The Tabriz Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced five South Azerbaijani activists — Latif Hassani (43), Mahmoud Fazli (45), Shahram Radmehr (38), Ayat Mehr Ali Bayglu (35) and Behboud Gholi Zade (48) — to nine years in prison in May on the charge of forming an illegal group, the New Southern Azerbaijan National Awakening Movement Party (Yeni GAMOH), and distributing anti-government propaganda.
The political activists have been on a hunger strike in the central prison in Tabriz since July 13 in protest of the sentence handed down against them. Relatives of the victims have confirmed that some of the activists have already been hospitalized because of the strike. According to the latest update from the prisoners’ families on Sunday, visitations have been banned and the prisoners were transported on the eighth day of their hunger strike to a prison in Tehran without informing their families.
The imprisoned activists confirm that they will continue to strike until their prison sentence is canceled, which they say the court decided under the pressure of the Iranian intelligence community.
“Because of the Iranian media boycott on publishing news on Azeri nationalists, this [hunger strike] is an opportunity for us to make our voices heard internationally. This is just a stage in our struggle,” stated Duman Radmehr, brother of prisoner Shahram Radmehr.
Tabriz intelligence and the Tabriz prosecutor’s office had demanded the most severe punishment for the prisoners, and it was given by the court. The prisoners were detained during a series of arrests that began in December last year in Iran, and they were sent to the central prison in Tabriz.
Yeni GAMOH is an offshoot of GAMOH, an old party in Iran whose members are currently in exile, as their party is illegal in the country. The five imprisoned activists were on the administrative board of the new party, under the chairmanship of Hassani.
Amnesty International issued a report on June 12 expressing worry for the situation of imprisoned activists in Iran, including those five from Yeni GAMOH.
Families of the prisoners have confirmed that the five activists were in solitary confinement and that they were tortured physically and mentally by Iranian intelligence officers before being sent to prison in March. Included in the unlawful treatment of the detainees were long periods of interrogation, severe beatings and days of solitary confinement. They were only permitted to get a lawyer almost five months after their detention and just one week before the court hearing, the families also said.
All of Iran’s Azeri political groups had to organize outside the country because the Azerbaijani population is not a “recognized minority” in the country. Article 26 of the Iranian constitution only allows “[the] formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities.”
Karim Asghari, an active South Azerbaijani activist, told Today’s Zaman: “Iran could not accept that GAMOH, which it accused of having foreign/external origins, was found to be operating inside the country. [Yeni GAMOH] has declared that it wants transparent politics, which has been lacking in Iran for many years.”
‘New presidency won’t decrease pressure on South Azerbaijanis
South Azerbaijanis think that the changing presidency in Iran due to the June elections will not improve their situation, although the president-elect, Hasan Rohani, is a moderate conservative supported by Iranian democrats. His election has been read as a signal of a more moderate Iranian policy, both vis-à-vis domestic actors and foreign relations.
South Azerbaijanis are not so optimistic about Rohani abiding by his promise to them before the elections on allowing education in their mother tongue. “After the elections, he [Rohani] has returned to the state’s old discourse, saying ‘all of us are Persians, so no need for any other language,’” Asghari stated.
Shahin Helali Khyavi, a friend of the prisoners who is based outside Iran, however, estimated that such a harsh punishment would not have been made if the arrests and trials had not occurred during the last period of the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, indicating his hope for Rohani.
Iranian-Azeri people living in northern Iran define themselves as southern Azerbaijani Turks and are struggling with the Iranian regime as they have been denied their ethnic rights granted in Articles 15 and 19 of the Iranian constitution, which provides for the equal treatment of all ethnic groups and freedom to use their mother tongue in media and education. However, these Azeri Turks in Iran have been arbitrarily deprived of such rights, while other ethnic groups, such as Armenians, enjoy their freedoms. Iran has an Armenian population of 200,000, while the number of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran amounts to 35 million.