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Relatives Of Protesting, Jailed Workers Harassed In Iran

File photo - Haft-Tappeh sugar cane factory workers protesting in Western Iran in November 2018.

Workers at the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane plant say the judicial authorities in Tehran are incessantly harassing their imprisoned co-workers and their relatives.

Speaking to Radio Farda, a Haft Tappeh worker disclosed that following the referral of legal cases against his peers to the capital city, and placing detained workers behind bars in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, it has become increasingly difficult for family members to visit them from from the oil-rich Khuzestan Province, southwest Iran.

Thousands of Haft Tappeh workers held massive protests last November, demanding long overdue wages and the return of the agro-industrial complex’s ownership to the public sector.

Enraged workers, who had been on intermittent strikes since November 4, 2018, occupied the Friday Prayer site in the city on November 16, chanting slogans against the mismanagement at the complex.

Footage circulated on social media showed angry workers chanting, "A huge army is here, for the love of labor," in reference to the large presence of security forces at the protest.

The Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane Mill is the only factory of its kind in Iran. It was built nearly half a century ago during the reign of the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The agro-industrial complex was lucrative until the Islamic Republic decided to sell it to the private sector in a murky transaction in 2015.

The complex, built on 2 hectares, was sold to the private sector for a down payment of roughly $2 million. It is not clear if any other payments have ever been made.

It wasn't long before the privatized company had accrued large debts (over $90 million in 2017), mostly owed to public utilities and tax authorities. To address the problem, the owners of the complex decided to withhold salaries, wages, and pensions. This decision triggered strikes, making sugar production increasingly unreliable, to the extent that the Iranian government poured imported sugar into local markets.

The workers believe that since the bulk of the complex's debt is tax-related and owed to state-owned institutions, they can easily be written off.

Meanwhile, the private owners of the complex complained that the government has stopped buying the mill's products, forcing it into a more profound crisis.

The protests have not only fallen on deaf ears so far but have led to the arrest of scores of workers and supporters.

Recently, a judge based at Evin prison, Amin Nasseri, set bails for the release of the detainees that have been described by the Haft Tappeh workers’ independent Telegram channel as "astronomical” sums. Nasseri even reportedly banned the detainees' relatives from visiting.

"Despite four and a half months of detention, our representative's (Esmaeil Bakhshi) situation behind bars is still undecided," another Haft Tapeh worker told Radio Farda.

Meanwhile, Qolyan, who had supported the protesting Haft Tappeh workers last November, was recently transferred to Qarchak Varamin Prison, west of the capital city, Tehran.

Bakhshi and Qolyan were detained at a protest rally in Shush last November and released a few weeks later. Immediately after their release, they disclosed that they were tortured and brutally battered while in custody.

Judicial authorities refute the activists' claims. Bakhshi and Qolyan continued to insist on their allegations, demanding a live TV debate on the case with the intelligence minister, mid-ranking cleric Mahmud Alavi.

However, the minister disregarded the challenge and dismissed Bakhshi and Qolyan's allegations in a closed meeting with Iranian legislators. They were both swiftly re-arrested in January.

Sources at the Haft Tappeh Sugar Cane agro-industrial complex have told Radio Farda that more of their peers are being summoned to court and detained.

"Omid Azadi, Rostam Kathir, Kiani Nejad, Nasser Na'ami, Adel Sama'ei, and Saheb Zahiri are among those recently detained and later released," one of the Haft Tappeh workers told Radio Farda.

Insisting that the workers' primary demand is the return of the complex to the public sector, Radio Farda's local source lambasted President Hassan Rouhani's administration for ignoring the "rightful demands" of the workers.

"The government, as well as the whole establishment, supports thieves and embezzlers, as we chanted in our rallies. The thieves are free while the workers are in prison," one of the Haft Tappeh workers asserted in an interview with Radio Farda.