Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Oct 24 14:06:04 UTC 2006

Civil Society:

Iranian officials are intent on keeping a lid on ethnic-minority
discontent, as the country prepares for pivotal elections and continues to
wrestle with the international community over its nuclear program.
Discontent is especially high among ethnic Azeris, who comprise roughly a
quarter of Irans estimated 68 million population, and who live mostly in
northern areas of the country. In late September, various Azeri
organizations led protests to demand expanded cultural rights, in
particular wider access to Azeri-language education. Some of the protests
turned violent as Iranian security forces and plain-clothes officers
attempted to disperse the crowds.

Prior to the protests, Iranian authorities detained at least 15
Azeri-rights activists, the human rights organization Amnesty
International reported September 26. Fakhteh Zamani, an activist for the
Canada-based Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political
Prisoners, said the number of pre-protest detainees could have been as
high as 100. Verifying detentions is difficult, Zamani added. Families are
harassed and they are afraid to report about arrest of their members,
Zamani said. Among those taken into custody were three Evezpoor brothers
Mustafa, Morteza and Mohammad Reza. Officials quietly released Morteza on
October 9, and Mustafa and Mohammad Reza three days later. According to
Mustafa, both he and Mohammad Reza were subjected to severe interrogations
at a facility operated by the Ministry of Intelligence. Mohammad Reza, 15,
was housed alongside hardened criminals while in detention in the northern
city of Tabriz, Mustafa said.

After release from custody, Mohammad Reza attempted to attend classes, but
no local school would register him. Mustafa added that he is having
trouble finding employment. Despite the hardships, he indicted that the
family was not considering emigration as an option, and would continue to
support efforts to secure the Azeri communitys civil rights. Underscoring
the Iranian hard-line stance on the minority rights issue, an Iranian
court on October 17 sentenced Reza Abbasi to one year in prison for
supposedly conducting anti-state propaganda, the APA news agency of
neighboring Azerbaijan reported. Abbasi was taken into custody in June
after he supposedly did not comply with an official summons to answer
questions about his recent activities.

Iranian officials are increasingly preoccupied with December 15 elections
for municipal legislative bodies and for the Assembly of Experts, as well
as with the ongoing wrangling with the international community about Irans
nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As the
country goes through a critical period, officials in Tehran are unlikely
to alter the existing stance on minority rights issues, local political
analysts believe. The impact of Irans tough stance is being felt in
Azerbaijan, one of Irans northern neighbors. President Ilham Aliyevs
administration in Baku wants to maintain a cordial relationship with
Tehran, and thus Azerbaijani officials have adopted a muted stance on the
issue of Azeri cultural rights in Iran. Some nationalist groups, however,
have attempted to stage protests outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku. In
the most recent protest attempt, on October 13, Baku police prevented the
would-be demonstrators from assembling.

The late September disturbances came after larger protests in May. The
trigger for the earlier wave of demonstrations was the publication of a
cartoon in a state-owned Iranian newspaper that depicted an Azeri as a
cockroach. Iranian leaders have accused foreign powers, in particular the
United States of trying to foment unrest among minority groups in Iran.
Iranian Azeri activists insist they have never sought assistance from the
US government. It is a shame to link the Azerbaijani movement in Iran with
US policy. This movement is a century old. Different states have [hoped]
to obtain benefits from our movement throughout history, but it does not
mean that we are going to be a tool in their hands, said Saleh Ildirim,
the chairman of Southern Azerbaijan Independence Party.

Some articles in US media about Iranian [Azeris] playing a role in
Washingtons plans in Iran inspire more repression toward Azerbaijanis,
said Zamani, the human rights activist. Recent comments by an influential
Iranian cleric on the Azeri rights issue reflect Tehrans sensitivity on
the issue. Speaking on October 12, Ayatollah Moshen Mujtahed-Shabestari,
the Iranian Supreme Leaders personal envoy in East Azerbaijan Province,
issued a strong caution to Azeri nationalists who would like to see
Azeri-dominated areas of northern Iran unite with Azerbaijan proper. "If
there is to be any union, they [Azerbaijan] should join Iran, and it would
be better not to speak of southern and northern Azerbaijan, but of
southern and northern Iran," the Fars news agency quoted the Iranian
cleric as saying. "The identity of Iranians will never be undermined."


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