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Death Penalty Rejected For Iranian Mystic Leader - Retrial

Mohammad Ali Taheri, whose death sentence was rejected by Iran's supreme court.

A court in Iran will review the case of the founder of Erfan Halqe, Mohammad Ali Taheri, his lawyer announced on December 12.

Taheri is a spiritual healer and his Erfan Halqe means Circle of Mysticism. He characterizes his school of thought as Inter-universalism.

The review follows the Supreme Court’s rejection of the death sentence issued by a Revolutionary Court, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tababaei disclosed.

Supreme Court judges again rejected a sentence condemning Taheri to death, arguing the verdict issued had been based on faulty investigation, reported state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA).

This marks the second time the Supreme Court has rejected a Revolutionary Court’s death sentence for the mystic leader, citing faulty investigation.

Now, a court of equal rank, Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, has been assigned by the Supreme Court to retry Taheri.

Praising the Supreme Court’s judges as “sagacious,” Taheri’s lawyer said on October 29, “If a court issues an unjust verdict, the Supreme Court weighs the case more thoroughly.”

Taheri, the founder of Irfan-i Halqa, has been behind bars since 2001 and accused of “corruption on Earth.” He was sentenced to death in 2015.

However, three months later, the sentence was overturned by Supreme Court judges who argued that investigations into some of the charges, including insulting the prophet of Islam, apostasy, and collusion against national security, had been faulty.

Taheri was once again condemned to death last August, charged with “corruption on Earth,” a vague term that according to human rights activists is often used by conservative judges in Iranian courts to punish anyone who dares oppose the ruling system.

The United States reacted to reports of the death sentence by saying it was deeply concerned and called on the authorities to reverse the decision.

The U.S. State Department said on September 1 announced that the charges of founding a religious cult and “corruption on Earth” violate Tehran’s obligations to respect and ensure the freedoms of expression and religion or belief.

The statement added that the death penalty should be used only for the most serious of crimes.

“We call on the Iranian government to take whatever steps necessary to reverse Taheri’s conviction and death sentence,” it added.

Amnesty International has also insisted that Taheri is a prisoner of conscience and condemned Iran’s use of capital punishment “for vaguely worded or overly broad offenses, or acts that should not be criminalized at all.”

Tehran dismissed such criticism as part of an effort from the West to heap political pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Taheri calls his school of thought Interuniversalism in English, and was initially allowed to preach and teach in public. His classes and healing sessions were attended by people from all walks of life, including government officials and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ top commanders. Several of his books were published with permission from the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then stepped in, warning against what he called “false mysticism that might lure people away from Islam.”

Khamenei’s allies have labeled the Circle of Mysticism a “deviant sect” while saying Taheri had amassed an illicit fortune through his teachings.

Taheri and his followers have repeatedly dismissed these allegations as baseless.

Iran’s Water Crisis Passes Tipping Point

Iran -- Drought in Khuzestan province, Iran. Undated.

A top Iranian environment official has lambasted the country’s Sixth Development Plan as detrimental to soil and water resources.

“Such plans are forced on the government without taking soil and water capacities into account,” Issa Kalantari, head of the Iranian Environment Department, said on December 11.

At a ceremony celebrating World Soil Day, he said Iran’s limited water and soil resources were endangering its ability to feed the country’s population of more than 80 million.

“Since our level of consumption has been higher than our limited resources, we are going to face soil bankruptcy as we have already experienced in water-related fields,” he said.

Excessive erosion and degrading have seriously endangered Iran’s soil resources, experts maintain.

Describing the country’s laws, including the overarching Sixth Development Plan, as unrealistic in regard to the environment, Kalantari said, “We are using our resources in excess without thinking about how to sustain them.”

The top laws of the land have forced governments to excessively build dams and consume surface and underground water resources. Meanwhile, many parts of Iran have faced unprecedented periods of drought.

According to official statistics, 750,000 wells are operational in Iran, 330,000 of which are illegal.

“Stop repeating the shibboleth and saying our country is great,” Kalantari has said against those who promote population growth, noting, “Our resources are limited. If we are going to have a larger population, we should do it in tandem with our imports.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the main proponent of population growth. In 2014, he issued an edict obliging the heads of Iran’s ruling system to reduce the legal age for marriage and encourage families to have more children.

Kalantari had previously echoed other experts’ warnings, asserting, “Iran’s 8,000-year-old civilization will be destroyed if the level of our water consumption is not reduced.”

The former agriculture minister also cautioned that Iran’s soil resources have reached a tipping point requiring urgent measures.

“When the Iran-Iraq War started, no one considered the consequences of the armed conflict and its bombardments on the unemployment rate, because there was no time to do so. We were facing a much greater problem: the war itself,” Kalantari said in an interview with the government’s official news agency, IRNA. “Today, we’re in a similar situation. We must not consider the unemployment rate among farmers at this point in time, because we’re facing a much more critical problem.”

He further warned that if Iran does not change its approach to water use, the result would be mass migration.

“If water consumption for agriculture remains at this level, in less than 25 years Iran’s eastern and southern areas will be completely deserted, and 50 million people will have to emigrate,” he added.

Blaming the agricultural sector for excessively using Iran’s water resources, Kalantari said, “90 percent to 95 percent of water consumed in the agricultural sector must be reduced; otherwise, the problem will never be solved.”

'We Believed Our Cleric': Pakistani Polio Victim's Regretful Father Urges Others To Use Vaccine

A girl receives polio vaccine drops from a vaccination worker outside her family home in Quetta, Pakistan, in January.

ISLAMABAD -- Five-year-old Mohammad Ashar Aziz will never be able to walk without orthopedic leg braces.

The youngest of three brothers from a village near Islamabad, he is one of just 17 children in the world -- all of them in Pakistan or Afghanistan -- who developed paralysis during 2017 from a wild polio-virus infection.

His father, 41-year-old day laborer Hamid Aziz, is disconsolate because he repeatedly had the chance to immunize Mohammad Ashar for free during the past five years.

Instead, Hamid Aziz says he listened to the advice of a cleric in his village, who announced over loudspeakers of the madrasah, a local Islamic religious school, that the vaccine was “not good” for children’s health, and prevented it from being administered to any of his sons.

Whenever teams of government and international aid workers came to his village as part of a massive polio-eradication campaign, Aziz and his illiterate wife, Huma, hid Mohammad Ashar and his siblings and told the vaccination teams there were no children in their home.

“Why didn’t I give the vaccine to my son?” says Aziz, who quit school at the age of 14 and knew nothing about the polio vaccine.

“We believed what our cleric told us, but now I realize that we’ve not done the right thing for our son,” Aziz tells RFE/RL. “We realize how important it was and that we should have let him get the vaccine.”

Perceptions And Misinformation

Public health studies in Pakistan have shown that maternal illiteracy and low parental knowledge about vaccines -- together with poverty and rural residency -- are factors that most commonly influence whether children are vaccinated against the polio virus.

Pakistan Renews Campaign To Eradicate Polio
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Nooran Afridi, a pediatrician at a private clinic in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, says one of the biggest obstacles to eradicating polio in Pakistan has been “refusals” stemming from “antipolio propaganda” spread by conservative Islamic clerics in “backward areas.”

One common fallacy in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan with low literacy rates is that the vaccine sterilizes young boys.

Antipolio propaganda also has been fueled by distrust in Western governments who fund vaccine programs -- particularly after the CIA staged a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in 2011 to confirm the location of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Since then, some clerics have even issued fatwas saying that children who become paralyzed or die from polio are “martyrs” because they refused to be tricked by a Western conspiracy.

Taliban militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan also have propagandized that Western-made vaccines contain pig fat or alcohol, which are both forbidden in Islam.

Pakistan’s Tehrik-i Taliban has used that false claim to justify its killing of more than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan since a massive polio-eradication effort was launched in 2012.

Massive Eradication Effort

Pakistani health workers, together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international aid organizations, have immunized millions of children across the country since 2012 with more than 100 rounds of the vaccination drive.

More than 38 million children under the age of 5, the most susceptible age group for contracting the contagious disease, were vaccinated in Pakistan during 2017 alone.

A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012.
A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012.

The effort has brought Pakistan’s paralytic polio rate to its lowest level since the early 1990s.

Six of the world’s 17 paralytic cases in 2017 were reported in Pakistan, compared to 20 in 2016 and a peak of 198 cases in 2011.

In Afghanistan, there were 11 paralytic polio cases in 2017, down slightly from 13 the year before.

The WHO, which treats Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single epidemiological block, has warned that the risk of the spread of polio remains high along the countries' 1,500-kilometer shared border -- particularly among nomadic tribes that travel within both countries and across the frontier.

But the WHO also has been encouraged by Pakistan’s eradication efforts in its tribal regions along the border, where no new paralytic cases were reported during 2017.

Completely eradicating polio from Pakistan “will depend on reaching all children who have not been vaccinated,” it said in a late November report.

Both countries demonstrated “strong progress, with independent technical advisory groups underscoring the feasibility of rapidly interrupting transmission of the remaining polio virus strains,” according to the WHO, which also praised closely coordinated Afghan-Pakistani initiatives to identify children missed by vaccination programs and to understand why they were missed.

Almost Gone

Pakistan had hoped to be removed from the list of polio-endemic countries by the end of 2017 by achieving its goal of no new paralytic cases for a year -- a result achieved by Nigeria in October.

Rana Safdar, coordinator for Pakistan’s national Emergency Operations Center for Polio Eradication, announced in April that Pakistan was “about to defeat polio” because of a continued political commitment from Islamabad and support from international and Pakistani partners in the eradication programs.

