Gulf European Centre for Human Rights
The Status of Ahwazis Unlawfully Detained and Imprisoned in Iran under International Law
22 April 2020
International human rights law is based on the principle of humane treatment of all peoples, including prisoners, which aims to safeguard the honour, blood, and dignity of a human being, to protect their legitimate claim to self-determination—a principle to be upheld during imprisonment, uprisings or other events up to and including armed conflict, in which case principles of international humanitarian law also come directly into play.
The Ahwazi case is best characterised as a distinct legal situation, despite overlapping of the Ahwazi cause with the cases of other peoples under oppression. These civilians living under the yoke of the Iranian authorities constitute the majority of the peaceful domestic movement, as well as those who work within the existing societal framework to assert their right to self-determination and the concomitant use of all means available to achieve this right within the context of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
In this context, the critical importance of differentiating between the concepts of the Ahwazi political detainee and the Ahwazi prisoner of war emerges from a legal point of view, since the Iranian authorities exploit confusion between the two concepts, and capitalise on the resultant opportunity to implement repressive policies against the Ahwazi cause, thus muddling the legal status and rights of each within the framework of international law and international humanitarian law. With those rights blended together to form an inchoate mass or otherwise obscured, the regime maintains – and even expands – its ability to act with impunity with respect to both classes of Ahwazi captives.
The phenomena of captivity and detention are, naturally, parts of all conflicts, with the concept of imprisonment of an armed individual in the context of self-determination being linked in international humanitarian law. International humanitarian law presupposes certain conditions, such as the concept that bearing arms renders an individual a combatant, meaning that he may be treated thereafter as a prisoner of war if caught by the enemy. International humanitarian law defines a prisoner of war as a person who falls into the hands of the enemy from members of the hostile armed forces or affiliated personnel.
According to the jurisprudence of international humanitarian law, a detainee is a civilian who is in the hands of the enemy but is not involved in military operations. Such a detainee is not subject to the authority of the soldiers who captured him but instead is subject to the jurisdiction of the state which arrested him.
The detaining power must respect those prisoners of war under its authority and afford them protection and humane treatment.
First: Legal Conditions of Ahwazi Detainees in the Prisons of the Iranian Authorities
The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and Additional Protocol I also provide broad protection for civilian detainees who are interned during international armed conflicts. No party to a dispute may place or detain private persons under house arrest, while detention is limited to a security measure, that is, detention must terminate at the end of the security situation that necessitated it. These conditions apply to the Ahwazi case and therefore mean that this cannot be used as a form of punishment. This means that every detainee must be released if the reasons for his/her arrest no longer exist. The rules governing the treatment of civilian detainees and conditions of their detention under international humanitarian law are very similar to those applicable to prisoners of war.
In the context of non-international armed conflicts, Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Additional Protocol II provides that persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the conflict must also be treated humanely in all circumstances. They are primarily protected from murder, torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. In this context, we will focus on two prominent examples of the Ahwazi cause, one related to mass arrests during the April 2018 protests, and the second to an individual case, the case of the young man Benyamin al-Boghbish, who was killed by the Iranian authorities under torture.
- April 2018 protests: The Iranian authorities launched a massive campaign of arrests in Ahwaz against dozens of steelworkers who had long complained about their poor living conditions; despite the right to peaceful demonstration guaranteed in international conventions, the Iranian security authorities found an opportunity to practice the continuation of their customary repressive approach against Ahwazis.
In the wake of these peaceful protests, which demanded an end to discrimination and racism and to the regime’s attempts to obliterate Ahwazi identity, the Iranian authorities detained more than 50 Ahwazi workers employed by the National Iranian Steel Company in Ahwaz and threatened workers who continued protesting with arbitrary dismissal.
This violation has been confirmed by several Iranian websites, including the Free Trade Union of the workers’ movement in Iran, which acknowledged that “the detained workers are mostly activists defending the rights of workers against violations and protesting because they have not been paid for several months”. Every peaceful protest or demonstration by civilians was linked by Iran’s regime to the Ahwazi cause and treated as essentially ‘military’ in nature, in an attempt to suppress every Ahwazi by conflating the concept of Ahwazi civilian activists demanding equal and human rights as steelworkers with the demand for self-determination and with that of enemy prisoners of war, without any legal or humanitarian protections.
During the April 2018 protests, the Iranian security authorities exploited this principle by carrying out widespread and arbitrary arrests at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the al-Thawra district in the city of Ahwaz. Those arrested, including youths under the age of legal responsibility, totalled 500 Ahwazi detainees. Their families continue to demand their release, but have found all their protests and even the publication of a joint public statement to be useless, as the Iranian authorities refused even to disclose their loved ones’ places of detention. This demonstrates that authorities are clearly treating the imprisoned activists as de facto prisoners of ‘war’ rather than as civilian detainees.
