Ahwazi Arab families call for the release of their detained relatives

Rahim Hamid

Ahwazi Arab freelance journalist and human rights advocate who mainly writes about the plight of his people in Iran.


Families of Ahwazi Arabs of the Ahwaz region in Southwestern Iran protested against their loved ones’ detention who were detained during recent protests by Iranian regime forces,  Activists reported that one of those arrested is a child who suffers from Downs Syndrome and another is a young Persian citizen from the town of Arak in Markazi Province, who was arrested for wearing Arab garb in solidarity with a friend from the area. There are also reports that Iranian security officials have tortured the youths to extract confessions.

The parents of the young child are desperately worried for his wellbeing due both to his mental vulnerability and because he is without epilepsy medication which he needs to take daily.  The bail which has been set for him is equivalent to $60,000 and this is an impossible sum for his family to pay.

The Iranian regime faced renewed protests on Monday and Tuesday in the tense Arab region of Ahwaz, as families of youths detained in earlier protests demanded their release, and repeated calls for the end to the continuing apartheid-style policies which benefit the country’s Persian ruling class, while discriminating ethnic minorities.

More than 500 Ahwazi Arab youths were arrested three weeks ago in a crackdown by the clerical regime, which has faced continued waves of protests from multiple constituencies across the country since late December.

Commenting on Twitter about the mass arrests by the Iranian regime, prominent human rights activist Shadi Sadr said, “Hundreds of Ahwazi Arabs have been arrested in Ahwaz over the past few weeks due to protesting against state media’s denial of their existence. Their families gather in front of the judiciary desperately seeking information about their detainees every day.”

The latest crackdown on the Ahwazi Arabs – one of the most oppressed ethnic minority groups in Iran –is because they are once again demanding an end to apartheid-style education, jobs and housing, as well as ethnically-segregated environmental and planning policies.  They simply want equal rights and fair cultural representation. The protests continued for several weeks and led to allegations that regime agents set fire to a local café, killing at least 11 Ahwazis.

The protests began in the city of Ahwaz on 28 March when thousands of Arabs gathered to protest against the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) Corporation after children’s program excluded their culture from a show celebrating the country’s diversity.   The Ahwazi Arabs, whose population is about 8 million,represent 10 percent of Iran’s population.  They are one of the six largest minority groups in the country, which together comprise almost 60 percent of the population – yet suffer entrenched discriminatory policies favoring the remaining 40 percent, who are Persian. This ethnic disparity has defined domestic policies in Iran since the Pahlavi Dynasty ruled the country.

The peaceful demonstrators demanded the government grant them the right to study their mother tongue which is Arabic, end positivediscrimination in favor of Persian settlers in Ahwaz, and eliminate unemployment in the area. They also called for an end to development schemes aimed to divert the region’s main river, Karoon, away from local agriculture and environmental needs.

Earlier Ahwazi protests accused the regime of grossly negligent environmental racism, through policies and projects that have endangered local palm tree cover and turned much of the Arab region into a dustbowl.

A once-abundant ecosystem in the Ahwaz region has been ruined by transferring water from near the source of the rivers to other regions of the country, via massive pipelines. Ahwaz, despite once being a renowned regional source of natural resources, in addition to containing 95 percent of the oil and gas in Iran, is now a heavily-polluted wasteland, where desertification is steadily expanding. As a result of damming and diversion projects, the region’s once-mighty Karoon River, whose waters used to be crowded with large ocean-going vessels on their way to the Gulf, is now reduced in many places to a trickle or has dried up completely.

The marshlands, which were host to a variety of wildlife and whose waters sustained generations of fishermen and their families, are now mostly barren with the water too saline and polluted to sustain any form of life. The regime ignored repeated warnings from environmentalists of the ecological catastrophe which would result from the damming and diversion program, warnings which have now sadly been borne out.

In addition to calling for the immediate release of the two young people arrested above, the families also issued, as part of their statement that “Our relatives called for bringing to an end to the policies aimed at changing the identity of the Arab region as well as bringing back the Arab names of Arab streets and cities,” they added.

Who are Ahwazis?

The Ahwazi Arab population, known as Ahwazis, lives in current Southern and Southwestern regions of Iran, forming the majority of the population in the provinces of Khuzestan, Bushehr, Hormozgan and some parts of Illam, andQeshm Island.  The Ahwazi people speak two Arabic dialects; the first of these, which is indistinguishable from the Iraqi dialect, is spoken by the majority of Arabs in Khuzestan province, whose historical name was Arabistan. Arabistan, formerly an independent emirate, was renamed Khuzestan in 1936 by Shah Reza Khan. The second Arabic dialect widely spoken by Ahwazi Arabs is the Khaleeji or Gulf accent, which has the same accent as the Arab peoples in the UAE and Kuwait.

In terms of religion and sect, Ahwazi Arabs are diverse; the majority in Khuzestan are Shiite, though there is a significant minority of other sects such as Mandaeism, anAgnostic faith of the Mandaean people, who originally spoke their own language, Mandaic, a Semitic tongue which evolved from Aramaic, before adopting the Arabic language.  In Bushehr, Hormozgan and Qeshm Island, the majority of the Ahwazi population are Sunnis.

During both the Safavid and Qajari dynasties, the then-Emirate of Arabistan, now divided between modern-day Khuzestan, Bushehr and Hormozgan provinces, was ruled over by the local Ahwazi Arab leaders.   After Reza Pahlavi toppled the last Arab ruler, Sheikh Khazaal, in 1925, however, his regime and its successors set about instituting an effort to eradicate the emirate’s Arab history and culture, changing the names of streets and districts, cities, towns and villages, and even natural landmarks such as rivers and hills from Arabic to Farsi.