The next round of mass vaccinations in Pakistan is scheduled for the end of December.

WATCH: Pakistan Launches New Polio Vaccination Drive (from July 2017)

Pakistan Launches New Polio-Vaccination Drive
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Mezhar Nisar, a member of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s polio eradication task force, says he is confident the disease “is on the way to being rooted out from Pakistan.”

“We have addressed all the refusal issues in our overall social-mobilization strategy,” Nisar told RFE/RL. “We have involved religious scholars from the Ulema councils and community-based women health workers. This has brought the number of vaccination refusals to the minimal level. The program is fully on track.”

The Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) on December 8 praised the prime minister’s “hands-on approach” with Pakistani provincial leaders.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication has issued a new training manual for madrasah students that supports polio eradication efforts with practical guidance about engaging with local communities in support of vaccination.

Endpolio Pakistan, which brings nongovernmental and government experts in Pakistan together with international health organizations, says declarations by Muslim scholars in Ulema councils were critical to eliminating new paralytic polio cases during 2017 from Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.

In the town of Akora Khattak in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party chief Maulana Samiul Haq declared a fatwa in late 2013 at the Darul Uloom Haqqania religious seminary, stating that “there is nothing forbidden” in the polio vaccine.

Haq, who had close ties with the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, said it is “the responsibility” of the religious scholars in the Ulema councils "to remove misconceptions about the use of vaccines to protect children from the crippling disease.”

He also publicly declared that Islamic Shari'a law “has made it clear that there is no harm in it. Rather, the treatment is an obligation.”

Other clerics have issued appeals for ordinary citizens, religious scholars, and tribal elders to fully support the polio vaccination initiative across Pakistan so that every child is vaccinated -- insisting that the vaccine's ingredients are, beyond any doubt, permissible under traditional Islamic law.

Hamid Aziz says he wishes he would have had that kind of Islamic instruction when his son was born in 2012.

Instead, Aziz is now struggling on his intermittent wages of about $7 per day to come up with the funds needed to buy the leg braces that his youngest son will need to use for the rest of his life in order to walk.

“Now I am asking other parents to allow the medical workers to administer the polio vaccine to their children,” Aziz told RFE/RL. “It is good for your children.”

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Ahmad Ullah in Islamabad

Speaker: Gov’t Should ‘Step In’ To Aid Detained Opposition

Iran's Deputy Speaker on the floor of parliament. File photo

Iran’s deputy parliament speaker, Ali Motahari, says if no breakthrough is reached to end the house arrest of prominent opposition figures, the government should “step in.”

While delivering a speech to students at Khajeh Nassir Tousi University on December 11, Motahari said, “The top authorities have in recent months shown some flexibility toward lifting the house arrest of Green Movement leaders,” namely former PM Mir Hossein Mousavi; his wife, Zahra Rahnavard; and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

“There’s a will for addressing the problem,” he said.

Referring to Karroubi being recently allowed to receive a limited number of visitors, Motahari said, “They let four political activists visit Karroubi, and a similar procedure for Mousavi is under way, as well.”

Without elaborating, he noted, “They [top intelligence authorities] have asked us to avoid raising hell, and we have obeyed. Nevertheless, our silence over the house arrests is limited. God willing, the problem will be addressed; otherwise, we will be forced to step in.”

Karroubi’s sons revealed that the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) recently ratified a resolution permitting some figures to visit the 81-year-old opposition figure.

In his speech Motahari also said, “One of the heads of power said placing people under house arrest is not a punishment. I told him he should spend 10 days indoors and under siege and see what happens.”

Living in a house where every room is constantly monitored by cameras and recording devices takes a physical and emotional toll, Motahari said. “Nobody can deny that house arrest is a punishment. These people are only allowed to see their children every other week. Moreover, until recently, they were not even allowed to have access to newspapers, radio, or television. The problem of house arrests should be resolved, and I believe it has unnecessarily turned into a source of dispute and division,” he explained.

Motahari described the house arrests as illegal, noting, “In an emergency situation, it is justifiable for the SNSC to place people under house arrest for the sake of retaining peace and order. But when the situation returns to normal, the SNSC has no authority to maintain house arrests. The SNSC is not in a legal position to sentence people.”

Calling for a public trial in a competent court, Motahari suggested, “Those under house arrest should be allowed to express their concerns. And, of course, at the end of the day, we are obliged to accept the court’s verdict. Nevertheless, the continuation of house arrests is against articles 32 to 37 of constitution.”

Karroubi has repeatedly demanded to be tried in a court of law and has asked Motahari to follow up the demand as his representative.

However, in 2013, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called upon Mousavi and Karroubi to publicly apologize for challenging the official results of the 2009 presidential election that declared the incumbent, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the winner.

The top authorities of the judiciary have also called upon Mousavi and Karroubi to openly “repent.”

Motahari has repeatedly dismissed the call as illogical.

Mousavi, 76, Rahnavard, 71, and Karroubi have been under house arrest since February 2011 following months of widespread street protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election.

Number of Students Barred From Education Is Higher Than Reported

Applicants taking Iran's nationwide university entrance exams in 2016.

Tehran’s representative in the Iranian Parliament, Mahmoud Sadeqi says 27 graduate students have been banned from continuing their education in the current Iranian academic year.

Citing Sadeqi, state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported that despite attempts made, 12 PhD and 15 master’s students were not allowed to enter the universities this year.

According to Sadeqi, 151 PhD and 398 master’s students deemed “starred” were allowed to register and continue their education after signing a written commitment. The written commitment apparently is meant to insure that students stay away from political activities.

But there are conflicting numbers as to how many students have actually been barred this year. Other sources report much higher numbers.

“Starred students” is a term coined in 2005 following Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term to refer to students deemed politically unreliable or undesirable by Iran’s intelligence apparatuses.

An asterisk or star is added next to their name.

However, Sadeqi says the situation has improved since 2013, when Hassan Rouhani got elected president, replacing Ahmadinejad.

Based on a 2013 research by a student group, out of a total of 1,000 starred university students in Iran 768 received their star during Ahmadinejad’s presidency and 250 were expelled from the universities.

Referring to the students’ written commitment as a step “in the right direction,” Sadeqi noted, “Such commitments are an inquisition and a type of pressure on students that goes against the Iranian Constitution.” This seems to be a contradiction, which can be explained by the MP trying to be politically correct in the context of the Islamic Republic.

Earlier, Sadeqi had insisted that since denying people’s rights is against the law such commitments have no legal value even if signed by the students voluntarily.

Meanwhile, Sadeqi condemned depriving students of further education without trial and solely based on reports compiled by intelligence organs.

“Some of the students have been starred merely for electoral and political activities,” he said.

This year, at least 150 students eligible to start graduate programs have been barred from carrying on their studies at universities, daily Jame’eye Farda (Tomorrow’s Society) reported on November 30.

Citing an informed source at the Science, Research, and Technology Ministry, the daily said, “In the new educational year, between 150 and 200 students, after passing the tests for master’s and PhD degrees, have been listed as starred and barred from entering the universities.”

Analysts say the number of starred students is much more than what is officially reported.

In an article for the reformist daily Sharq, human rights activist and journalist Emadeddin Baqi wrote last week, “Based on our enquiry, the number of students who have successfully passed their exams but are not allowed to continue their education is much more than what is formally said. In fact, many of the deprived students have given up hope, leaving higher education for good.”

If Rouhani’s administration is really interested in solving the problem, Baqi remarked, it should call the starred students to come forward to determine the exact number of students who have been deprived of higher education.

Another legislator from Tehran, Ali Haidari, also lamented, “During the monarchy, there were no starred students in Iran. Even some politically active students who might have experienced life behind bars were never deprived of continuing their education.”

At a rally in 2013, Rouhani emphatically promised to address the problem when the human rights commission of an influential students association declared that more than 1,000 starred students had been barred from continuing their education in the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Last week, in his speech on Students National Day in Iran, Rouhani said, “The sky is the place for stars, not universities.”

Nevertheless, a year into Rouhani’s first term as president, Amnesty International (AI) described the situation as grave.

Hundreds of students are deprived of further education while many of them are behind bars, AI said in a report.

A New Round Of Strikes And Protests AT Haft Tapeh Complex

Strike at the Haft Tapeh sugar producing complex

Hundreds of workers at Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation and mill complex in city of Shush, southwestern Iran, have launched a new round of strikes while holding protest rallies to demand their overdue benefits and wages.

The protesters who have been on strike since December 2, for the second consecutive day assembled in front of Haft Tapeh office on Sunday, December 10.

Haft Tapeh workers have always had to fight for their wages, pensions and rights since the complex was privatized.

In an open letter dated October 8, 2017, thousands of Haft Tapeh workers had complained that since the March 2016 sale of the sugarcane company to the private sector they had “more than one year of suffering and anguish…we have been able to receive our wages only through protests and gatherings”.

Furthermore, the workers have lamented for being summoned to the courts and arrested.

Insisting that the only way to save the complex is returning its ownership to the public sector, the workers have also maintained, “Since the transfer of ownership to the present owners, the company’s debts have increased, with the employer only thinking of reducing the permanent workforce”.

Accusing the government of supporting the rich, the workers have complained that they have become poorer while the managers of the complex have become richer.

The ruling system’s authorities used to boast that they were defenders of the oppressed, the workers have regretfully noted, immediately adding “But now that they themselves have become rich, they [have turned into] the defenders of the rich”.

