Dozens of Azerbaijani political, civil, and student activists have been detained in several cities in Iran following border clashes between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia on July 16. According to their families, many of them have been held illegally and been denied access to lawyers. Several of those detained told IranWire that tensions between Azerbaijani activists and the authorities have intensified in recent weeks, and as many as 52 people were arrested in July. Many of these activists protested against and reported on their rights being violated in Iran.
Calls to support Azerbaijan were shared on social media following the country's recent hostilities with Armenia, and rallies took place in Tehran, Tabriz, Urmia, Zanjan, Ardabil, Naqadeh, Miyaneh, and Maraqeh. Security police carried out arrests and many people remain in detention.
According to reports received by IranWire, the detainees include: Hakimeh Ahmadi, Yasmin Zafari, Rahim Sasani, Sadollah Sasani, Maghsoud Fazli Chiman Zamin, Rasoul Razavi, all in Tabriz; Shiva Mojarad, Farid Khorshidi, Salar Taher Afshar, Saeed Behnamoun, and Sahand Behnamoun in Urmia, and Hamid Jabbari, Hossein Shahidi, Hadi Alishi and Yaghoub Majidi in Tehran. The identities of several people arrested in other cities are still unknown.
Clashes on the border between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan resulted in the deaths of several soldiers from both countries, and many others were left wounded. The border dispute between the two former Soviet republics focuses on the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and has been ongoing for many years. The recent clashes took place in the Tavush region, 300 km from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey openly supports the Republic of Azerbaijan in the conflict, but Turkish-Iranian activists say Iranian government has tended, like Russia, to support Armenia.
IranWire asked legal adviser and expert Mohammad Olyaeifard about ethnic Azerbaijanis’ right to protest in Iran. Referring to Article 27 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Olyaeifard, said: “People have the right to take part in gatherings and rallies as long as they are not armed and as long as the public protest does not violate or undermine the principles of Islam. These rallies can be in support of a particular country, or in support of the environment, animal rights, or in support of a social group or class.”
He said that it was less clear when it came to a public response to events outside Iran. "The law on holding rallies related to international events is not defined in Iranian law," he said, suggesting that the Iranian regime is at times tolerant of public rallies in support of or against action taken by another country, but its response has been inconsistent, and it tends to react on a situation-by-situation basis. "The government and security forces ... may react positively to rallies at one time, depending on their policies toward a country or a particular issue, and react strongly or negatively in another time. It is a matter of expediency.”
Hamid Jabbari is one of the ethnic Azerbaijani civil activists arrested outside the Armenian Embassy in Tehran on Thursday, July 16, 2020. He was eventually released from Evin Prison on bail until the culmination of his trial.
IranWire spoke with Jabbari's brother about recent events. "My brother was in detention for 11 days on charges of 'disrupting public order,' and during this time he was only able to speak with his family for a few seconds on the telephone. The call was cut off by an aggressive officer who shouted at him, 'Speak in Persian!’ On the fifth day of his detention, the judge, who responded angrily to how Hamid responded, said, 'He will stay here.' On the second day of his detention, Hamid was separated from other arrested activists and, according to them, was transferred to another part of Evin Prison, Ward 209, 'for investigation.' From the second day of Hamid's arrest, the lawyer we hired for my brother was unable to talk to my brother until the day of the trial."
IranWire understands that Hossein Shahidi, Hadi Alishi, and Yaghoub Majidi, who were also detained during the July 16 rally outside the Armenian Embassy in Tehran, were temporarily released on July 29 after posting bail.
Local news sources in Tabriz in the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan report that civil activists Yasmin Zafari, Rahim Sasani, and Sadollah Sasani, who were also arrested on July 16 outside the Consulate of the Republic of Azerbaijan in the city, were also temporally released on July 29 after posting a bail amount of 100 million tomans [US$5,000] as their trial came to a close.
In the preliminary stage of the trial, the activists were charged with "conspiracy against national security" and "disturbing the public order."
The relatives of civil activist Maqsood Fazli Chiman were informed he had been arrested after he had been detained for three days. He was temporally released from Tabriz Central Prison two weeks after his arrest, on Thursday, 30 July, and instructed to pay a bail of 100 million tomans. He was charged in with "conspiracy against national security" and "disturbing the public order." According to her relatives, Hakimeh Ahmadi remains in the city’s central prison.
