When photographs of Shahab Mayel-Heravi’s burnt body were shared on Instagram, it sparked a fresh wave of protests over the plight of Afghan immigrants in Iran.
Mayel-Heravi set himself on fire in protest against the harsh treatment his father had received over 50 years of living in Iran, including having his residency rights being withheld. Soon after, Islamic Republic officials announced that they would grant his father, a prominent Afghan cultural figure, Iranian citizenship.
But Mayel-Heravi announced that his father will not accept the offer of citizenship until his full rights are granted, including financial compensation. The family refuses to allow their story to be used as propaganda, he said.
On May 16, 2020, Shahab Mayel-Heravi set fire to himself in front of the Iranian foreign ministry office in Mashhad. He spent a month at the city's Imam Reza Hospital. After his discharge on June 15, the news of his self-immolation and the reason for his protest was reported by Iranian and Afghan media and shared on social media. "In the name of the father: due to the problem of Master Mayel’s residency and the government's pressure on him, Shahab Mayel set fire to himself in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office in Mashhad,” Shahab Mayel-Heravi posted on Instagram.
His father Najib Mayel-Heravi was born in 1950 in Herat province in western Afghanistan and has been living in Iran for half a century. His wife is Iranian and his children were born in Iran. An author and academic, he has published 102 books in Iran. The Islamic Republic granted him a 10-year residence permit in 2019. According to his son the permit is useless because it does not allow his father to travel outside Iran, a situation the family found distressing, and one of the main reasons behind Shahab Mayel-Heravi’s decision to protest.
In an interview with IranWire, Shahab Mayel-Heravi explained that the family had objected to his father's inadequate residency permit, but never received a response — until he set himself on fire. ”This was because of the Islamic Republic's lies to my father. Of course, the action was not just for my father; I set myself on fire to support the suffering people of Afghanistan in Iran who do not have access to basic civil and human rights."
In addition to the announcement that Najib Mayel-Heravi had been granted citizenship, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said that it had awarded the author its highest medal for artistic achievement and, in coordination with the Minister of Roads and Urban Development and the approval of the cabinet, he would be presented with a residential unit in Mashhad.
But Shahab Mayel-Heravi told IranWire the family is not willing to accept Iranian citizenship: "We do not accept the citizenship of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran must be forced to pay compensation to Professor Najib Mayel-Heravi, whose rights had been trampled on for 50 years. We will then decide whether to accept Iranian citizenship or not.”
He reiterated that Iran had denied his father loyalties and copyright for his work, causing him extreme financial difficulty, a matter he had talked to Khorasan newspaper about on September 24, 2019.
He says Islamic Republic officials had told the family that if they wanted an identity card and travel rights for Najib Mayel-Heravi, they should keep quiet."We do not want Iran to use our citizenship for propaganda purposes. Afghan officials must also ensure that all Afghan girls and boys born in Iran are given official birth certificates.”
The result of Shahab Mayel-Heravi’s protest has been formidable, but it has cost him: he sustained burns on 58 percent of his body and he is currently on oxygen to assist his breathing. He told IranWire that immediately after his self-immolation, authorities blocked all media coverage of the incident and warned him not to talk publicly about the incident, or about his father's circumstances.
Iran’s systematic violation of the rights of Afghan immigrants, its failure to provide them with identity documents, as well as police and border agents’ violent treatment of immigrants, have been raised by Iranian and Afghan human rights organizations and activists for years. But for years, no effective action has been taken.
Afghanistan’s president announced on June 17 that further advances had been made regarding the issue of legal status for Afghan immigrants in Iran, and that an Afghan delegation would be traveling to Iran for further discussions soon.
"The Islamic Republic's treatment of Afghan artists and cultural figures is no different from that of Iranian immigrants and workers," Seyed Ashraf Sadat, a human rights activist in Afghanistan, told IranWire in an interview. “Mr Mayel-Heravi is a prominent cultural treasure in Iran and Afghanistan, and we expected him to have a good position in Iran. He was offered residency in the United States and Europe, but asked to stay in Iran and continuing working in the Persian language. Unfortunately, Iran has not taken a proper approach to literary treasures and cultural figures."
Sediq Mir, another Afghan cultural figure, told IranWire he had a similar view, and that the Iranian government had a pattern when it came to Afghans, including cultural figures, writers, and artists. “Unfortunately it does not treat them well. I wish our neighbor country Iran would respect Heravi's wishes," adding that it should acknowledge his artistic accomplishments too.
In 2018, Najib Mayel-Heravi was hospitalized."The professor is suffering from depression,” his son told the media “ It became acute when he went to the police two months ago to renew his passport. Iranian authorities unjustifiably refused to renew his passport and asked him to leave the country, [confirming it] with a stamp on his passport and a 15-day deadline."
However, after being discharged from the hospital, his stay was extended for another year. However, Shahab says: "Every year when he applies for his residency permit, he faces all sorts of disrespectful treatment from officials.”
After half a century of living in Iran, years of producing quality cultural work including over 100 books, and with an Iranian wife and children born in the country, the Islamic Republic still seems to think it was not enough. Now that more than half of his child's body has been damaged by self-immolation, the Islamic Republic officials have decided to grant him citizenship.
What happened to the family of Mayel-Heravi is just one example of the story of thousands of Afghan refugees in Iran. If Islamic Republic officials treat such a prominent, upstanding figure in this manner, it is easy to imagine how widespread the abuses of Afghans’ human rights are, and that thousands of hard-working Afghans in Iran face this treatment on a routine basis.