Meanwhile, the International Union for Food (IUF) in a statement on December 4, reflected Haft Tape workers grave situation, saying “Haft Tapeh workers have always had to fight for their wages and pensions and their rights. In 2008, workers formed an independent union - affiliated to the IUF - following a 42-day strike to demand long-standing wage arrears. In June this year, the workers again held work stoppages and demonstrations to demand payment of wage arrears of up to four months”.

Referring to an international campaign for defending the rights of Haft Tapeh sugar cane complex, IUF has also asserted, “In response to our international campaign, the wage arrears were partially settled; temporary workers are still owed two months' wages for 2016. But workers have not been paid since July 11”.

The Geneva based IUF also believes that privatization of Haft Tapeh industrial complex has been detrimental to the workers’ rights, “Conditions at Haft Tapeh have worsened since the company was privatized in a murky 2015 privatization deal. Pension benefits have been suspended due to the company's failure to pay into the state social security scheme”.

According to IUF’s statement, “The Haft Tapeh workers are demanding full payment of wage and benefit arrears; recognition of the union as the workers' legal representative; reinstatement of all unjustly terminated workers; and the company's return to government ownership”.

Tehran MP Says Lack of Happiness Makes Iranians The Angriest People

A street fight in heavy traffic in Iran. File photo

Unemployment, lack of happiness and difficulties in making ends meet are the main reasons for Iran being at the top of the world table for “social violence”, says a member of Iranian parliament.

Parvaneh Salahshour, a Tehran MP, is quoted by parliament’s official website on December 7 as saying, “Based on a report compiled by the Ministry of Health, quarrels and physical disputes are the second factor in leading Iranians to their death in emergency units.

Parvaneh Salahshouri insists that the latest opinion polls show that Iran is world’s number one, when it comes to social violence which indicates the fact that Iranians are the angriest people on Earth.

The degree of violence among citizens has reached a point that it cannot be ignored anymore, Salahshouri notes, adding “The problem is so worrisome that needs instant attention”.

Social violence does not have a single cause---many urban problems, including heavy traffic, noise pollution, unemployment and difficulties in making ends meet, all have a role, Salahshouri affirms.

Tehran's MP also asserts that lack of social joy and happiness is one of the reasons behind increasing violence in different layers of society.

“While Iranians are facing numerous difficulties in their lives, joy is one of the rare commodities in Iran today since a cultural norm, wrongly based on negating joy and pleasure, is widely promoted in our society”.

Iranian female members of parliament including Parvaneh Salahshouri (top right) in a session of parliament, undated.
Iranian female members of parliament including Parvaneh Salahshouri (top right) in a session of parliament, undated.

One of the best ways to address the problem, Salahshouri believes, is promoting tolerance and the positive impact of living happily.

Ms. Salahshouri has not specifically referred to a pollster but, in late last summer, Gallup published a report presenting Iraq, Iran and Sudan as the angriest countries in the world.

Did you know 70% of human behavior is based on emotions -- not reason? The report asks, adding, “While measurements like unemployment and GDP help quantify certain aspects of a society's health, virtually no macro-level data exist on the emotional state of a country. Until now.

This report, in its third year, offers global leaders, economists and political scientists' insights into people's feelings and behaviors, telling them more about their society's health and future than traditional economic measures can alone, Gallup asserts.

The report presents Iraq as the unhappiest place to live on Earth.

The poll measured the emotions of residents in 138 countries, ranging from anger and stress to sadness and physical pain. The higher the score, the more common negative feelings were to individuals living in each country.

Greeks at 67% were the most stressed in the world.

Meanwhile, more than 70% of people worldwide smiled; experienced a lot of enjoyment or laughed a lot, a day before the report was compiled.

Iraq ranked highest with a score of 57, followed by Iran with 53 points and Egypt with 50, according to the poll. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had the lowest negative experience figure, 13, which means residents there are the happiest in the world.

Almost half of Iranians – 48% – said they would not recommend their country to a friend searching for a place to live.

French Fighters Appear With Islamic State In Afghanistan

Alleged the Islamic State fighters and Taliban are presented to the media at the police headquarters in Jalalabad, October 3, 2017

Kabul, Dec 10, 2017 (AFP) - French and Algerian fighters, some arriving from Syria, have joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in northern Afghanistan where the militants have established new bases, multiple international and Afghan sources have told AFP.

It is the first time that the presence of French IS fighters has been recorded in Afghanistan, and comes as analysts suggested foreigners may be heading for the war-torn country after being driven from Syria and Iraq.

It is also a troubling sign as France, which has faced the worst of the IS-inspired violence in Europe since 2015, debates how to handle hundreds of its citizens who went to fight for the group in the Middle East.

"A number" of Algerian and French nationals entered the largely IS-controlled district of Darzab in northern Jowzjan province in November, said district governor Baaz Mohammad Dawar. At least two women were among the arrivals, who were travelling with a translator from Tajikistan as well as Chechens and Uzbeks, Dawar added.

European and Afghan security sources in Kabul confirmed Dawar's claim that French citizens were among the fighters -- though, one cautioned, "we do not know how many there are".

Gulab Mangal (C), Governor of Nangarhar province, visits Afghan soldiers who are engaged in an operation against militants, including Islamic State, in Khogiyani district of restive Nangarhar province, October 26, 2017
Gulab Mangal (C), Governor of Nangarhar province, visits Afghan soldiers who are engaged in an operation against militants, including Islamic State, in Khogiyani district of restive Nangarhar province, October 26, 2017

'The Engineers'

Three of the Algerians seen in Darzab are believed to have been in Syria and Iraq, Dawar said, suggesting they may link Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K), the group's franchise in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the main group in the Middle East.

When it first emerged in 2015, IS-K overran large parts of eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, though initially its part in the Afghan conflict was overshadowed by the Taliban. The jihadists have since spread north, including in Jowzjan on the border with Uzbekistan, and carried out multiple devastating attacks in the capital Kabul.

Mohammad Raza Ghafoori, the Jowzjan provincial governor's spokesman, said French-speaking Caucasian men and women had been seen training IS fighters in Darzab. He cited reports saying that around 50 children, some as young as 10, have also been recruited by the fighters.

Darzab residents told AFP that roughly 200 foreigners had set up camp just a few hundred meters (yards) from the village of Bibi Mariam. One local man who gave his name as Hajji said the fighters were of several nationalities, including French, and were tall, aged in their late 20s, and dressed in military clothing.

"They ride their (motor) bikes, go to the border and come back, but they talk to nobody," he said.

Hashar, a former district village chief, said some were training others to use suicide bombs and lay mines. "They are... bringing misery to normal people," he told AFP, as other villagers said many residents had fled the area.

Locals along with district governor Dawar warned the fighters were also exploiting natural resources, such as precious stones and metals. One of the security sources said that two of the French had been nicknamed "The Engineers" and appeared to be organizing some sort of extraction, "but we do not know what they are looking for".

Several European services believe the fighters are arriving through Tajikistan, the source said, adding that at least one Frenchman arrested there in July said he had wanted to join IS in Afghanistan.

Smoke rises after an air strike on Islamic State (IS) militants positions during an operation against ISIS in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, April 14, 2017
Smoke rises after an air strike on Islamic State (IS) militants positions during an operation against ISIS in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, April 14, 2017

Land of jihad

Afghanistan has long attracted foreign fighters, from the mujahedeen during the 1980s war against Soviet invaders to Al-Qaeda's later use of the country as a haven.

The Pentagon has said IS numbers fewer than 1,000 in Afghanistan. But the growing presence of foreign fighters among them indicates that IS "seeks to create an external operations node for new waves of global attacks," warned analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War recently.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadist groups, said he did not think the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan meant that IS was necessarily "shifting its base". The group's "natural home is Iraq and Syria, but I presume many of the foreigners in particular are taking the opportunity either to escape entirely or moving to other battlefields for IS where they might prove more useful," he told AFP.

The head of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has vowed the group will be "annihilated", and Washington notoriously dropped the so-called "Mother Of All Bombs" on an IS stronghold in Nangarhar in April.

But as the number of fighters grows in Darzab, the villager Hajji told AFP there were no signs of pro-government forces in the district. "(The) government is God damned," he said. "There is no government here."

Ayatollahs Back In The Spotlights On Social Regulations

An Iranian activist, Darya Safai holds a banner reading "Let Iranian women enter their stadiums" at the Iranian men's volleyball match against Egypt in the 2016 Olympics.

While President Hassan Rouhani and his government are watching from the sidelines, the conservative ayatollahs are creeping to the center stage by having the final say in matters of social freedoms.

A governmental entity, Social-Cultural Council of Women and Family, SCCWF has admitted that it has taken a debate on the question of women’s presence at sports arenas, off its agenda, after a “grand ayatollah” openly raised his opposition.

Grand ayatollahs are considered “sources of emulation” (marja’a) for Shiites on religious and behavioral matters. As Islam and especially Shiism tend to closely regulate individual and social life and relations, the role of senior clerics becomes a deciding factor.

“We respect the opinions of sources of emulation as the final verdict; therefore, the scheduled debate on the question of women attending sports events at the stadia is taken off our agenda since ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi has declared it ‘irrelevant’”, SCCWF public relations department announced.

Echoing ayatollah’s remark, SCCWF said in a statement, “As there are many more priorities concerning problems facing the female society, ratifying a resolution on women attending sports arenas is declared irrelevant”.

SCCWF was established in 2010 and most of its members are officials from different entities of power in the Islamic Republic.

The heads of three powers of the ruling system, Qom seminary and Cultural Supreme Council have two representative each in SCCWF.

