CHRI – Siamak Mirzaei, an Azeri ethnic rights activist, started a hunger strike on June 25, 2017 in Tehran’s Evin Prison to convince judicial authorities to end his yearlong legal limbo, a source close to the family told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“A year ago, a preliminary court sentenced Siamak to 10 years in prison and two years in exile for his peaceful activities,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “Even though he posted bail, which was set at one billion tomans ($308,185 USD), he has been kept in prison illegally.”
“During all this time, Branch 36 of the Appeals Court has still not deliberated on his case because the authorities claim the lower court has not forwarded the evidence and defense testimony transcripts,” added the source.
Mirzaei, a 32-year-old ethnic rights activist from Ardabil, northwest of Tehran, was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents in Parsabad Moghan, near the border with the Republic of Azerbaijan on December 14, 2016.
“Siamak is an active campaigner for the rights of Iran’s Azeri Turks, especially the right to teach the Azeri language and ending ethnic discrimination,” the source told CHRI.
“None of his activities were illegal or hidden,” continued the source. “The Intelligence Ministry decided he acted against national security when he took part in a gathering to mark International Mother Language Day (February 21, 2016) and protested against discrimination.”
Between 16 to 25 percent of the Iranian population is made up of Turkish-speaking Azeris living mostly in Iran’s East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan Provinces.
The source added: “In his preliminary trial at the Baharestan Revolutionary Court in January 2017, he was first accused of ‘propaganda against the state,’ but later he was also charged with ‘forming an illegal group,’ but nowhere is there any mention of the alleged group. Siamak objected and asked the court to reveal other members of the ‘group’ and state when or where it was formed, but no one has replied yet.”
An article on federalism published by Mirzaei in a local print publication in Ardabil and his peaceful protests against offensive portrayals of Azeris in programs produced by Iranian state television were cited in court as examples of his alleged “crimes.”
Prior to his most recent detention, Mirzaei was arrested on a number of occasions for engaging in peaceful activism and believes he was denied admission into a university master’s program despite passing national enrollment tests in 2000 because of his political beliefs.
Article 15 of Iran’s Constitution allows “the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for the teaching of their literature in schools” alongside the country’s official language, Persian.
During his first presidential campaign in 2013, President Hassan Rouhani promised to implement Article 15 and lift restrictions on teaching Kurdish, Azeri, Arabic and other ethnic languages in schools and universities in Iran.
However, although some ethnic language classes are currently being offered at some universities, a general ban on teaching ethnic languages at the elementary and high schools levels has been in place in Iran since modern schools were established in the 1920s.
In a report to the United Nations’ General Assembly in September 2016, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Iran Ahmad Shaheed expressed concern that ethnic minorities in the country “do not fully enjoy their right to take part in cultural life, including as a consequence of closures of publications and newspapers in minority languages.”
Continued the report: “Despite some important recent steps in this regard, particularly in Kurdish-majority areas of the country, the Special Rapporteur continues to receive reports that the right to teach and publish in local languages remains either curbed or restricted.”
On February 21, 2017, International Mother Language Day, activists Alireza Farshi, Akbar Azad, Behnam Sheikhi and Hamid Manafi were issued long prison sentences for peacefully defending Azeri rights.
Farshi was issued a 15-year prison sentence and two years in exile. His three codefendants were each sentenced to 10 years in prison and two years in exile.