Moreover, the indiscriminate manner of detention and separation of the detainees from the detainees’ homes and workplaces was without any legal basis or legal protection. Several human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, have expressed additional concern about the conditions of the Ahwazi detainees because of ongoing violations by the Iranian regime and its security apparatus in the torture of detainees and the brutality committed by regime authorities to obtain confessions by force. Meanwhile, protests continued for over ten days against the policies of marginalisation, racial discrimination, and projects of demographic change committed against Ahwazis (1).
- The case of the family of the young man Benyamin al-Boghbish: On 15 March 2018, the Iranian authorities arrested Ahwazi Benyamin al-Boghbish, along with his brother, Mohammad Ali, and their mother, Maryam Zubaidi. All of them faced charges related to Iranian national security, with the regime using their relationship to each other and direct contact with a family member living outside Iran to falsely allege close links to groups calling for secession from the Iranian state.
According to Amnesty International’s detailed report, “Benyamin Alboghbish and his brother were released on bail several months later, while their mother was transferred to Sepidar prison in Ahwaz and subsequently released on bail around December 2018. Both men were rearrested in early 2019 and released on bail after two months. On 26 May 2019, they were arrested again, together with their mother. Benyamin Alboghbish was transferred to a detention centre believed to be under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. His brother was transferred to Sheyban prison in Ahwaz and their mother to Sepidar prison, where they remain to date”.
In June 2019, Amnesty International learned of the killing of young Benyamin Alboghbish, and urged the Iranian authorities to carry out an effective and impartial investigation into the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. Amnesty International said that the 28-year-old man had been killed in the Iranian prison a month after his arbitrary detention, and his family was informed by an intelligence official believed to be affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that he had died in a detention centre in Ahwaz. In the context of the case, which has been reported on in detail by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations, Amnesty International found that “systematic use of torture in Iranian detention facilities, [and] the death of a young man, from a widely persecuted ethnic minority group and with no known health conditions, so soon after his arrest raised serious concerns that he was subjected to torture or other ill-treatment and that this may have caused or contributed to his death” (2).
“Benyamin Alboghbish was a healthy young adult when he was arrested. His alarming death just over a month later raises serious concerns about his treatment and conditions of detention, including the possible use of torture. The Iranian authorities must immediately order an effective and impartial investigation into his death, including an independent autopsy,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“A state’s failure to adequately investigate potentially unlawful deaths in custody is a breach of the right to life. Anyone found to be responsible for his death must be held accountable through a fair trial and without resorting to the death penalty” he added (3). Amnesty International’s report further noted that “Iranian authorities have a horrifying record of subjecting detainees to torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, often to extract forced confessions.”
“The Iranian authorities must take concrete measures to ensure all detainees are protected from torture and other ill-treatment, including granting detainees immediate access to a lawyer of their choosing from the moment of arrest and during interrogation,” said Luther (4).
It is noteworthy that Amnesty International has documented a pattern of deaths in custody under suspicious circumstances in Iran, recording 11 such cases since December 2017. The report also stated that Iranian authorities have consistently failed to conduct effective investigations into cases of torture and deaths in custody, behaviour which fits into a long-standing pattern of impunity with respect to such incidents in the country. (5).
On 22 October, Zoudieh Afrawi and Gheysieh Afrawi, two women from Susangerd, were both arrested separately in their respective homes. Both of the women’s children had been arrested earlier in the day, after which security forces returned to their homes in order to arrest the mothers as well. Both women telephoned relatives a week after their arrests and told them that they were being held by the Ministry of Intelligence. Their families have not heard from them since.
On 30 September, civil society activist Mohammad Mo’meni Timas was arrested. He had gone to the Revolutionary Court in Ahwaz to ask about what had happened to two of his children, who had been detained when he was arrested on a previous occasion. His family has not heard from him since.
Abdullah Karamullah Kaab and Qasim Abdullah, two other Ahwazi citizens, both face the death penalty after a mock trial, accompanied by coerced confessions extracted from them under torture and other ill-treatment; with the torture including electric shocks and exposure to mock executions. Their case is being considered by the Supreme Court (6).
Second: The Legal Conditions of the Ahwazi Prisoners in the Iranian Authorities’ Prisons
The Geneva Conventions provide a wide range of protections for prisoners of war (POW) from inhumane and degrading treatment. These conventions define the rights of prisoners of war and establish detailed rules governing their treatment and possible release. International humanitarian law also grants protection to other persons deprived of their liberty because of armed conflicts. Specific rules for the protection of prisoners of war were first described in detail in the 1929 Geneva Convention, and were then revised in the text of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, following lessons learned from the Second World War (7) and in the text of Additional Protocol I of 1977.