The head of SCCWF, Zahra Ayatollahi on Friday, October 20 had insisted that the council was set to review the case concerning women attending sports arenas.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, November 29, Qom based ayatollah Makarem Shirazi blasted the debate as a “deviation from real problems”, insisting that the case should never be discussed again.

Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian ambassador to Poland, reacts as women protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran.
Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian ambassador to Poland, reacts as women protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran.

“Is our country’s problem women’s attendance at sports arena?”, Makarem Shirazi roared, adding “Our people’s problem is high price of bread, the unemployment of highly educated young people and [the crisis of] the banking system. These are the problems that have devastated our people”.

Another source of emulation, ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani also joined the chorus, labelling women attendance at sports stadiums “incompatible with their chastity”.

Instead of contemplating on whether to allow women enter sports arenas or not, let’s ponder on how facilitate marriage for them, ayatollah Sobhani maintained.

President Rouhani’s staff have repeatedly raised the issue of women being allowed to enter stadiums to watch sports competitions. Nevertheless, women are still barred from entering the arenas in Iran.

The question has turned into one of the most complicated matters facing governments in the Islamic Republic.

In 2006, a handful of women were allowed to enter the stadium and watch Iranian national soccer team’s World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain, while then president Mohammad Khatami was present.

In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also wrote an official letter to the Physical Education Organization asking it to facilitate women’s attendance at sports arenas but, his request was shelved after a number of senior ayatollahs opposed the idea.

Banning women from entering stadiums has forced international and Asian sports federations to warn Tehran about the consequences of depriving women from attending sports events.

They have warned that the continuation of the ban could lead to depriving Iran from holding international sports events and even participation.

Therefore, to neutralize the threat, the Islamic Republic’s officials have allowed a number of handpicked women to attend some of the international sports events held in Tehran.

Recently, the male coach of Thailand’s Kabaddi national side made news when he put on a headscarf to pretend to be a woman and entered a women-only sports arena in Tehran. His photos in hijab were widely circulated in social media.

While the Iranian federation claims that the Thai coach sneaked into the stadium wearing the hijab, the coach told Radio Farda that he was told to wear a headscarf if he wanted to get entry.

Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's Kabaddi games.
Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's Kabaddi games.

Former Soccer Stars Accused Of ‘Nonchalance’, As Political Protest

Iran's national soccer team players in World Cup qualifier v. South Korea in Seoul on 17jun2009.Green waistband is seen on one player.

The documentary network affiliated with Iran’s official radio and television broadcaster, has lambasted the Iranian national soccer team for failing to qualify for the World Cup final round eight years ago.

The network accused the team of showing no desire for a win in their last World Cup qualification match against South Korea, in June 2009.

Five days after the controversial presidential election that kept incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad in office, the Iranian team played against South Korea in Seoul.

Amid clips of street protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election, the documentary, titled Soccer Against The Enemy, harshly criticizes the team as it shows them wearing green wristbands, which were a sign of solidarity with the demonstrations at home in Iran.

Team captain Mehdi Mahdavi Kia, along with five teammates wore the symbols supporting Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Mousavi supporters insisted the election was rigged in favor of the Ahmadinejad. They poured into the streets and created unrest that left Iran shaken for more than five months.

Six players wearing green wristbands in Seoul shocked the state-run TV to the extent that it took minutes to force the authorities to censor any close-up and instead showing repeated clips of South Korean spectators.

Outside the arena in Seoul, scores of Iranians had staged a protest assembly to condemn Ahmadinejad’s re-election as a sham. They carried a banner that implicitly referred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that read “Go to Hell, Tyrant.”

However, when the team returned to the field for the second half of the match, the wristbands were gone, while Mahdavi Kia kept his green armband as captain.

At the end of the match, coach Mansour Pourheidari tried to downplay the incident, saying, “The footballers wore green wristbands to pay tribute to Abol Fazl,” a Shi’ite saint.

The narrator of Soccer Against the Enemy repeatedly states, “It looks as if [the Iranian] footballers are not set to play for a unified team. It looks as if none of them seeks a victory.”

The Iranian state broadcaster is not an independent outlet. It is controlled by the Supreme Leader’s office.

Moreover, the narrator also repeatedly describes the match as a defeat, whereas Iran’s home and away matches against South Korea ended in a 1-1 draw.

The soccer players have not yet reacted to the documentary.

Iranian University Shuts Down After Student Strike

Iranian students protesting in the Petroleum Industry University.

Student protests in Iran this week were propelled by different grievances and demands. Some were concrete issues related to financial issues and others were the result of constant pressures and interference by security organs in universities.

One hotspot has been the Petroleum Industry University (Sana’ate Naft), where student protests began even earlier.

The university in Abadan, a petroleum industry center in southern-western Iran, has announced it will close until further notice due to a student strike that has lasted for more than two weeks.

In a statement, the university accused students of disrupting university affairs and said that the decision is based on the fact that students have refused to attend class since November 18 under the pretext of employment demands.

Students at the university, which is funded by the Oil Ministry, have organized protests in Abadan and Tehran demanding the ministry hire them after graduation as they were promised upon admission. The guidelines were changed in 2015, and the ministry now says it will only hire those who pass written and oral employment tests.

“The court of the first instance has issued a verdict in our favor that obliges the Oil Ministry to fulfill its commitment toward students,” one of the protesters, who requested anonymity, told Radio Farda. “Unfortunately, because the ministry has the best lawyers, they have appealed all the points in our lawsuit and we have to wait until the appeals court issues its verdict next year.”

Protesting students in Allameh University carry a sign that says "Bring back our expelled classmates and professors.
Protesting students in Allameh University carry a sign that says "Bring back our expelled classmates and professors.

Simultaneously, students at other universities organized protests against political suppression, gender discrimination, and increasing tuitions.

Iran's constitution provides that citizens should receive free education; however, only 7 percent of the country’s universities are actually tuition-free, current student activist Mohammad Sharifi Moghaddam told Radio Farda.

Protesting students are also demanding security agencies should stop keeping universities under tight watch, Sharifi added.

There is rarely a politically active student who has not received an anonymous threatening phone call from security agents, he said.

On December 4 and 5, hundreds of students at major universities across Iran demanded an end to political suppression, gender segregation, and discrimination, and what they call a monetization of universities and capitalization of social life.

Since the 2009 protests against the re-election of former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, hundreds of students have been harassed and arrested by security forces for political activity. Their publications have been systematically banned or censored, and some students have been suspended or discharged from universities.

During his election campaign, President Hassan Rouhani criticized the increasing pressure on students and promised to improve the situation. Students say the president has yet to fulfil his promise.

Outspoken MP Calls For Ahmadinejad's Trial

Ali Motahari, representative of Tehran and Deputy Speaker of the Iranian Parliament

Tehran's outspoken MP and deputy speaker of parliament Ali Motahari has called for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be held accountable in a public trial.

Ahmadinejad and his companions are “not worthy enough” to be considered the opposition, Motahari said, adding they should stand an open trial.

Meanwhile, in a letter, Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, accused Iran’s judiciary of becoming an instrument for empowering and establishing the authority of a number of specific persons and groups while crushing opponents and those who criticize the current situation.

In an interview with Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) on December 6, Motahari emphasized that Ahmadinejad’s trial must be open to the public and that he should be held responsible for his illegal actions.

Deriding Ahmadinejad and his allies as the members of the “Basketist Cult,” Motahari said, “They do not have the necessary caliber to even be considered the opposition.”

After Ahmadinejad’s former deputy for executive affairs, Hamid Baghaei, attended a court hearing session carrying a red basket full of documents, a state-run news agency close to the judiciary, Mizan, coined the term Basketists to describe the former president and his supporters.

There are pending cases against Ahmadinejad in the Judiciary, but so far no action has been taken. These cases deal mainly with financial improprieties.

A self-exiled Iranian journalist, Mehdi Mahdavi Azad, told Radio Farda that labeling Ahmadinejad and his followers is beside the point.

“Ahmadinejad is trying to represent himself and his school of thought as a new voice protesting the current situation in Iran,” he said. “He is trying to distance himself from the ruling system while attracting dissident parts of society who are enraged by [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei and the head of the judiciary’s actions.”

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Mahdavi Azad said there’s a consensus among political groups in Iran, including groups supporting subversion, that Ahmadinejad’s new attempts are opportunistic and doomed to fail.

The real reason behind the former president’s recent vitriolic attacks against the judiciary, according to Mahdavi Azad, is the fact that “Ahmadinejad has concluded that, after prosecuting his closest allies, they will soon directly come for him as well.”

However, going after the former two-term president -- who was repeatedly praised by Khamenei as an epitome of servitude for the people and the revolution -- requires the supreme leader’s approval. Khamenei, however, has distanced himself from the war of words between the two sides.

Ahmadinejad has learned over the years that so long as Khamenei remains neutral, it is next to impossible for anyone to hold Ahmadinejad accountable for a series of charges, including financial corruption and mismanagement.

In November 2010, several MPs attempted to call the then-president out for what they charged was sidestepping the constitutional powers of the Parliament and circumventing checks and balances.

The protesting MPs, in a letter to the Guardian Council, listed 14 infringements, including foot-dragging by the administration on the implementation of a variety of laws as well as financial irregularities.

Ahmadinejad was also accused of three years of unauthorized imports of gasoline and diesel worth around $10 billion and the failure to account for up to 40 percent of his spending on numerous visits to cities across the country, which he called “provincial travels.”

The MPs’ attempt was nipped in the bud when Khamenei refrained from giving his backing.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters recently described the judiciary as ruthless, unjust, tyrannical, and devious. Nevertheless, the justice department, notorious for prosecuting anyone who dares to criticize the ruling system, has preferred to carry on saber-rattling with the former president rather than legally charging him.

