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Iran: UN Experts Urge Tehran Not To Execute Ethnic Arabs

Firefighters extinguish a fire at the site of a bomb blast in Ahvaz on January 24, 2006 (file photo) (epa) January 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Three UN human rights experts are urging Iran to stop the "imminent" execution of seven Iranian ethnic Arabs and to grant them a fair public trial. The seven are accused of crimes including trying to overthrow the government after receiving training from U.S. and British forces in Iraq.

The experts and several human rights organizations have said the men were sentenced to death following a trial that did not meet international standards.

Some observers say the unrest in the region is rooted in poverty and socioeconomic deprivation. They believe harsh sentences and Iran's heavy-handedness only increase tensions in the region.

Relatives Alerted

The UN rapporteurs said last week in a statement that relatives of the men have been told they will be executed "in the next few days." The seven are part of a larger group of ethnic Arabs that were arrested in the southwestern Khuzestan Province in June 2006 and charged with armed activity against the state.

In November, the head of Khuzestan's judiciary said the Iranian Supreme Court confirmed the execution sentence for 10 Iranian Arabs. He said they were found guilty of carrying out bombings in Ahwaz, the capital of Khuzestan.

Ten days later a videotape of their so-called "confessions" was reportedly broadcast on Khuzestan provincial television. In the video, the men confessed to their involvement in the bombings and said they had contacts with foreigners.

About a month later -- on December 19 -- three of them were executed despite calls by human rights groups for their executions to be halted. Amnesty International said it had received reports that the bodies of the men were not returned to their families for burial and that people were prevented from visiting the families to offer their condolences.

Rights Groups Complain

The rights group expressed concern that the men could be buried unmarked in a mass grave known as La'natabad (place of the damned).

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several other human rights groups have said that the death sentences against the men were imposed following a trial that did not meet international standards.

The three UN rapporteurs said in their statement that the men are accused of "serious crimes" but added that it cannot justify their conviction and execution after "trials that made a mockery of due process requirements." They say the men were reportedly convicted based on "confessions extorted under torture."

In Iran, some have also questioned the fairness of the trials and suggested that the purported bombers could have been forced, under duress, to admit to crimes they did not commit.

Ominous Signs

Emad Baghi is a prominent human rights activist who many times urged Iranian authorities to revoke the death sentences against the ethnic Arabs and to give them a fair trial. He still hopes that the authorities will listen to the appeals by human rights groups and stop the executions.

"It's not unlikely [that they will executed] because the death sentences of three of them have been applied and we've even heard that the prison guards have told some of these prisoners: 'you will join your friends in the next few days,'" he said. "This is a sort of signal that they should get ready. But the fact that some days have passed and they have not been executed has increased our hope that the authorities will be convinced not to enforce the sentence."

Human rights groups say the Iranian government has arrested hundreds of Iranian Arabs since April, 2005, when rumors suggesting the government was planning to change the ethnic composition of Khuzestan led to riots and the deaths of several people. Ethnic Arabs make up about 3 percent of the country's population but a very high percentage of the citizenry in Khuzestan, an oil-rich province.

The province has been also hit by several bombings, including two explosions that rocked Ahvaz about a year ago killing at least eight people. Authorities have blamed "foreigners" -- mainly the United Kingdom -- including "opposition forces" outside the countries for the incidents. Britain, however, has strongly denied the charges.

Some observers say the unrest in the region is rooted in poverty and socioeconomic deprivation. They believe harsh sentences and Iran's heavy-handedness only increase tensions in the region.

Some Already Executed

Apart from the executions in December, two men were executed in March in Ahvaz after being convicted of involvement in bombings that took place in October 2005.

Baghi says many have also been sentenced to long prison terms. He believes the authorities should exercise restraint.

"If the Islamic republic wanted to show determination in dealing with these incidents, this has happened," he said. "Five people have been executed and many have been condemned to long prison sentences. These people have been sentenced to the ultimate punishment and I think it's not logical to seek something harsher. I don't understand why they would want to continue this trend. The continuation of this situation shows that the reaction doesn't have a legal aspect, it's more about revenge and the [use of] violence."

Iranian officials have not reacted to the calls for leniency. Iranian authorities have also not responded to letters sent by the UN human rights rapporteurs that brought the allegations of unfair trials and torture to their attention in an attempt to gain some clarifications.

Iran's Arab Minority

Iran's Arab Minority

The aftermath of a car bombing in Ahvaz on June 12, 2005 (epa)

DISCONTENT IN THE SOUTH: There are approximately 2.07 million ethnic Arabs in Iran (3 percent of the total population of 69 million), most of them living in the region around the southern city of Ahvaz. The region has been the scene of numerous terrorist attacks and demonstrations over the years. Arab groups cite historical grievances, and they bemoan inadequate attention to their culture and language by state media....(more)


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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.