Workers at the Haft-Tappeh sugarcane refinery in Khuzestan continue to protest and strike, despite promises for change from a new director general, who was appointed just days ago. After a short hiatus, workers resumed their demonstrations on December 9, spurred on by the fact that two union activists, Esmail Bakhshi and Ali Nejati, remain incarcerated. The protests have been ongoing over the last four weeks.
The Prosecutor General of Khuzestan had promised to retract the arrest warrant for Esmail Bakhshi and release him, but not only have the labor activists and another civil rights activist, Sepideh Ghalian, not been released, the families of Bakhshi, Nejati and Ghalian, who visited the three in prison, have reported that they had been beaten up while in detention. The families say they are worried for their well-being.
Following the appointment of Kiumars Kazemi as the new director general of Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Agro-Industry Company, a Haft-Tappeh Sugarcane Workers Syndicate member appealed to his colleagues, warning them not to be complacent. “Brothers!” he wrote to them, “We all know that Kazemi is highly able and experienced, but the employer [Omid Assadbeygi, who co-owns the company along with Mehrdad Rostami Chegini] is a thief and a corrupt individual. Many believe that Kazemi should not be congratulated because he will be Assadbeygi's next victim. His speech yesterday shows that he has received a good amount of money. Harsh crackdown, expulsions and summons will start today to threaten and terrify workers from participating in a strike that they themselves say is peaceful. But they are just dreaming.”
He said that security and government officials were fearful of the strike resuming and are using threats and arrests to silence workers’ just demands. “Our strike has had many achievements, so let’s not reproach ourselves. The world knows that we were under pressure and the authorities were so terrified of our strike that… they tried to politicize it to terrorize the workers — but they did not get anywhere."
Independent Labor Unions Are Not Welcome
“Authorities believe that independent labor organizations and workers’ representative councils are very dangerous and must not exist,” the syndicate member continued in his appeal to fellow workers. “They only accept the Islamic Labor Council because this council does not represent the workers and is only a tool for suppressing them.”
In an interview with the website Emtedad, Farzaneh Zilabi, the attorney for Haft-Tappeh sugar workers, said that she had not been allowed to meet with one of her clients, Esmail Bakhshi. “He was arrested on November 18,” she said. “After many requests by me and his family to meet him, at last, on December 2, his spouse and his mother were allowed to visit him, but he is still not allowed to meet with his lawyer. Considering the special situation this arrested worker is in and the fact that I have had no access to him, I will refrain from making a [formal legal] comment but, according to my client’s mother, Mr. Bakhshi’s family are extremely worried about his physical and mental well-being.”
“On December 4, we took necessary actions to request that his case be sent to the Medical Examiner and now we are waiting for the decision of the assistant prosecutor,” Zilabi said, adding that her client required a professional assessment of his mental and physical condition. “But if it takes too long for the order to be issued and the evidence is not preserved, we cannot take advantage of the law. Undoubtedly, keeping the defendant in solitary confinement and depriving him of meeting his family — his mother, his wife and his child — are illegal and it fits the legal definition of torture…Ali Nejati suffers from a severe heart disorder and the conditions at the detention center are difficult and dangerous for him.”
The Usual Charge of “Acting Against National Security”
According to Zinabi, the prosecution team in the city of Shush, where her client and others are being held, has not issued an indictment against the detained workers and labor representatives and their cases are still at the investigative phase.
Despite an indictment not being issued, prosecution officials have provided information regarding charges against the accused. According to the assistant prosecutor, the arrested civil rights activists Sepideh Ghaliani has been charged with committing a security offence. The arrested workers are charged with “with disturbing public order,” but Branch 12 of Ahvaz Prosecution has opened a separate case against Esmail Bakhshi, charging him with “participating in the creation of a group aimed at undermining security.” In a meeting with the workers' lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi, the assistant prosecutor also implicitly confirmed that the detainees had been charged with “gathering and conspiracy against national security.”
On Saturday, December 8, the lawyer Jamaluddin Heydari-Manesh announced that he would be defending Ghaliani.
In addition, during the second wave of protests, on Tuesday, December 4, labor activist Asal Mohammadi, a member of the editorial board of the pro-labor publication Gam and a student at Tehran Azad University, was arrested at her home. After inquiries, her family discovered that security forces had transferred her to the detention center in the city Shush for further investigation. In recent weeks Mohammadi had written and published articles in support of Haft-Tappeh workers and the striking steelworkers from the Iran National Steel Industrial Group.
In recent days security forces have put the editorial board of Gam and its editor-in-chief Amir Hossein Mohammadi under pressure. At the same time that Asal Mohammadi was arrested, security forces tried to arrest Amir Amir-Gholi, another member of the magazine’s editorial board, but they failed to find him.
Solidarity Gathering in Tehran
On December 11, Iranian Free Workers Union staged a rally by a group of workers in Tehran outside the parliament, urging it to take immediate action to address the demands of the Iran National Steel Industrial Group workers, and to release Esmail Bakhshi, Ali Nejati and Sepideh Ghalian.
Initially, a senior police officer tried to stop the workers from moving toward the parliament building. Protesters carried banners in support of the steelworkers and held up large photographs of Esmail Bakhshi, Ali Nejati and Sepideh Ghaliani. They chanted: “Death to the oppressor, say all workers,” “We are all under the poverty line and we must fight” and “We are all Haft-Tappeh and steelworkers and stand with each other,” moving toward the parliament building as they did. When the workers reached their destination, the police closed off the area and deployed a large number of policemen to surround the gathering.
During the rally, Parvin Mohammadi and Shapur Ehsani-Rad, members of the board of directors for the Iranian Free Workers Union, demanded immediate action in support of the striking workers and the release of the detainees. At the end of the rally, the workers issued a letter to the parliament, reiterating these demands and accusing the government of “systematic indifference toward nationwide workers’ protests.” The letter also stated that if their demands are not met, they would gather and protest again outside the parliament.
Crackdown on University Students for Supporting Striking Workers, December 10, 2018
Sugar Refinery Workers Face New Round of Harassment, December 5, 2018
Pro-Labor Student Protest Ends in Violence, December 5, 2018
Striking Steel Workers Tell Rouhani: "We Have Had it!", December 3, 2018
Arrest and Torture of Protesting Workers, November 29, 2018
The Rise and Fall of Haft-Tappeh Sugar Factory, November 22, 2018
Living on the Margins in Iran: The Rise and Fall of Khuzestan, November 2, 2018
The Plight of Iran’s Unpaid Workers, April 10, 2018