Unconfirmed: 20 dead, hundreds hurt after protest in Iranian city of Ahwaz

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Sunday, April 17, 2005

Ahwaz location in Iran.
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Over 20 Ahwazi Arab protesters in are dead, 500 injured and 250 arrested, in the wake of protests in the border province of Khuzestan in Iran this weekend, says the British Ahwazi Friendship Society (BAFS). The protest erupted after publication of an alleged 1999 letter containing plans for a programme of ethnic "restructuring", purported to be a leak from the office of Iranian President Khatami.

Other reports indicate some dead, but serious discrepancies exist in reports available at time of writing.

A recent Iranian state press agency report on the protest [1] confirms only that three people were injured, and describes state officials "scrambling" to denounce the letter as forged. "Several state buildings, including banks and police cars were damaged," according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) report.

Various other reports as assembled by Gulf Times Newspaper: [2]:

  • local police gave figures as 137 arrested and eight injured
  • Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA) reported one shot, but not by police
  • Al Jazeera said three Arabs were killed, with many injured and up to 250 arrested, with banks and police stations set ablaze.

The alleged letter is republished with an English translation [3] on the BAFS web site. Described is a programme of resettlement and "obliteration of proof of the existence of an Arabic population", which was to include "changing of remaining (Arabic) names of cities, villages, regions and streets to Farsi (Persian language) names" — the operations to be carried out secretly, and by Arabic-speaking agents.

Gulf Times characterises, the South-Western Iran province as "Arab majority, oil rich".

BAFS says in a Saturday press release [4] accompanying their copy of the letter, that State Security Forces (SSF) had arrived and begun shooting at unarmed demonstrators; power, telephone and water had been cut off from the city's Arab districts of Ahvaz; the SSF had besieged the districts, and prevented people from entering or leaving.

IRNA reports a local official at the Khuzestan governor's office, Qodratollah Dehqan, said the area was calm now and the police had the situation under control. Officials were investigating to see whether "the hands of foreign agents and enemies of the revolution are at work".

Also, that Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said the Intelligence Ministry and the Supreme National Security Council had been ordered by President Khatami to identify who was behind the unrest.

Allegedly signed by former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the BAFS version of the letter stipulates a time-frame of 10 years to accomplish the ethnic restructuring programme, resulting in diluting of the Ahwazi Arab population to one third of the province's total population. Other ethnic groups were to be resettled to the province in order to accomplish this, particularly Azeri (Turks).

Abtahi is quoted by both IRNA and BAFS, from a website attributed to him: "I have never had the prerogative to order a change of demographic composition."

BAFS says in its press release that even so, a former member of Khatami's staff now living in exile had verified the authenticity of a copy the group received three weeks ago.

Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said in the IRNA news article, "Following special investigations which were carried out by the presidential office, it became clear that there exists no letter with such a content.

"Furthermore, the content of the letter indicates that it does not comply with any political principles of the Islamic Republic and it is merely aimed at inciting Iranian ethnic groups."

Governor of Khuzestan province, Fathollah Moin, was reported in IRNA: "The aim of the distributors of this forged letter is to disrupt existing solidarity among the people of the province through creating disunity and division and instigating public opinion."

Gulf Times also reports Al Jazeera as saying the London-based Popular Democratic Front of Ahvazi Arabs in Iran had called for peaceful demonstrations in the area "to mark 80 years of Iranian occupation".