Explainer: Taliban 'Special Forces Unit' Bursts Into Spotlight With Deadly Attacks

Analysts say the "Red Unit" differs from most Taliban fighters (such as these pictured) in the level of training and sophisticated equipment available to them.

On the increasingly crowded battlefields of Afghanistan, a feared, commando-style Taliban unit is gaining attention for a series spectacular, deadly attacks on Afghan security forces.

Known as "Sara Kheta" -- Red Unit or Danger Unit in Pashto -- it is said to be the Taliban's elite special-forces group. Unlike regular Taliban fighters, analysts say the outfit is better trained and armed and is sent on special operations targeting bases and posts of the Afghan National Army and police force.

The so-called Red Unit's rise has raised concerns among government forces struggling to fend off the Taliban since the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014 and suffering record casualty rates on the battlefield.

When did it emerge?

The first mention of a Taliban "special-forces unit" was in June 2015, when Taliban fighters published photos on social media purportedly showing a training camp where recruits were being trained on heavy machine guns and antiaircraft guns.

In December 2015, the Taliban said it was unleashing its special forces to eliminate fighters allied with the militant group Islamic State (IS) that had emerged in Afghanistan earlier that year.

In August 2016, Afghan military officials confirmed the existence of the Taliban's Red Unit in the southern province of Helmand.

But the unit has fought its way to greater prominence in the past month or so. On November 1, the Taliban uploaded photos of the unit on its official Telegram account. The photos show members of Red Unit in new uniforms and armed with the kind of tactical assault gear worn by soldiers and law enforcement teams around the world.

Weeks later, Afghan officials blamed it for a spate of attacks on November 13 and 14 during which dozens of Afghan security personnel were killed in the southern province of Kandahar and the western province of Farah.

On December 3, Afghanistan's intelligence agency said the commander of the new unit, Mullah Shah Wali, also known Mullah Naser, was killed in an air operation in Helmand Province the week before.

How is it different from other Taliban units?

"What distinguishes this force from other fighting units is its intensive and longer training, the degree of vetting, its tactics, weapons and equipment, and structure," says Borhan Osman, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"The unit is mainly used for quick interventions, high-value targets, special operations, or offensives such as capturing a highly strategic area, breaking major sieges of regular Taliban forces, jailbreaks, and escorting important leaders," Osman adds.

Military analysts estimate the size of the unit at anywhere from several hundred to up to 1,000 fighters.

Those tactics and capabilities were on show in the November attacks when Afghan officials said the unit, equipped with lasers and night-vision gear, attacked police checkpoints and army bases and rapidly left the scene to avoid NATO air strikes. On November 14, the unit drove a pickup truck loaded with explosives into a police checkpoint point and then launched attacks on 14 nearby posts, killing over two dozen police officers.

In Farah Province the same day, Taliban units with night-vision scopes killed eight police officers in their beds early in the morning. Three police officers in the province were also killed in night attacks around the same time.

The U.S. military has equipped many Afghan soldiers with night-vision equipment, but police forces rarely possess them.

"The Red Unit and regular Taliban forces use the same types of weapons: small arms, RPGs, and machine guns," says Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal. "Typically, the Red Unit has newer weapons, and is occasionally seen with night-vision devices that have been seized from Afghan forces."

The unit is believed to equipped with the Taliban's most advanced weaponry, including 82-millimeter rockets, laser pointers, heavy machine guns, and U.S.-made M-4 assault rifles. They are also known to have used and possess dozens of armored Humvees and Ford Ranger pickup trucks stolen from Afghan forces.

Ahmad K. Majidyar, a South Asia and Middle East expert for the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says it is misleading to call the unit a special-forces outfit because it lacks elite commando capabilities of even the Afghan Special Forces, let alone advanced elite commando units such as the U.S. SEAL Team Six.

"The Red Team is more a heavily armed group used in surprise attacks against vulnerable Afghan security check posts," he says. "It also has well-trained snipers that aid ordinary Taliban militants in their attack against the Afghan forces."

The unit has also spread from southern Afghanistan, where it was established, and has expanded into eastern and western regions.

How much of a threat is it?

"The Red Unit poses a significant threat to Afghan forces," Roggio says. "It has had great success on the battlefield when going head to head with Afghan units."

Roggio says the unit operates like shock troops, often leading assaults on Afghan district centers, military bases, and outposts.

The NATO-led mission in Afghanistan has said it has not seen any evidence of the Taliban possessing advanced weaponry like night-vision equipment, which Afghan officials say the militants have purchased on the black market or have accumulated after overrunning Afghan army bases.

But Afghan military officials have confirmed the unit's capabilities.

Kandahar's powerful police chief, General Abdul Raziq, has said the Red Unit is part of the Taliban's "new approach and new tactics," adding that it was "well equipped and highly armed."

Majidyar says he expects the Red Unit to come under increasing pressure if President Donald Trump relaxes U.S. rules of engagement.

"The Taliban will suffer more significant losses on the battlefield in the coming months," he predicts.

Iran Aims To 'Customize' Internet Filtering

Iran -- People use internet at a cybercafe in the center of Tehran. File photo

Iran's telecommunications minister says that his ministry wants to customize Internet filtering based on user’s occupation, age, and other factors.

The attorney general's office has conditionally agreed with this plan, Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi announced on December 4.

Without providing any details, he said his ministry had reviewed suggestions made by the attorney general and prepared “appropriate technical responses.” He expressed hope that the office would give its final approval for the implementation of the plan.

It seems that “custom filtering” is an effort by President Hassan Rouhani’s government to ease Internet censorship.

Internet access is heavily restricted in Iran, since its use became widespread more than fifteen years ago. In addition to pornographic and “undesirable” news and political websites, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are also blocked for Iranian users.

Social media were widely used in the anti-government protests of 2009 against the re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Iran is one of the highest users of internet in the world. In 2015, 70% of Iranians regularly used the internet, ranking 16 globally.

For a state that engages in elaborate efforts, including vast bureaucracies, arrests and detentions in order to control information, this poses a constant danger. The advent of smart phones has made the situation even more problematic for the state.

By law, the working group for the determination of criminal content, which consists of several ministers and presided over by the attorney general, is responsible for Internet filtering. However, many websites and applications are blocked at the behest of the attorney general's office, which is under the control of the conservative judiciary.

The attorney general's office ordered the filtering of the voice-messaging feature from the popular messaging app Telegram in April due to purported “risks for national security.” Telegram has more than 40 million users in Iran.

In 2014, Iran expanded the so-called smart filtering of the Internet in order to censor undesirable content on websites without blocking them completely. Its application on Instagram has had 83 percent success, according to a former minister of telecommunications.

Despite the regime’s efforts to censor the Internet, Iranian users routinely get around the restrictions by using anti-filtering programs or virtual private networks.

Political Prisoner Lights A Candle In Jail On Birthday Of Her Twins

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, undated.

A political prisoner and deputy of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran has celebrated the birthday of her children for the third time in prison, by lighting a candle.

In an open letter from prison, Narges Mohammadi, 45, has lamented, “I do not have a real and clear image of my twins, anymore”.

Ms. Mohammadi’s twins, Ali and Kiana have been living in exile in Paris along with their father, Taqi Rahmani, since 2014. Mohammadi has been allowed to talk to her children on the phone.

A prominent defender of human rights, and winner of the 2011 Per Anger Prize and Sakharov Prize (2017-2018) for defending human rights in Iran, Mohammadi was first arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center,” and “propaganda against the state.”

Upon appeal, her sentence was reduced to six years behind bars and she was released from Zanjan Prison in 2013 on medical grounds.

According to Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Mohammadi was arrested again on May 5, 2015, two months after meeting with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief at the time, at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran to discuss the situation of human rights in Iran.

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi with her children, Ali and Kiana.Undated.
Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi with her children, Ali and Kiana.Undated.

In September 2016, Branch 26 of the Tehran Appeals Court upheld a 16-year prison sentence for “membership in the [now banned] Defenders of Human Rights Center,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state.”

Defenders of Human Rights Center was established by first Iranian and first Muslim woman Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi who has been living in exile since June 2009 in UK, after her life was threatened.

Mohammadi will be eligible for release after serving 10 years in prison.

After Hassan Rouhani’s second-term victory in Iran’s May 2017 presidential election, Mohammadi urged him to build the foundations for civil society in Iran.

“As a citizen who voted for you, I should and will be insistent on seeking my demands,” she noted, adding “I am an imprisoned civil rights activist, but I am not asking you to free me. I want to see [the dream for] a civil society come true. That is my demand.”

Rouhani has yet to respond to the letter.

Meanwhile, several members of American Physical Society, APS are laying the groundwork to launch a campaign, calling on the Islamic Republic of Iran to free a prominent Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi to receive her prize in person.

Ms. Mohammadi who has a degree in Solid-state Physics, jointly won APS’ 2018 prestigious biannual Sakharov Prize, along with Indian researcher Ravi Kuchimanchi.

The ceremonies for awarding the Sakharov Prize is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, California from March 5 to 9, 2018.

Politically Suspect Students Marked With A Star, Barred From Universities

A student protest in the Oil Industry University in Iran. File photo

At least 150 students eligible to start Masters and Doctoral programs have been barred from carrying on their studies at universities, daily Jame’eye Farda (Tomorrow’s Society) reported on Thursday, November 30.

Citing an “informed source” at the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, the daily said, “In the new educational year, between 150 to 200 students, after passing the tests for Masters and PhDs degrees, have been listed as ‘starred students’ and barred from entering the universities”.