Rasoul Razavi, a civil activist and former political prisoner who had previously been summoned to the Intelligence Department in Tabriz, was arrested and released on the evening of July 16.
Torture in Urmia
Shiva Mojarad, Salar Taher Afshar, and Farid Khorshidi, three Azerbaijani activists living in Urmia, were held in Urmia Central Prison, and were released on bail. Shiva Mojarad, who settled a bail amount of 200 million tomans [$10,000] during the initial hearing, was temporarily released from on July 23 after the bail was reduced to 50 million tomans. The civil activist was charged with "propaganda against the regime." Salar Taher Afshar and Farid Khorshidi had to pay 50 million tomans for their temporary release.
Some of the detained activists reported that they were tortured by the Urmia Security and Intelligence Police (Noh-Peleh). Another detainee confirmed the violence. "The officers treated some detainees very harshly and even beat two people who had been detained along with one of the arrested women. During the court hearing, the judge was angry that our names were mentioned in the news."
According to local sources, two Azerbaijani activists, Sahand Behnamoun and Saeed Behnamoun, were arrested on July 16 at the Urmia crossroads and released the next day. Their names were not mentioned in reports of the arrests, and some activists insisted that Iranian authorities had prevented the publication of their names. "The number of detainees was much higher than what was reported in the news,” an activist who had been detained told IranWire.
Shielding the Public from the Truth
According to research carried out by IranWire, in July 2020 alone, 52 Azerbaijani-Turkish citizens were arrested or sentenced in several cities in Iran, some of whom were released on bail. Security agencies pressured and threatened the families of these political and civil activists, as well as preventing some of their names from being released to the public, and the identities of some detainees are still unknown. Sources told IranWire that 40 Turkish citizens were also detained for participating in rallies in support of the Republic of Azerbaijan; the names of 16 of them have been published.
Among those detained in the last month is Shahin Barzegar, an Azerbaijani student activist who was sentenced to a year in prison by the First Branch of the Revolutionary Court of Tabriz on July 11 for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic." Barzegar demanded the release of ethnic prisoners and published photographs of them. He was also arrested in 2019 at his father's house on charges of participating in the November 2019 protest rallies. After three months of detention and imprisonment, he was temporarily released on a bail amount of 600 million tomans [$30,000] until the culmination of his trial.
Ayub Shiri, another Tabriz citizen who was arrested after the November 2019 protests, has also been sentenced to two years in prison by the First Branch of the Revolutionary Court.
On July 19, Babak Hosseini Moghaddam, a civil activist from Tabriz, was sentenced to six months in prison.
On July 22, Roozbeh Piri, a translator and student activist living in Tabriz, was arrested by security forces at his father's house. Roozbeh Piri is the editor of Tabriz magazine and the founder of the independent student organization Navid Etedal at Tabriz Azad University, which was established in 2010. He had been released from Tabriz Prison in early July after serving a three-month sentence for participating in the November 2019 protests. After only two weeks out of jail, he was re-arrested.
His was the fourth verdict issued for Azerbaijani activists in July 2020 in connection with the November 2019 protests.
Another recent detainee was Yavar Soltani, who works for Maku Times, reporting on urban and social issues, and runs its Instagram account. Revolutionary Guards Intelligence agents arrested him on July 13, 2020 in Maku.
Also in recent months, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Abbas Lisani, a political prisoner and Turkish rights activist convicted on security charges whose sentence was increased from eight to 15 years in the Ardebil Court of Appeals.
Following the wave of arrests of Azerbaijani activists, Alireza Farshi, Behnam Sheikhi, and Hamid Manafi Nadarli were arrested in Tehran on July 21, 2020, who had all been involved in the commemoration of the International Mother Language Day in 2013. Branch 54 of the Tehran Court of Appeals sentenced Hamid Monafi Nadarli, along with Akbar Azad, Alireza Farshi, and Behnam Sheikhi were arrested and temporarily released on bail for participating in a ceremony to mark the day. They were later sentenced to two years in prison and two years in exile.
The right to education in one's mother tongue has been emphasized in many human rights instruments and treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic, National, Linguistic, and Religious Minorities, Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights.
Article 15 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic also emphasizes the right to education in one's mother tongue, along with the Persian language, in schools. And yet ethnic and linguistic minorities in Iran aren not entitled to this right. Instead, when they call for these constitutional roles to be upheld, they are are arrested and imprisoned.