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Iran's Nobel Laureate Ebadi Warns Of Unrest Among Ethnic Arabs In Iran

A resident covered up against a dust storm blowing through Khuzestan Province (file photo)
A resident covered up against a dust storm blowing through Khuzestan Province (file photo)
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has warned the United Nations of the possible spread of unrest in Iran's Khuzestan Province, home to most of the country's ethnic Arab minority.

Ebadi sent a letter to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay in which she describes a deadly crackdown by Iranian security forces last week on a peaceful protest in Khuzestan's capital, Ahvaz.

The April 15 protest, which some dubbed the "Ahvaz Day of Rage," was aimed at protesting what participants say is discrimination and injustice against ethnic Arabs, who make up about 3 percent of Iran's population.

The event was reportedly planned with the help of social-media sites, including Facebook, by political groups and young people both inside and outside the country who are said to have been inspired by popular uprisings in Arab countries.

Iranian officials have praised street demonstrations across the Arab world as an "Islamic awakening" but themselves have used force against Iranian protesters who have taken to the streets to demonstrate for democracy and human rights.

Deaths, Injuries, And Arrests

Force was also Iranian authorities' response to the April 15 protest in Ahvaz.

In her letter, Ebadi says that at least 12 people were killed in the clashes, 20 others were injured, and dozens were arrested.

Lawyer Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

Human rights activists told RFE/RL they have received reports that there were more than 150 arrests, including a number of intellectuals, artists, and women's rights activists. They said the province has been turned into "a military base" by security forces who have warned activists not to speak to the media.

Ebadi urges the UN to push for the unconditional release of those arrested in order to prevent widespread unrest in the province. She tells Pillay that ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan have been living in poor conditions and have endured discrimination for more than 30 years.

Long List Of Grievances

Yousef Azizi Banitorof, an ethnic Arab Iranian and the head of the U.K.-based Center for Combating Racism and Discrimination Against Arabs in Iran, told RFE/RL that protest organizers were demanding an end to racial, cultural, economic, and political discrimination.

"They also protested against [discrimination] in April 2005 when they took to the street to protest a letter allegedly signed by former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi," Banitorof said, referring to a letter that Abtahi described as being forged, which called for forcibly relocating the local Arab population and replacing it with Persians. "They were met with [force] and 15 people were killed. They now wanted to mark that day and also to call for their rights."

Banitorof said many people in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan live in extreme poverty. "They're sitting on a sea of oil but the oil money goes to the rulers in Tehran," he said, citing reports on the state-run news agencies Mehr and ISNA that say the poverty in the region is worse than in Africa.

A Hard Line

Banitorof also said he had heard reports that two people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces on April 14. Hamed Kanani, a member of London's Ahvaz Human Rights organization, told Radio Farda that several women and a 17-year-old were among the dead.

Kanani said that before the planned protests, authorities sent warnings via short text messages to people in Ahvaz telling them not to take to the streets.

Intelligence officials also summoned dozens of young people who were already under scrutiny for political activism.

"In Hamidieh, they took 161 young people to the Intelligence Ministry and made them sign a written statement that they won't take pictures, they won't participate in demonstration and also that they won't tell any news in interviews with media and TV channels based outside the country," Kanani said.

There has been very little coverage of the violence that took place in Ahvaz in Iranian state media. Ahmad Naseri, a police chief in Khuzestan, was quoted by Fars News Agency as saying that one person was killed and another injured in clashes in Shadegan region. He described the two as "armed rogues."

Fars reported that members of the parliament's foreign policy committee at an April 17 meeting discussed "recent events in Khuzestan." Fars did not provide details of the meeting.

Radio Farda broadcaster Roozbeh Bolhari contributed to this report
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors 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.