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AN AZERBAIJANI STORY PART I: THE ARRESTS

Caroline Risacher

 

Caroline Risacher graduated from the University of Strasbourg in France with a Masters in International Relations and European Affairs and a Masters in Human Rights Law with a specialization in Minority Rights.

She is especially interested in indigenous and minority rights. After working for a year as an International Coordinator at the University of Strasbourg, she is now spending six weeks in La Paz, Bolivia volunteering for the Bolivian Express, a British magazine where she will be researching and investigating different topics with an emphasis on indigenous people.

She is also involved with the the organization One More Option, a NGO based in France and Ecuador who helps disadvantaged children and that she helps whenever she can. She also previously interned at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University where she conducted research on ethical and gender issues as well as minority rights.

Caroline will be working with Faktheh Luna Zamani for the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political prisoners in Iran (ADAPP). ADAPP focuses on the human rights situation facing Iran’s minorities, and in particular, the Azerbaijani Turkic community. ADAPP seeks to promote and increase awareness in Iran and globally concerning the human rights situation of the community of Azerbaijani Turkic speakers and other minorities in Iran by carrying out targeted initiatives concerning human rights violations against these communities.

*****

Most of the Azerbaijanis I have met here are political refugees; they came here because their life would be in danger if they had stayed in Iran. The precarious situation of Said Matinpour is a constant reminder of this fact. They were fighting for their rights to language, for freedom of expression, and against racism. The decision to flee your own country, leaving your family, your neighbors, and your friends behind is a hard choice but a necessary one if your life is threatened, and I can only guess that it is probably harder than deciding to risk your life protesting against your own government. Here is the story of one of them:

Yashar H. was born in 1983 in Maragheh, in the South Azerbaijan province of Iran. His family was part of the middle class, not especially religious; his parents participated in the Iranian revolution. Yashar’s father owned a bike shop. At 13, at the first day of the school year, the professor made the call for the students, when he read the name “Yashar”, he turned to the students and commented: “parents should choose good names for their children. There are many names to choose from, why choose a Turkish name? You must be embarrassed, this name is not familiar to other Iranians”. “Yashar” is indeed a Turkish first name, and more particularly, a famous character of revolutionary stories. Yashar was proud of his name and said so. The discussion ended.

Students were expected to speak and ask their questions in Persian even if some of them were unfamiliar with that language. They had to learn it one way or another. Those who wouldn’t or who had too many difficulties simply ended expelled of school and denied education. Yashar didn’t understand yet what racism was or entailed, but something obviously wasn’t right.

When Yashar started university, he knew he wanted to change things, do something. He joined other students who also wanted to bring freedom and democracy to the country but things were not what he expected. These students, future human rights activists, would make racist jokes against him and the other ethnicities – especially Arabs and Turks, and make fun of his Turkish accent when speaking Farsi. He soon realized that the biggest problem of Iran wasn’t the government, but racism.

Maragheh University was the only university in Iran with a Turkish student union that was allowed by the government so Yashar went to them and started to work. He had a newspaper on cultural events, attended and commented in meetings, raised the issue of the Azerbaijani minority. He organized an event to talk about the issue of ethnicities in Iran. The Iran National Party, a Kurdish professor, engineers and other academics gathered in a panel about ethnic issues at the university. Students came and asked their questions. Everybody participated; the amphitheatre was packed (more than 400 people).  This was highly encouraging so Yashar continued his activities trying to bring more light to this cause.

On December 12th 2005, an event for the Azerbaijani community was held with different ethnic symbols being represented. The Iranian intelligence service called Yashar’s father and asked him to come to the intelligence office at the university. They wanted him to bring his son. Yashar told his father he didn’t want to go but the intelligence service reassured him that they only wanted to question his son and not arrest him. Eventually, Yashar went and they asked him about his activities but they also threatened him that they will arrest him if he doesn’t stop and accused him of being a spy for foreign governments.

Yashar didn’t stop his activities. He went on publishing a piece about the environmental disaster that was happening in his area because of a factory pouring its polluted water into the river. He also wrote about the historical sites that were destroyed by the government.

They arrested Yashar in front of his father’s shop in January 2006.  For two days, they didn’t tell him anything about his situation or showed him any court paper explaining that he had been arrested. As far as Yashar knew, they might have kidnapped him to kill him: “Who are these guys?” Eventually, an Intelligence officer came and accused him of being a spy from England, United States and Israel. They asked the truth from Yashar but the only “truth” they could hear was that he was a spy. They put him in solitary confinement; the cell was about one square meter with only a thin blanket. Nothing else. The constant light prevented him to get sleep. They asked the same questions, accusations thousands of times, repeating themselves relentlessly to put more pressure. They said they had proof that he was a spy, that they had documents. They had recording that supposedly had his voice. It wasn’t his voice.

They slapped Yashar. The hits were so brutal that he couldn’t hear sometimes. It could have been much worse though, but Yashar had friends out there, contacts, he knew the media and threatened to tell everyone what would happen to him. If they did bad things, everybody would know. If they did nice things, he would tell that too. Because of that, they were reasonably polite with Yashar. But they kept asking the same questions over and over again, pressuring him, exhausting him, interrogating him at night. They even accused him of using Internet to divulge secret information about Iran to the Pentagon.

The torture was also psychological, except from the constant flickering light, lack of fresh air and basic comfort, there was nothing in this cell. Nothing but a blanket and.

When Yashar was arrested – or one could argue: kidnapped – he stopped eating to protest against this unfair situation. He hadn’t done anything wrong and all his activities were legal since he had permission from the University. His hunger strike lasted 9 days, he couldn’t see clearly anymore and his health was deteriorating. That’s when they transferred him to Tabriz and changed their interrogation methods. He wasn’t called a spy anymore so he stopped his hunger strike. They asked him about his articles and Yashar recognized he had written and published them. They let him go for a bail of 80 000$. To pay for it, his father signed a document saying that their house would go to the government if Yashar didn’t stop his activities.

However, several months later, the racist cartoons were published in an Iranian newspaper. Yashar was back at Maragheh University to finish his degree but the insult was too much. Students were too angry and they started a petition and held manifestations twice. 4 000 students went to the first one, 5 000 to the second one. People were protesting, uprising against the situation. Of courses, arrests ensued. At 5 am, the Intelligence service came and arrested Yashar and 8 of his friends. They were sent to Tabriz and interrogated about the Tabriz protests which they had nothing to do with. When the Intelligence service realized that, they released and arrested them again as they were coming out of the prison. That arrest was for Maragheh’s manifestations.

They were put in prison with criminals, drug traffickers, and common thugs. Yashar tried to get in touch with a famous Iranian human rights lawyer but with no success. As an Azerbaijani, he was considered a separatist and not worth the time. Again, he was discriminated.

During his stay in jail, Yashar was interrogated, slapped, punched. He got his nose broken but his situation wasn’t nearly as bad as others. Because of his media connections, he was fairly safe, considering. Some of the others political prisoners were whipped with cables and weren’t able to walk, or even go to the bathroom anymore.

Yashar was in prison for 52 days. He had missed his final exams and he knew he wouldn’t be able to finish his studies. The bail was set at 30 000$ so Yashar’s parents sold the house and Yashar’s father signed a paper saying that he would go to jail if his son ever leaves the country. The judges gave Yashar a one-year parole sentence.

Next: Part II: Escaping Iran

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