Sep 13, 2008

Ahwaz: Tehran targets journalists

The Iranian authorities are cracking down on media freedom, especially reporters who dare to cover the persecution of ethnic minorities

Below is an article published by the Guardian  

The escalating persecution of journalists in Iran is symptomatic of the regime's fundamental weakness, despite its macho posturing and tyrannical repression.

President Ahmadinejad and his clerical cronies are afraid. They have concluded that censorship of the media is necessary to save their ugly regime. They are also prepared to jail and, in some cases, execute reporters who dare to tell the truth about their tyranny.

In one sense, Ahmadinejad is right. The truth is dangerous. If Iranians knew about the massive scale of human rights abuses by their government it would arouse huge popular discontent.

For this reason, Tehran is determined to keep people in the dark. It dare not allow the open flow of news and information. Such openness would reveal the full extent of its savage misrule, including the torture of students, arrest of trade union leaders, beating of peaceful protesters and suppression of women's rights campaigners.

Much of Ahmadinejad's most brutal suppression is heaped on the country's minority nationalities, such as the Arabs, Balochs and Kurds. Most Iranians would be aghast if they knew about the barbarism of Tehran's ethnic persecution. Knowing the facts could spark an uprising. That's why Ahmadinejad is clamping down.

Six of the seven journalists currently in prison in Iran are of Kurdish or Arab origin. The latest reporter to fall foul of Tehran's information management and repression is the leading Ahwazi Arab journalist Yousef Azizi Bani Torouf. According to Iran Human Rights Voice and Reporters Without Borders, he was sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of "acting against national security", "incitement to rebellion" and "relations with foreign officials". These charges relate to his condemnation of the extreme, often indiscriminate, state violence used to crush the mass protests of the anti-government Ahwazi intifada of April 2005.

Azizi's lawyer, Saleh Nickbakht states that his trial was unfair and that "the alleged charge against him is incompatible with the facts and reality."

Azizi is a highly acclaimed writer and has had numerous books published in both Arabic and Farsi, with a particular focus on the Arab peoples of Iran's south-west province of Khuzestan (known by the Arabs as al-Ahwaz). He is a board member of the Iranian Writers Association.

Some hardliners within the Tehran regime have falsely accused him of supporting independence for the Arab population, who comprise a majority in Khuzestan. Azizi has, in fact, repeatedly stated that the "Arabs of Khuzestan, as a nation or an ethnic group (or whatever you like to call it), are inseparable parts of the Iranian nation."

Azizi was originally arrested on April 25 2005, 10 days after the mass demonstrations that swept Khuzestan in protest against Tehran's quasi-colonialist impoverishment and ill-treatment of the Arab population, which I helped expose in an article for Labour's leftwing weekly Tribune magazine.

He was, at the time of this intifada, living in Tehran. His arrest came after he had spoken out against the regime's brutal suppression of the protests at a press conference attended by lawyer and human rights defender Shirin Ebadi.

Iranian police and soldiers had shot dead scores of unarmed Ahwazi Arab civilians. Azizi called for a halt to the bloodshed. Other prominent Arabs, including former Majlis member Jasem Tamimi Shadidzadeh, also condemned the state violence against Arab protesters.

After spending 65 days in the notorious Evin prison, during time which he staged a hunger strike with other inmates, Azizi was temporarily released on a 1bn rial bail.

President Ahmadinejad's regime has now decided to imprison him, amid a general clampdown on journalists and media that don't toe the strict pro-government line. This clampdown has led to the temporary closure of even some of the conservative media, including the Baztab website and the semi-official Fars News Agency. They were accused by the state censors of publishing material that was supposedly critical of President Ahmadinejad.

Although Azizi has been sentenced to only five years imprisonment, his life is in danger. Other journalists have found that once convicted, they are often subsequently charged with further crimes, until the regime can ensure that they either are jailed for life or executed.

One notable example of this tactic was Yaghub Mehrnahad, a 28-year-old journalist, human rights and cultural activist from Iran's oppressed Baloch minority. His crime? Criticising the Persian supremacist regime's mistreatment of the Baloch ethnic group.

Mehrnahad was the founder of the Sedaye Edalat (Voice of Justice) non-governmental organisation, which was recognised and registered by the Iranian government. It organised events such as music concerts and educational courses for young Balochs. However, Ahmadinejad's men claimed Mehrnahad had links with the Baloch resistance group, Jundullah (Army of God).

Amnesty International was one of the many human rights organisations urging clemency and appealing for Mr Mehrnahad's release. Their pleas were ignored. He was subjected to escalating charges and months of torture. Eventually, he was sentenced to death and executed last month.

There are fears that Azizi is likely to share the same fate as Mehrnahad, unless his sentence and conviction are quashed.

A similar case is the imprisonment of Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand, Kurdish journalist on June 22 this year, on charges of "acting against national security." This charge was in response to his Kurdish rights writing and activism. He is chair of the Kurdish Human Rights Organization (RMMK) and was also the editor of Payam-e Mardom-e Kurdestan (Kurdistan People's Message), a weekly published in Kurdish and Persian, which was banned on June 27 2004 after only 13 issues for "disseminating separatist ideas and publishing false reports." He was originally given an 18 month suspended sentence but, following months of torture in Section 209 of Evin Prison, this sentence has been progressively lengthened to 11 years jail. Kabudvand's life is now also in danger. There are fears that he, too, will soon face capital charges.

Several other Iranian-Kurdish journalists are currently detained, including Kaveh Javanmard, Adnan Hassanpour, Abdulvahed Butimar and Ejlal Qavami.

Adnan Hassanpour was sentenced to death last year at a secret revolutionary court hearing, which was a travesty of justice, according to human rights defenders. He is a journalist and former editor of the now-defunct Kurdish-Persian weekly "Aso" in Iran's north-western province of Kurdistan. In a rare victory for justice, his death sentence was overturned. But now he is being retried on the capital charges of espionage and working with outlawed parties.

In Ahmadinejad's paranoid mindset, even green campaigners and writers are now deemed a threat to national security. The Iranian-Kurdish environmental activist and journalist, Abdulvahed Butimar, was convicted and sentenced to death at the same time as Hassanpour. His sentence, like Hassanpour's, related to a charge of taking up arms against the Iranian state. Despite a flawed and biased trial, Butimar remains on death row, awaiting execution.

You can help save Iran's jailed journalists. Email your appeals for their release to:
The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, His Eminence Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei: [email protected] and [email protected] and [email protected]
The Honourable Chief Justice, His Eminence Ayatollah Seyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi: [email protected] and [email protected]
Iranian President, His Excellency Dr Mahmood Ahmadinejad: [email protected]