“Starred students” is a term coined immediately after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term (2005).

It refers to students who are deemed politically unreliable or undesirable by one or more of the Islamic Republic’s numerous intelligence apparatuses.

An asterisk or star is added next to their name to separate them from others. Probably Iran is the only place where having a star(s) next to a name does not mean a positive distinction.

However, during the controversial 2009 presidential election, the incumbent, Ahmadinejad denied the existence of such a categorization.

Immediately after the denial, scores of starred students gathered to prove that they were indeed banned from continuing their education because of their religion, political views or students’ rights activities.

At least three of the students at the gathering were later detained and placed behind bars.

The question of starred students repeatedly appeared during Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaigns. At a rally in 2013, Rouhani emphatically promised to address the problem when the human rights commission of an influential students’ association declared that more than 1000 starred students had been barred from continuing their education in eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Nevertheless, a year through Rouhani’s first term as president, Amnesty International (AI) described the students’ situation in Iran as “grave”.

Hundreds of students are deprived of further education while many of them are behind bars, AI said in a report.

The question of starred students was raised at several meetings with Rouhani. In one of the gatherings, a student lamented, “…the heads of our universities…are merely reactionaries who have reemerged in modern suits and kill you softly”.

Two days prior to the publication of Jame’eye Farda’s report, Rouhani had insisted on television, “We cannot confine the universities into a specific political view---Students must step in and participate in political and social debates. They should have more room to maneuver. In the current situation, we should not let students to be divided over political issues”.

However, according to a number of students’ rights activists, several starred students have recently been allowed to carry on their education after signing a written commitment.

The text of the commitment has not yet been revealed.

Throwing Match Against Israeli Angers Members Of Parliament

Iranian wrestler, Alireza karimi

Members of Iranian parliament will officially question the Minister of Sports, asking him to explain the case of a young wrestler who deliberately lost a match to avoid facing an Israeli opponent in the next round.

Alireza Karimi, in a match against Alikhan Zhabrilov of Russia last Saturday, was 3-2 ahead in the fourth minute when apparently his trainers instructed him from the sidelines to throw the match.

In a video clip depicting the 86-kilogram category of the Senior U23 World Championship match held in Poland, a voice can be heard clearly instructing Karimi to lose the match.

“Alireza, lose! You must lose, Alireza!” the voice urged Karimi.

Then, apparently as a precaution, Karimi’s caoch asked for time out and talked to the young wrestler in private.

Karimi returned to the mat, opened up his guard against Zhabrilov and let the Russian finish him off and win by using consecutive leg lace or ankle locks, a technique Iranian wrestlers are renowned for easily defending against.

Had Karimi won the match, he would have faced Uri Kalashnikov of Israel in the next round.

Instead, Zhabrilov beat Kalashnikov and reached the final. Karimi was then directly obliged to face his Israeli opponent for the bronze medal.

The Iranian side was left with no other option but to use its old trick, declaring Karimi injured and unable to compete. Iran gave the Israeli athlete a walkover match on a silver platter.

Karimi by forfeiting the match against the Russian and feigning injury against the Israeli generated a wave of reactions that has now reached the parliament.

Referring to Karimi in a tweet, Tehran’s MP, Gholamreza Haidari has lambasted what he has described as “wasting the spiritual and material rights of Iranian athletes”, adding “These athletes carry the burden of Iranian diplomacy and our sports system’s paradoxes on their shoulders”.

Haidari has promised to officially question the minister of Sports in an open session of parliament and demand an explanation.

Gholamreza Heidari, Iranian reformist MP
Gholamreza Heidari, Iranian reformist MP

Earlier, two members of reformist faction Omid (Hope), Bahram Parsayee and Abdol-Karim Hassanzadeh had declared that they were going to legally sue Iranian Wrestling Federation officials for urging Karimi to deliberately lose to his Russian opponent and present his Israeli peer a walk-over win.

However, the Islamic Republic’s ministry of sports has praised Karimi’s performance and presented him ten golden coins (worth roughly $4000).

Meanwhile, Karimi has bitterly complained that the Islamic Republic’s authorities have deceived him.

In an interview with Radio Tehran, Karimi said, “I have been politically abused and played with as a political instrument”.

According to Karimi, he was told that he was going to attend a private ceremony where the president, Hassan Rouhani and the minister of Youth Affairs and Sports would also be present to show their gratitude.

“I went there, but, soon, I found out that [the president and his minister were not there, the gathering was not private and] they just wanted to politically use me. They presented me with ten gold coins in front of cameramen and reporters. I repeat that I believe they wanted to use me as a political tool until the [controversy] is over”.

Karimi reiterated that he was embarrassed for being used as a political instrument.

On Twitter, users created a hashtag labeled as #YouMustLose that has triggered hundreds of comments.

Most of the users believe Iran’s policy barring its athletes competing against Israeli peers has been detrimental for Iranian teams and athletes.

The New York Times also cited him as saying, “I do accept that Israel is an oppressor and commits crimes, but would it not be oppression if our authorities undermine my hard work again?”

Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, Rasoul Khadem noted, “The Islamic Republic’s policy for facing Israeli opponents need updating”.

Head of wrestling federation and freestyle wrestling coach Rasoul Khadem
Head of wrestling federation and freestyle wrestling coach Rasoul Khadem

​In an interview with reformist daily, Etemad on Tuesday, November 28, Khadem insisted that Palestinians do not know that Iranian athletes throw matches against their Israeli opponents to show their solidarity with them.

“Nobody, save Israelis, are aware of the reason behind Iranian athletes’ decision to deliberately lose against their Israeli peers”.

The International Wrestling Federation has not yet reacted to Karimi’s case.

United World Wrestling has rules stating that the unexcused and purposeful withdrawal from a competition is a punishable offense (rule 7.2.d-e). Furthermore, rule 8.2 stipulates:

“Any official or coach who incites a wrestler to leave the victory to his/her opponent shall be disqualified for the event and shall be prohibited from representing his/her national federation during events held under the control of the Federation for a period of 1 month to 3 years”.

A Small Group In Iran Owes Banks Billion Of Dollars In Bad Debts

Iranian MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, who has threatened to release the names of well-connected people refusing to pay back loans to Iran banks.

A few hundred people in Iran have borrowed billions of dollars from the country’s financial institutions and refuse to meet their obligations toward the lending institutions.

Now, a current and a former member of the Iranian Parliament have taken the issue in their own hands and are trying to force the delinquent debtors to pay their bills.

The MP Mahmoud Sadeghi published some details of 20 bad loans on his Twitter account on Thursday, November 30, and threatened to reveal the identity of the debtors if they do not make arrangements with their lenders within 48 hours.

This means the deadline is on Saturday December 2.

Just 2 days before, Ahmad Tavakoli, a former Iranian MP had made a similar threat to another group of debtors.

Interestingly, Tavakoli us a well-known conservative politician and Sadeghi belongs to the reformist camp, which is the loyal opposition.

Delinquent loans are one of the major crises Iranian banks are facing in recent years. According to several officials most of these loans have been granted through private or political connections, ignoring due process.

Some of loans have been used for purposes other than those agreed with the lending institutions.

In 2012, then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “60% of the “country’s financial resources are blocked by 300 people.”

Eshagh Jahangiri, the deputy of the current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in 2014 that delinquent loans to Iranian banks exceed $20 billion. He also said that a list of ca. 600 of bad debtors was prepared by the government and handed over to the judiciary for prosecution.

However, the judiciary has so far failed to take any concrete steps, apparently because many borrowers have family ties to the ruling elite or some powerful clergymen.

The MP Mahmoud Sadeghi had implied this fact in a previous Tweet published on November 28, when he demanded that Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, one of the most influential clergyman in Iran should explain about the overdue debts of his son-in-law who is one of the major borrowers in the country.

The former MP Ahmad Tavakoli who runs an NGO named “Transparency and Justice”, has also said that the delinquent debtors of one of the financial institutions were “mostly the children of religious scholars, veteran judges, and political figures” and he would reveal their names if they do not take actions regarding the settlement of their debts.

Iran’s central bank had assigned a team to investigate the issue, but according to Tavakoli the members resigned under pressure. The former MP demanded explanations from the central bank in this regard

China Pushing Billions Into Iranian Economy As Western Firms Stall

A container on the first train connecting China and Iran is seen upon its arrival at Tehran Railway Station, February 15, 2016

(Reuters) - China is financing billions of dollars worth of Chinese-led projects in Iran, making deep inroads into the economy while European competitors struggle to find banks willing to fund their ambitions, Iranian government and industry officials said.

Freed from crippling nuclear sanctions two years ago, Iran is drawing unprecedented Chinese funding for everything from railways to hospitals, they said. State-owned investment arm CITIC Group recently established a $10 billion credit line and China Development Bank is considering $15 billion more.

"They (Western firms) had better come quickly to Iran otherwise China will take over," said Ferial Mostofi, head of the Iran Chamber of Commerce's investment commission, speaking on the sidelines of an Iran-Italy investment meeting in Rome.

The Chinese funding, by far the largest statement of investment intent of any country in Iran, is in stark contrast with the drought facing Western investors since U.S. President Donald Trump disavowed the 2015 pact agreed by major powers, raising the threat sanctions could be reimposed.

Iranian officials say the deals are part of Beijing's $124 billion Belt and Road initiative, which aims to build new infrastructure - from highways and railways to ports and power plants - between China and Europe to pave the way for an expansion of trade.

