Azeri Man Facing Prison Time for Peacefully Advocating Ethnic Language Rights in Iran
Facing prison time for his peaceful advocacy of Azeri ethnic rights, Asgar Akbarzadeh has been summoned to the Revolutionary Court in Ahar, 307 miles northwest of Tehran in East Azerbaijan Province, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has learned.
“This case has been dragging on since 2014 when Asgar was arrested by Intelligence Ministry agents for participating in a gathering to mark International Mother Language Day [February 21],” said a source close to his family, who spoke to CHRI on condition of anonymity.
“Despite being beaten while being interrogated at the Intelligence Ministry detention center in Ahar and having no access to a lawyer or his family, Asgar rejected accusations that he had formed any sort of organization,” added the source. “He only attended a peaceful and lawful meeting to mark an international occasion.”
Akbarzadeh, 32, is due to appear in court on August 8, 2017. He has been charged with “organizing and leading groups against the state with the intention of undermining national security,” the informed source told CHRI.
According to Article 27 of Iran’s Constitution, Iranian citizens have the right to hold public gatherings and marches “provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”
When he was a chemistry student in 2007, the Revolutionary Court in Ardabil, East Azerbaijan Province, sentenced Akbarzadeh, 32, to five years in prison and two years in exile for his alleged membership in the outlawed National Movement of Azerbaijan. He was later acquitted on appeal.
Between 16 to 25 percent of Iran’s population is made up of Turkish-speaking (different from the language spoken in Turkey) Azeris living mostly in Iran’s northeastern East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan Provinces.
Azeri ethnic rights activists are primarily focused on protesting the state ban on teaching the Azeri-Turkish language in schools, a ban they argue violates the Constitution. Iran’s security establishment often suppresses their peaceful campaigns while claiming they have separatist aspirations.
During his 2013 presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani pledged to “fully implement” Article 15 of the Constitution, which allows “the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for the teaching of their literature in schools.”
In a report to the United Nations’ General Assembly in September 2016, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Iran Ahmad Shaheed expressed concern that ethnic minorities in Iran “do not fully enjoy their right to take part in cultural life, including as a consequence of closures of publications and newspapers in minority languages.”
The report continued: “Despite some important recent steps in this regard, particularly in Kurdish-majority areas of the country, the Special Rapporteur continues to receive reports that the right to teach and publish in local languages remains either curbed or restricted.”