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Iran’s minorities forgotten victims as government repression intensifies – new briefing

16 February 2011

The scale of repression against minority groups in Iran is a central but under-reported factor in the renewed struggle for democracy, says Minority Rights Group International (MRG) in a new briefing.

With a rise in reports of political repression since the disputed elections of June 2009, minorities face widespread violations and severe restrictions on cultural and religious freedoms.

‘Forty per cent of Iran’s population is made up of non-Persian minorities, yet they have almost no say in the country’s future,’ says Mark Lattimer, MRG’s Executive Director. ‘Ethnic and religious minorities face restrictions on a daily basis, but they cannot be completely excluded forever.’

Although exact data is scarce, Iran is home to a large number of minority groups, whose identities cut across various ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines. The briefing, Seeking justice and an end to neglect: Iran’s minorities today, says that most minorities are subject to state-sanctioned discrimination, within a wider context of persistent human rights abuses.

Iran’s constitution declares the state as Shi’a Muslim and some of those religious minorities who do not share this professed religious identity have suffered widespread abuse, says the briefing. Sunni Muslims, for example, do not have a single mosque in Tehran, where they form a sizeable population.

The persecution of any Iranian minority is most pronounced in the case of the Bahá’ís. This religious minority group does not enjoy the constitutional guarantees that are formally afforded by the state to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, nor any legal protection under Iran’s Islamic laws. Officially, they are considered heretics who constitute a political opposition and not a religious community.

The informal leadership of the Iranian Bahá’í community, who have been detained since 2008, were sentenced in 2010 to ten years of imprisonment on charges of conspiring against the Islamic Republic, and their lawyers –drawn from Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s The Defenders of Human Rights Center – have also been subject to intimidation, imprisonment, and attacks.

All Iranians seeking employment or entering higher education are subjected to screening sessions known as gozinesh, where they are assessed regarding their loyalty and commitment to the Islamic Republic. According to the briefing’s findings, non-Muslims and even Muslims who ‘fail’ these screenings are either excluded or eventually purged not only from the upper echelons of power, but also from more minor positions of influence in society, such as studying at university.

Christian converts also face dangers. In January 2011 the governor-general of Tehran Province, described ‘Evangelical proselytising Christians as a deviate [sic.] and corrupt tendency’ and reported that ‘their leaders had been arrested in the Tehran province and more will be arrested in future.’

Iran’s ethnic and linguistic minorities include Azeris, Baluchis, Arabs and Kurds.

The briefing documents restrictions on the use of the Azeri language, as well as other minority languages. As of the beginning of 2011, up to 20 Kurdish prisoners are believed to be awaiting execution in Iran, including several political prisoners.

Sistan-Baluchistan, home to the mostly Sunni Baluchi people, is reportedly the poorest of Iran’s provinces with Baluchs facing social, economic and political marginalisation. At the end of 2010, 11 Baluch prisoners were executed for alleged membership of the armed group Jondallah.

The briefing says that the events following the 2009 election have initiated a new debate about Iran’s future and human rights, both nationally and internationally.

‘It is time for the Iranian government to recognise the diversity of its population and address the growing support base for human and minority rights in the country,’ says Lattimer.

‘We urge them to allow freedom of association and religion and to free all activists who are currently imprisoned for their peaceful advocacy of minority rights,’ he adds.

Notes to editors

  • The briefing, Seeking justice and an end to neglect: Iran’s minorities today, is available [email protected]
  • For further information, copies of the briefing or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].