A source in China familiar with the CITIC credit line, which was agreed in September, called it "an agreement of strategic intent". The source declined to give details on projects to be financed, but Iranian media reports have said they would include water management, energy, environment and transport projects.

An Iranian central bank source said loans under the credit line would be primarily extended in euros and yuan.

The China Development Bank signed a memorandum of understanding for $15 billion, Iranian state news agency IRNA said on Sept. 15.

The bank itself declined to comment, in line with many foreign investors and banks, including from China, who were reluctant to discuss their activities in Iran for this story. The web sites of banks and companies often carry little or no information on their Iran operations.


With a population of 80 million and a large, sophisticated middle class, Iran has the potential to be a regional economic powerhouse. But with the risk of sanctions hanging in the air, more and more foreign investors want Tehran to issue sovereign guarantees to protect them in case the projects are halted.

Economic ties between Iran and Italy, its biggest European trade partner, have been affected.

Italy's state-owned rail company, Ferrovie dello Stato, is a consultant in the building of a 415-km (260-mile) high-speed north-south rail line between Tehran to Isfahan via Qom by state-owned China Railway Engineering Corp.

The Italian firm is separately contracted to build a line from Qom west to Arak, but it needs 1.2 billion euros in financing. Though backed by the state's export insurance agency, it says it needs a sovereign guarantee.

"We are finalizing the negotiations and we are optimistic about moving forward," said Riccardo Monti, chairman of Italferr, the state firm's engineering unit, adding that the financing should be finalized by March next year.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's promise in Tehran last year to oil the wheels of trade with a 4 billion euro credit line from Italy's state investment vehicle is effectively dead, a source in Italy familiar with the matter said.

Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) risked losing the confidence of its many U.S. bond-holders who could sell down their holdings if the credit line went ahead, the source said.

A few European banks have deepened trade ties with Iran this year -- Austria's Oberbank inked a financing deal with Iran in September.

South Korea has also proved a willing investor, with Seoul's Eximbank signing an 8 billion euros credit line for projects in Iran in August, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

But China is the standout.

Valerio de Molli, head of Italian think tank European House Ambrosetti, reckons China now accounts for more than double the EU's share of Iran's total trade.

"The time to act is now, otherwise opportunities nurtured so far will be lost," de Molli said.


Iranian officials attending this week's meeting in Rome sought to goad European firms and their bankers into action by talking up the Chinese financing and investments.

"The train is going forward," said Fereidun Haghbin, director general of economic affairs at Iran's foreign ministry. "The world is a lot greater than the United States."

Some Iranian officials remain concerned that investment could become lop-sided and are looking at creative ways to maintain investment links with the West, however.

The Iran chamber is encouraging Western firms to consider transferring technology as a way of earning equity in Iranian projects rather than focusing on capital.

It was also seeking approval to set up a 2.5-billion-euro offshore fund, perhaps in Luxembourg, as an indirect way for foreigners to invest in Iran, especially small and medium-sized Iranian enterprises, Mostofi said.

The fund would issue the financial guarantees that foreigners want in return for a fee, effectively stepping in where banks now fear to tread. Most of the fund's capital would come from Iran, Mostofi said.

For now, however, big Western firms remain stuck.

Italian power engineering firm Ansaldo Energia, controlled by state investor CDP and part-owned by Shanghai Electric Group , has been in Iran for 70 years.

Its chairman, Giuseppe Zampini, told Reuters at the Rome conference there were many opportunities for new contracts but his hands were tied for now, partly because Ansaldo bonds were also in the hands of U.S. investors.

"My heart says that we are losing something," Zampini said.

Thai Male Coach Wears Hijab In Iran Women's Match

Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's kabaddi games.

The Asian Kabaddi Championship in Iran has made headlines for some amusing photos.

They show the male coach of the Thai female kabaddi team wearing hijab in order to be able to accompany his team into the women’s arena. In Iran, men are not allowed to enter sport arenas used by women.

In a statement, Iran’s Kabaddi Federation apologized for the “sad incident” and condemned the action of the Thai coach. The federation had informed the participants about the rules regarding hijab and ban for men in advance.

In its statement, the federation admitted some “negligence” during ID control, but it added that the Thai coach had allegedly “deceived” the controllers. The federation vowed to follow-up the “violation” by the Thai coach through the World Kabaddi Federation, even though it said that the coach was sent off “after few seconds”.

While the Iranian federation claims that the Thai coach sneaked into the stadium wearing the hijab, the coach says that actually he was told to wear it if he wanted to get entry.

Somprach Phonchoo, the Thai coach, in an interview with Radio Farda confirmed that he was requested to put on the headscarf but does not say by who.

Interview: Thai Coach Somprach Phonchoo
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However, Mohammad Reza Maghasoudlou, the head of Iran’s Kabaddi federation came up with a funny plot. He told ISNA News Agency, "A photographer has given the scarf to the Thai man so he could enter the arena and take pictures."

“It was a naughty act and the goal was to question the games,” Maghasoudlou added.

The Asian Kabaddi Championship was held in Iranian northern city of Gorgan between Nov. 22-27. Iran women’s team missed the final after a defeat at the hands of South Korea in semi-final. In the final game, India defeated Pakistan and became champion.

Politician Threatens To Unmask Influential Borrowers Of Defunct Bank

Conservative politician Ahmad Tavakkoli who was a member of 9th parliament, undated.

A prominent Iranian conservative has threatened to disclose the names of those who borrowed huge sums of money from the bankrupt and now-defunct financial institution Samen al-Hojaj.

“Most of the people who borrowed from Samen al-Hojaj are veteran judges and children of prominent clergy and political figures,” former MP Ahmad Tavakkoli announced at a press conference on November 28.

Tavakkoli said if the debts were not repaid he would publicly disclose the names of the borrowers.

“The managing director of Samen al-Hojaj has a lot of influence. He’s so powerful that he managed to get an arrest warrant for central bank former Governor Mahmoud Bahmani (2008-2013),” Tavakkoli told reporters.

“Corrupt individuals attract and multiply people of their caliber,” the former MP remarked.

Samen al-Hojaj was launched in 2001 under the name of Samen al-Hojaj Cooperative for the Educated and soon expanded into a financial empire.

It began operations as a credit institution in 2007. The private institution had 450 branches across the country. There was no information on the company’s stakeholders on its website.

However, according to the Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Samen al-Hojaj went bankrupt after investing in a stagnant housing market.

The managing director of the institution, Abol-Fazl Mir Ali, held membership on the boards of directors at the Iran National Oil Company and a gas and petrochemical company where former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Mohammad Hassan, one of the brothers of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have seats.

Earlier, several conservatives close to Khamenei had accused Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaign of borrowing money from Samen al-Hojaj.

After its bankruptcy and insolvency, Samen al-Hojaj was taken over by Bank Parsian, which declared it will repay depositors’ losses in installments.

Protesters demanding their money back from the Caspian Bank, another bankrupted institution.
Protesters demanding their money back from the Caspian Bank, another bankrupted institution.

​Most of the legal violations by Samen al-Hojaj were committed in 2007 and onward, Tavakkoli affirmed, adding, “Yet, it was officially praised by Iran Central Bank governor in Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s administration.

Tavakkoli also disclosed that Mir Ali was placed under house arrest but should have been imprisoned.

Meanwhile, the former MP accused the Iran Central Bank of delay in declaring Samen al-Hojaj bankrupt and of not compensating depositors.

A significant number of financial and credit institutions have recently gone bankrupt in Iran, forcing depositors to hold protest rallies demanding their money.

Most of these gatherings are staged by people who claim they are victims of systematic deception and fraud by these credit institutions. They say their assets have been either plundered or they have received no interest for their deposits as promised by these institutions.

Most of these pseudo-credit institutions operate as unofficial banks that manage to evade regulations and proper registration.

In 2013, approximately 25 percent of the cash flow in the country’s financial market was handled by such institutions, which were not under the supervision of the central bank, according to Valiollah Seif, the current president of the central bank. Since then, he added, the number has dropped to 8 percent.

In August, Seif promised that all “illegal” financial cooperatives would be shut down by the end of the current Persian year (March 21, 2018). At the same time, he asked citizens not to be deceived by higher interest rates offered by unknown and illegal financial institutions.

Another top Iranian banker warned in October that half of Iran's banks were suffering from "toxic loans" and they should be shut down or merged.

The warning came too late for many investors who had already lost their savings.

Judicial officials now blame depositors for their losses and say the government is not responsible.

But credit institutions were practically allowed by the government to freely operate outside banking rules for more than two decades.

State media ran their commercials at prime time, and neither the executive nor judicial branches cautioned people to be wary.

Parliament Is Weighing New Law To Deal With Child Abuse Crisis

Street children in Iran. File photo

Legislators in the Iranian Parliament are weighing a new bill that empowers police forces to detain parents whose children are sexually abused.

“The number of children who are sexually abused in Iran has increased to the extent that the parents whose children are molested will be fined or sentenced to suspended prison terms,” the state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) cited an MP as saying on November 27.

The deputy head of the Legal and Judicial Commission, Mohammad Kazemi, told ILNA that “the significant increase of social disorder in recent years, numerous cases of child molesting, a child-labor crisis and child beggars, as well as sexually abused children” is alarming.

The new bill, according to Kazemi, stipulates punishment for parents deemed irresponsible and who ignore their children’s welfare.

The member of Omid (Hope), the reformists’ faction in the parliament, has also announced, “The new bill empowers security and police forces as well as social workers to separate children from parents who do not responsibly look after their children.”

The separated children will be handed over to “lawful centers,” Kazemi said, without elaboration.

