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Workers Prosecuted In Iran For Continuing Protests

Sugarcane mill workers at Haft Tapeh were on strike for weeks in October-December 2018. File

Fourteen workers of the Haft Tapeh Sugarcane Industrial complex in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, southwest Iran, stood trial on Wednesday, August 14, reports say.

The workers are prosecuted for attending a one-hour protest gathering on May 9, to demand their rights, the independent labor union of the complex says.

At the court, the fourteen responded to their charges by demanding their two-months overdue wages, a solution to the problems related to labor contracts, and the implementation of a plan for jobs classification.

Earlier, seven more of the complex's workers were tried and sentenced. According to the Haft Tapeh workers independent social media channel, the judge sentenced each of the accused to eight months suspended prison sentence, and thirty lashes.

According to the same independent channel, the judge has called the accused to apologize to the private owner of the restless industrial complex.

However, the Islamic judicial authorities had earlier made contradictory remarks on the fate of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Plant private owner. While some insisted that he had been detained, the others maintained that he had fled the country.

Furthermore, judicial authorities have not yet commented on the outcome of the recent trials in Shush, where the complex is located.

The Haft Tappeh complex is the only factory of its kind in Iran. It was built more than 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 buyers 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.

Many privatization deals in the Islamic republic are murky affairs, when insiders acquire state-owned businesses very cheap and usually either borrow large sums of money from government banks and pocket the money, or stop paying tax and other bills and drive the business to the ground. As a result, it is the workers who don’t get paid or lose their jobs.

Two of the workers, who stood trial on Wednesday, were members of the Islamic Labor Council of the industrial complex, the state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported. The two were tried even though the government supports the Islamic Labor Councils across Iran.

In the meantime, reports say that a member of the same council, Farhad Sheikhi, has also been sentenced to four months, and five lashes. The security forces detained Sheikhi while he was attending a demonstration celebrating the International Labor Day, last May.

Since Sheikhi is quite young and has no criminal record, the report says, his sentence will be suspended for two years.

Scores of Haft Tapeh workers and their supporters, including labor rights activists and journalists are presently either behind bars or waiting to stand trial.