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Iran’s religious war on minority Arab poets

by Cesar Chelala

Special To The Japan Times

“I have tried to defend the legitimate right of every person in this world … to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen,” wrote Hashem Shaabani, a young Iranian Ahwazi Arab poet from an Iranian prison. On Jan. 27, he was hanged along with 14 other prisoners, accused of “waging war on God.”

Radio Free Europe reported that he had been sentenced by an Islamic Revolutionary Tribunal. Dozens of other Ahwazis shared Shaabani’s fate. There have been demonstrations in Iran against government discrimination against its Arab minority with regard to employment, housing and basic civil rights.

Repression against Ahwazis has been brutal. Human Rights Watch has called on Iranian authorities to allow independent international media and human rights organizations to investigate allegations of rights violations in Khuzestan Province, where most Ahwazi Arabs live. It is in the southwest and is rich in oil and gas.

Iran’s government discriminates against anyone who is not Persian, says Taha Amjad, a spokesman for the London-based European Ahwazi Human Rights Organization. It is telling that although Kuzhestan is rich in oil and gas, its people are among the poorest in the country, with very low literacy levels.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, states: “The high number of reported arrests and killings in Khuzestan Province in recent years, combined with the information blackout, suggests that the government has terrible things it wants to hide.” On Feb. 5, Freedom House, a human rights organization, reported that Shaabani was subjected to torture and interrogation while in prison.

President Hassan Rouhani has not been able to stop executions since he assumed office last year. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, and Christof Heynes, the U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, urged the government in January to stop adding to the number of hangings. Both experts claim that at least 40 persons were hanged in the first two weeks of January.

In all of 2013, 625 people were executed, including 29 women and several political prisoners, accused of “Moharabeh,” considered by many to be a political charge dressed up as a religious offense.

Iranian journalist Amir Taheri says Shaabani wrote that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani eliminated more than a dozen writers and poets and that the worst wave of executions — more than 80 intellectuals killed — happened under former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. It is a sad time when Iran, a birthplace of humanity’s great and more revered writers and intellectuals, decides instead to kill its poets.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.