is [the latest] new town after the Ramin, Shirin Shahr and Memko towns [to be] built in recent years.”

It should be noticed that all of these ‘new towns’ were constructed and reserved for ethnically Persian immigrants to the region, attracted there by promises from the regime of well-paid jobs and good housing, both denied to the Ahwazi people.

The UNPO report explained that the town of Ramin was built on land confiscated from the Ahwazi villages of Sanicheh and Jalieh that previously stood there and which were razed to make way for the new one, with the residents of both villages left destitute. It’s most probable that, like hundreds of thousands of other Ahwazis, they were forced to either move to shantytowns around the regional capital or other cities there or to go to other regions of Iran.

The report further noted that “The indigenous Ahwazis face losing more land every year”, adding that while the policy of expropriation of Ahwazis’ lands had begun under the rule of the Shah, it had been accelerated since the theocratic regime of the ayatollahs came to power, beginning under the Rafsanjani presidency in the years following the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Talking about Rafasanjani’s massive population transfer scheme, the UNPO report cited Reza Washahi, an Ahwazi researcher on minorities in Iran, who recalled: “Rafsanjani ordered the building of huge sugar cane farms in [the Ahwaz region].” This loss-making initiative saw the regime forcibly expropriate more than 135,000 hectares of farmland to the south of Ahwaz city and the north of the historic cities of Muhammarah and Abadan, along with more land and on both sides of the Karoon river, for sugarcane-farming and refining, using massive quantities of the river’s waters in the sugar-refining process, with the refineries built on the river banks.

Following the refining process, the water, mixed with the toxic chemicals used to treat the sugarcane, is pumped back into the rivers, causing massive pollution. Between that pollution, the run-off from the oil and gas refineries, and the regime’s massive river-damming and diversion projection which has seen much of the rivers’ waters’ blocked near their source upriver and diverted to other areas of Iran, the remaining waters that once irrigated fertile farmlands across Ahwaz are brackish, saline and often unfit for consumption even by livestock. Even early on this led to massive protests as Washahi noted, writing, “The water in cities like Abadan became unhealthy and salty [… and protests] broke out in Abadan.” The regime reacted to these protests with its landmark brutality, with Washahi stating simply that many of the protesters “are still missing.”

Washahi added that the situation did not improve under the successive presidents, Khatemi and Ahmadinejad, with land confiscation increasing under both, as it has done ever since. In 2005, a leaked letter from a government official revealed that this was indeed not simply the result of terribly poor planning by the regime leadership but part of a very deliberate government plan to change the demographic composition in the area by driving out the locals and building more towns especially for Iranian incomers from other regions of the country.

As Washahi explained, the regime “uses those lands for sugarcane farms, new towns, industrial estates and military facilities.” Referring to the massive oil and gas reserves which are the regime’s real main concern in Ahwaz and drive its demographic change policy, the analyst said, “The land we’re talking about here is not just ordinary land – one of the largest global energy reserves is under it,” adding, “In most cases, the government did not paid any compensation to Ahwazi land owners.”

Washahi explained that “These new towns built for non-indigenous immigrants, mostly Persians, have better facilities such as electricity, gas, and a healthy water supply than the old cities for the indigenous Arab population, adding that at the time of writing, according to the regime’s ISCA News Agency, at least 400, 000 people were living in shanty towns in the suburbs around Ahwaz city.

Whilst Ahwazis are denied the most fundamental amenities and basic rights, such as clean, drinkable water, the regime lavishes attention on the ethnically Persian incomers to the region, providing incentives such as low-interest mortgages to buy homes and lands, with the regime establishing a number of building societies specifically to help with this – although these are often the same homes and lands that the regime has driven the indigenous people out of, or homes built atop the rubble where their homes once stood.

As Washahi points out, “Every new town means a new wave of incomers to Ahwaz area, more jobs for non-indigenous Ahwazi, more poverty and pollution for indigenous Ahwazis.”

The UNPO report also noted that kidnapping farmers and forcing them under duress to sign documents stating that they’re voluntarily giving up their homes and lands is a very common practice for regime security forces on the orders of leadership officials. As with the other practices documented, this one is still widely practised.

The sugarcane project is only one of the regime’s ventures designed to dispossess the Ahwazis and resettle ethnic Persians in their place in order to change the demographic composition and secure the region’s oil and gas interests for Tehran. Amongst others detailed in a 2007 report by Mohammad Nawaseri are:

  • The confiscation of 47,000 hectares in Jufair near the Iraqi border to establish a project for settlers disabled in the Iran-Iraq war
  • The confiscation of over 25,000 hectares of marshland to set up a fish-farming project to the south of Ahwaz city, established specifically for ethnically Persian settlers brought to the area to work there and provided with special housing. As with the Iranian regime’s other projects in the area, including the oil and gas facilities and related petrochemical refineries. refineries, the Ahwazis are denied jobs at this facility.
  • The confiscation of over 100,000 hectares of farmland to the east of the town of Howeyzeh extending to the north of Muhammarah city for military use by the regime’s 92nd Division. Several Ahwazi villages were emptied and razed for this, with thousands of residents forcibly displaced.
  • The confiscation of thousands of hectares of farmland around the cities of Khafajiyeh, Howeyzeh and Bestitin under the pretext of developing the Azadegan oilfields, over an area extending to the Majnoun oilfields in southern Iraq.

Ahwazi and Western human rights organisations have noted that the primary objective of the regime’s illegitimate confiscations is to enforce demographic change in the  Ahwaz region, driving out the indigenous Ahwazis and replacing them with ethnically Persian Iranians so as to deny the legitimacy of Ahwazis’ claim to their homelands, which house over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran.

When asked to comment, attorney and international law expert Aaron Eitan Meyer noted that, “much as I said over a year ago when Iran attempted to use flooding as a pretext to further erase the Ahwazi presence from their homeland, this is outright ethnic cleansing, in flagrant violation of every conceivable interpretation of international law. I’ll quote the experts of the UN Commission on the former Yugoslavia, who defined it as ‘… a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.’ Here, Iran has been working towards its thinly-disguised ethnic cleansing agenda by using a combination of coercive activity such as denying employment or social assistance to Ahwazis who must ultimately move away or starve, and forcible actions such as deliberately flooding farmland, burning or otherwise rendering other areas unusable. And now the regime has taken it to another level by not waiting for a natural disaster as pretext, simply violently demolishing a community outright. This is the natural result of Iran’s decades-long use of impunity. There is little to no international outcry, and no tangible ramifications for its flagrantly racist and illegal actions, and so the regime has no hesitation in escalating its unlawful policies.”

 By Rahim Hamid and Irina Tsukerman

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.

Irina Tsukerman is a New-York based Human Rights Lawyer, National Security Analyst. She can be followed under @irinatsukerman.

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