Following the 1979 ‘Islamic Revolution’, the new theocratic regime did not change this policy of cultural eradication, but rather accelerated it, with Ahwazi Arabs subsequently forbidden from giving their children Arabic names, but instead having to choose from a list of Farsi names approved by the regime.  All children in Iran are subject to this restriction.

Much of the region was devastated by the eight year 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran, with Ahwaz Arabs accounting for 12,000 of the 16,000 deaths documented in the region during that period by the Martyrs’ Foundation of Ahwaz.   The historic port city of Mohammareh (whose name was changed to Khoramshahr), which was once a jewel in the crown of the region’s ports, has never recovered from the bombardment, with the regime leaving much of it in rubble and failing to allocate any funds for reconstruction.

Meanwhile, the endemic anti-Arab racism in Iran means that Ahwaz suffers from very high levels of poverty and unemployment.  In addition, as mentioned above, the Dez River’s waters now supply the city of Qom,  while the Karoon River has been dammed and rerouted to provide water to  the plains of Yazd and Isfahan and soon also to Kerman and Rafsenjan.  In these areas the water is being used for irrigation, even while vast areas of Ahwaz which were once farmland suffer desertification as a result of the shortages.    While the regime has established agricultural production of fruit and vegetables including cabbages and melons in the provinces of Isfahan and Yazd as a result of this massive damming and diversion programs, they have destroyed the farmlands of Ahwaz, which grew wheat, barley and other essential crops, with Arab farmers driven from their lands and left destitute.

Arabs are unofficially but effectively banned from working in the oil and gas industries which are increasingly the only remaining source of employment in the region, as well as being the primary source of pollution.

Due to the above, the region is now seeing an average of 110 days of sandstorms annually.   The environmental devastation wreaked on the Ahwaz region is cataclysmic, with the eponymous regional capital, Ahwaz, being one of the most polluted cities in the world. As a result of the pollution and desertification, the drinking water in Ahwaz, like that in Mohammareh, Abadan and other towns and villages in the region is an opaque fetid brown liquid which even the Iranian regime’s own media admits would be unfit for animals.

Any attempts by Ahwazi peoples to protest at the horrendous injustices inflicted by successive regimes are brutally crushed.   On April 15, 2005, Ahwazis across the region in Ahwaz, Hamidiyeh, Ma’shour (a.k.a.  Mahshahr), Howeyzeh and other cities, towns and villages staged peaceful anti-regime demonstrations unprecedented in size.  The reason was the revelations in a leaked letter from the senior regime official that they wished to further reduce the Arab population in the region as a tool of demographic change.  In the letter, reportedly from Mohammed Ali Abtahi, the head of the office of the then-president Mohammed Khatami, the author detailed a plan to reduce the Arab population within ten years.  This is, purely and simply, an attempt at genocide.

The regime was enraged by the demonstrations, and they killed 50 protesters and injured hundreds arrested by security forces and police.

The Iran regime offensively depict Arabs as a national threat. Despite supporting the cause for‘Palestinian freedom’, the regime hypocritically has zero tolerance for any calls for human rights or justice for Arabs in Iran. Ahwazis who campaign for basic human rights or for the allocation of funds from the oil and gas extracted from their lands for development of the region are routinely sentenced to death on charges such as ‘enmity to God’, with the guilty verdicts in the kangaroo trials they are subjected to, which often last only a few minutes, being a foregone conclusion.  The accused are routinely tortured into making false confessions and denied access to lawyers. Many do not even find out they have been tried at all until they’re told their sentence whilst still in detention.

The figures cataloguing the injustices against Ahwazis are stark: 50 percent of the Ahwazi population suffer from absolute poverty as defined by the UN, and 80 percent of Ahwazi children suffer from malnutrition.

While the illiteracy rate among the general non-Arab population in Iran is around 10-15 percent, this rises sharply to over 60 percent among Ahwazi men and even higher among Ahwazi women.

The massive endemic poverty, along with the lack of education and employment,  has led to a spike in social problems such as drug and alcohol addiction, with rates of clinical depression and suicide are far higher than average among young Ahwazis who despair of any hope for their future.

Ahwazis are not asking for special treatment, simply for the same freedom and human rights supposedly guaranteed to all the world’s peoples by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is difficult to understand just how isolated and betrayed the Ahwazi people feel, savagely persecuted by Iran for almost a century with the silent complicity of the international community.  Compounding this problem is the media blackout surrounding events in Ahwaz, with the current regime sealing off the region assisted by the seeming complicity of the world which is either wholly indifferent or believes the Iranian regime’s lie of ‘resistance to occupation’.

Ahwazis therefore face challenges in bringing attention to the plight of the people in a world preoccupied with “more pressing concerns” and a region suffering from conflict, much of it directly or indirectly because of the involvement of the same regime responsible for their suffering.

With the UN’s ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ asserting that freedom and rights of all peoples, it can be argued that the international community has a moral and ethical obligation to defend the Ahwazi people from brutal persecution.  After almost a century of ignoring the plight of the Ahwazi people and arguably supporting a series of terrorist, racist regimes, the world owes the Ahwazi people at a minimum,  solidarity and assistance in putting an end to 93 years of historical injustice.

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