EXCLUSIVE - More than two weeks after widespread protests began in Iran’s oil-rich southwestern Khuzestan province, the exact number of people detained during the unrest is still unknown.
While no official figures on the number of people detained have been released, at least dozens have been arrested and their whereabouts is unknown. One unverified estimate puts the number as high as 400.
In exclusive interviews with Radio Farda, several relatives of the detainees said judiciary officials have not responded to their inquiries about where their loved ones are being held and what charges they face.
Khuzestan resident Ramazan Nasseri told Radio Farda that six members of his family were detained during the protest rallies.
“My cousins, Aziz, Assad, Sa’eid, Mohammad, Nasser, and Farez Nasseri, along with twenty people living in our neighborhood, are among those who were detained, but nobody knows what they are being charged with or where they are being kept.”
Members of Iran’s Arab minority, who reside in high numbers in Khuzestan, were outraged after a show aired on state-run TV depicting a child fixing dolls dressed in different traditional garments onto a map of Iran without a doll representing traditional Iranian Arab dress.
According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), the protestors initially demanded state-run TV apologize for disregarding Arabs as an ethnic minority. The demand fell on deaf ears, however, and soon protesters took to the streets calling for minority rights, including the right for their children to be taught in the Arabic language. The momentum grew into wider protests against unemployment and poor water management.
According to Nasseri, most of the detainees were arrested by police forces, but were later delivered to the intelligence unit of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
“A day after the demonstrations broke out, two of my family members and friends, Khalid Mahawi and Mahmoud Bait Sayyah, were detained and taken to an unknown place,” Walid Mahawi told Radio Farda, adding, “Their families have visited the prisons and detention centers in Shayban and Sepidar to track them down, but with no success. Khadija and Aysha Neissi are two more of the detainees whose whereabouts are unknown.”
All of these protesters were arrested in the Central Market by the agents of President Rouhani’s Ministry of Intelligence, claimed Mahawi.
The images published on social media show protesters, many dressed in traditional Arab garments, carrying banners in Arabic, English, and Persian, chanting in Arabic and dancing.
London-based Iranian Arab rights activists Karim Dahimi told Radio Farda that 400 hundred Arab residents of Khuzestan have been arrested during and after the protests. However, Radio Farda cannot independently verify that figure.
“Sadly, from the time the protests flared up, the number of detainees has significantly increased,” Dahimi said. “Most of the detainees are kept in an unpleasant condition in the city of Ahvaz in the Central Prison, while their families are unaware of their charges.”
According to Dahimi, only the detainees in Sepidar and Shayban prisons have been able to contact their families.
Meanwhile, Radio Farda has also received reports of recent detentions of writers and human rights activists across the Khuzestan province.
Khuzestan’s representative to the influential Assembly of Experts, mid-ranking cleric Abbas Ka’bi Nasab, had called upon state-run TV to formally apologize for ignoring Iranian-Arabs’ sensitivities. State-run TV, which performs directly under the supervision of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, has not responded to the request so far.
However, the show’s producer, Mohammad Zarean, said in an online interview March 28 that the absence of an Arab doll was unintentional.