The new bill is under study by the parliament at a time that the echoes of recent comments made by the director-general of Tehran’s Social Services Organization have not yet died down.

In a shocking comment, Reza Ghadimi disclosed that “90 percent of children forced to work in the capital, Tehran, are molested.”

Furthermore, in his interview with Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Ghadimi lamented, “Sadly, after surveying 400 child workers, social workers found out that 90 percent of them had been molested. It was revealed that relatives of these children round up and send them begging around from dawn to late evening and then molest them.”

Ghadimi insisted, “These facts are well documented.”

The comments were so shocking that they triggered widespread anger and scandal all over town, forcing Ghadimi to rephrase his remarks.

“I’ve been misunderstood,” Ghadimi explained, adding, “By molesting, I did not mean sexual abuse of the working children. I meant child workers are kept in the cold outside in streets, they are not fed properly, and their faces are painted black to attract pity.”

However, the daily Shahrvand reported that it has a copy of Ghadimi’s initial remarks which clearly states that 90 people of child workers are sexually abused.

Nevertheless, government officials insisted Ghadimi’s remarks were unfounded.

Yet, according to the head of Iranian Social Emergency, in 60 percent of child molesting cases, fathers and in 86 percent of total cases both parents are responsible.

“In only 1.5 percent of child molesting cases were strangers involved,” Hossain Assadbeigi noted.

Meanwhile, he reiterated that many families whose children are molested prefer to keep it a secret and refrain from reporting it to the authorities.

A lack of reliable sources has practically made it impossible to determine the numbers of street children in Iran. However, based on a 2005 report by the U.S. State Department, and admitted by the Iranian government, 60,000 street children were accounted for in Iran.

Many children’s rights’ organizations believe the number is much higher, citing figures up to 200,000.

Iranian FM Discusses Closer Business Ties In Armenia

Armenia - President Serzh Sarkisian (L) meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Yerevan, 28Nov2017.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with President Serzh Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders on Tuesday during a visit to Yerevan that appeared to focus on ongoing efforts to expand Armenian-Iranian economic ties.

He arrived in the Armenian capital with a large group of Iranian businessmen who held a one-day conference with fellow entrepreneurs from Armenia. Zarif and his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian opened the forum before holding talks.

“There are quite good opportunities for expanding economic relations between the two countries,” Zarif told an ensuing joint news conference with Nalbandian.

“Energy and cargo transit are very important areas of our cooperation with Armenia,” he said. “We also attach importance to our cooperation on science and technology.”

Armenia - Foreign Ministers Edward Nalbandian and Mohammad Javad Zarif at a news conference in Yerevan, 28Nov2017
Armenia - Foreign Ministers Edward Nalbandian and Mohammad Javad Zarif at a news conference in Yerevan, 28Nov2017

Nalbandian said, for his part, that they discussed ways of increasing bilateral commerce and preparations for next month’s meeting in Yerevan of an Armenian-Iranian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. In that context, he stressed the importance of a planned free-trade deal between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union which is strongly backed by Armenia.

According to official Armenian statistics, Armenian-Iranian trade stood at a relatively modest $197.4 million in the first nine months of this year. It was up by 10 percent from the same period in 2016.

Zarif was reported to tell Sarkisian later in the day that the current scale of Armenian-Iranian business dealings “does not befit the high level of political relations between the two friendly nations.” The two men agreed on the need to “bolster economic ties and develop mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas,” reported the Armenian presidential press office. It said Zarif called Armenia a “very good neighbor” of Iran.

Armenia - The Armenian and Iranian foreign ministers open an Armenian-Iranian business forum in Yerevan, 28Nov2017.
Armenia - The Armenian and Iranian foreign ministers open an Armenian-Iranian business forum in Yerevan, 28Nov2017.

Economic issues dominated Zarif’s separate meeting with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. They discussed, among other things, the upcoming launch of a free economic zone in Armenia’s southeastern Meghri district bordering Iran. According to an Armenian government statement, they agreed that the tax haven for manufacturing firms could give a major boost to Armenian-Iranian business ties.

The statement added that Armenian-Iranian energy projects were also on the agenda of Karapetian’s talks with the chief Iranian diplomat. But it did not elaborate.

Karapetian met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Energy Minister Sattar Mahmoudi when he paid an official visit to Tehran in October. He reportedly discussed the possibility of a trilateral deal that would enable Armenia to import cheap natural gas from Turkmenistan via Iran. No concrete agreements to that effect have been announced so far.

The Armenian premier on Tuesday described his trip to Iran as “quite promising.” “Armenia’s government is extremely interested in qualitatively changing and raising our trade to a higher level,” he told Zarif.

Iran's Judiciary Once Again Issues An Astonishing Verdict

Iran's deputy commander of the Iranian police Ahmad Reza Radan (L) and head of Social Security Organization and former Tehran Prosecutor General Saeed Mortazavi(R). They were both accused of Kahrizak prison deaths after 2009 unrest.

Iran's judiciary has once more drawn attention to itself for issuing astonishing verdicts.

In one instance, it convicted Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran’s prosecutor-general at the time of the 2009 upheavals, to two years in prison for being “accessory to murder” in the death of a detained protester in prison.

In another second instance, Mostafa Hamedani a lawyer representing a group of workers in different case against Mortazavi, has received 10 months in prison and 40 lashes simply being accused of “defaming” the same Mortazavi.

He has received this harsh verdict simply for talking about Moratazavi's conviction, nothing else.

In December 2013, the Iranian parliament published an investigative report accusing Mortazavi of financial corruption during his time (2012-2013) as the head of the country’s Social Security Organization.

The parliament’s investigation had concluded that Mortazavi had bribed some members of parliament, cabinet ministers of President Ahmadinejad, and the president’s deputy with hefty gifts.

He had also illegally transferred 138 companies, including Iran Air and two major steel factories owned by the Social Security Organization to Iran’s tycoon Babak Zanjani, who was later sentenced to death for stealing $2.7 billion from oil sales on behalf of the Ahmadinejad government.

Following these revelations, Hamedani, on behalf of his clients who were beneficiaries of the Social Security Organization, sued Mortazavi for illegal use of financial assets and embezzlement of hundreds of million dollars.

After almost two years, the court of first instance convicted Mortazavi in November 2016, but gave him a mild sentence.

Hamedani gave an interview to Iranian journalists announcing that he will appeal the verdict.

According to the lawyer, the same interview has been the basis for his conviction.

He has told the News Agency ILNA that he has been convicted just for revealing the conviction of Mortazavi by the court of first instance, something that should have been public information to start with.

Official Under Fire After Thanking Iran-Trained Afghan ‘Warriors’ for Syrian ‘Victory’

FILE: Mohammad Mohaqiq during an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan in July 2014.

A top official in Afghanistan has come under fire for seeming to confirm for the first time that neighboring Iran has recruited thousands of Shi’ite Afghans and "warriors” from other regional countries to fight in Syria.

Deputy Afghan Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq made the controversial statement during a trip last week to Tehran. His remarks were recorded on video and aired and reported by Afghan media, prompting critics to take to social media to denounce him and call for his removal from office.

While addressing an international summit of scholars from Iran and other Muslim nations, the Afghan deputy chief executive is shown praising Major General Qasem Soleimani, who commands foreign operations of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The gathering was convened to discuss ways to fight “the dark ideology” of Islamic State (IS) terrorists from a unified Islamic front, according to Iranian media.

The Iranian general is said to be one of the founders of the Fatemiyoun Division, made up of mostly Afghan Hazara fighters and deployed to the Syrian conflict zone.

“I thank all the warriors who cooperated in these wars from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world who attended the wars. In fact, it was the war of Islam against infidelity and against the conspiracies of the world arrogance,” Mohaqiq said.

The Afghan official did not elaborate and went on to commend “the prominent role” of General Soleimani in the victory in Syria.

IS In Afghanistan

Mohaqiq claimed that more than 10,000 Islamic State members who escaped the conflict, including those from Central Asian states, have now moved to Afghanistan and are threatening stability of northern and western border provinces.

“The northern part of Afghanistan, once a secure area, has now been destabilized after the incursion of Daesh,” Mohaqiq said using local acronym for IS. The instability, he warned, will threaten neighboring Central Asian nations.

The Afghan government has not yet commented on Mohaqiq’s remarks, but the foreign ministry has maintained that reports of Afghans being sent to conflict zones in the Middle East are under investigation and that the issue has also been raised with Iranian authorities.

Rights Abuses

Rights defenders have repeatedly drawn international attention to what they say is Tehran’s training and deployment of Afghan refugees in Iran.

Human Rights Watch in a detailed report published last month also accused Iran of committing war crimes by recruiting and sending Afghan immigrant children “as young as 14” to fight in Syria alongside government forces.

The report charged the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps with recruiting and providing combat training to mainly Shi’ite Hazara Afghans who have settled in Iran after fleeing decades of hostilities in their native country.

Recruits for Fatemiyoun Division are said to come mostly from about 2.5 million Afghan refugees, many of them without residency papers. Pro-government Iranian media describes the division as a volunteer Afghan force fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Rights groups have documented cases of Afghans, mostly Shi’ite Hazaras, in Iran who “volunteered” to take part in the Syrian conflict in the hopes of gaining legal status and a monthly income of around $600 for their impoverished refugee families.

Iranian authorities reportedly tell Afghan recruits they are being trained to fight to protect major Shi’ite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa.

Iran is reported to have poured billions into Syria in addition to raising Shi’ite militias from countries with significant Shi’ite population, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, which also hosts millions of Afghan refugees.

-- Voice of America

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