The status of prisoner of war applies only to an individual actively involved in international armed conflict, who falls in the hands of the enemy during said conflict. Also, the third Geneva Convention of 1949 classifies other categories of persons entitled to the status of prisoners of war, or who can be treated as prisoners of war. International humanitarian law guarantees that prisoners of war are not prosecuted for their direct participation in hostilities, providing additional protections for those imprisoned for the exercise of their natural rights under the conditions established for the right to self-determination (8).
Also, their detention – as per the 1949 Geneva Convention – may not be a form of punishment, but is legal only so long as it is necessary to prevent them from continued participation in the conflict. Therefore, they must be released without delay as soon as hostilities are over. The third Geneva Convention of 1949 also guaranteed the humane treatment of prisoners of war in all circumstances. It protects them from all acts of violence, intimidation, insults, and public curiosity. International humanitarian law has also defined the minimum conditions governing detention, including, for example, matters relating to the place of detention, food, clothing, hygiene, and medical care (9).
In this regard, we will review the case of the targeting of an Iranian military convoy on 22 September 2018 in Ahwaz, and the application of legal definitions of captivity and detention thereto.
- The repercussions of the armed attack on 22 September 2018, which targeted a military convoy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Ahwaz, where Iranian authorities announced that the four militants, disguised as members of the Revolutionary Guards and its Basij paramilitary force, were killed by security forces during the attack, have continued to this day. In the days following the attack, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced that it had detained 22 suspects. The state television channel broadcast a video showing some of the suspects handcuffed and blindfolded standing against a wall. Several groups claimed responsibility for the attack, including the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
As a result, Iranian security forces launched a massive crackdown on the Ahwazi people collectively, detaining hundreds of them; “The scale of arrests in recent weeks is deeply alarming. The timing suggests that the Iranian authorities are using the attack in Ahwaz as an excuse to lash out against members of the Ahwazi ethnic minority, including civil society and political activists, to crush dissent in Khuzestan province,” Amnesty International said (10).
This is a clear violation of the provisions of Article 4 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, which, in its fourth paragraph, states that the status of prisoners of war extend to “armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination, alien occupation or racist regimes,” in the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination (11), as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States per the Charter of the United Nations.
Amnesty International has documented that more than 178 people were detained in the first weeks following the attack, while it believes that the Iranian authorities subsequently detained more than 600 people, including political and minority rights activists. Mass arbitrary detentions have also created fear and panic among Ahwazis who already face persecution and discrimination in Iran. In this regard, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “Iran’s appalling track record of persecuting and discriminating against members of the Ahwazi community raises suspicions that these arrests are being carried out arbitrarily and are politically motivated”, adding that “Amnesty International calls on the Iranian authorities to release immediately and unconditionally anyone being held solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly or solely on account of their ethnic identity.”
He continued, “Iranian authorities neither presented arrest warrants nor told detainees the reason for their arrests. Most of those arrested are being held incommunicado, without access to lawyers and their families, in conditions that may amount to enforced disappearance and are at grave risk of torture and other ill-treatment; and Iran’s appalling track record of persecuting and discriminating against members of the Ahwazi community raises suspicions that these arrests are being carried out arbitrarily and are politically motivated” (12).
Luther said: “Despite claims from the Governor of Khuzestan province, Gholamreza Shariati, that there are no civil society activists among those detained, Amnesty International has received credible information that students, writers, civil society, minority rights, and political activists are among those who have been arrested at their homes, places of work or in the streets.” He added, “Among those detained is Sahba (Lamya) Hammadi, a civil society activist who is pregnant. She was arrested on 6 October at her home in the city of Susangerd (known to Ahwazis as Khafajiyeh) in Khuzestan province. She contacted her family the day she was arrested, but her family has not heard from her since.”
- Legal adaptation of Ahwazi prisoners of war and detainees: International humanitarian law has worked on providing legal protection to prisoners of war and detainees by defining their rights from the moment of the arrest of a prisoner in the hands of the Detaining Power and during the process – noting that the Geneva Conventions have still not been applied to Ahwazi prisoners of war and detainees in terms of treatment and access to the rights they are supposed to enjoy. Moreover, the Iranian authorities continue to practice physical and psychological violations against prisoners of war and detainees alike in clear violation of the rules of international humanitarian law that guaranteed the application of administrative detention law, the prohibition against force-feeding and the law governing the detention of children under the age of fourteen. In this context, the extent to which the Iranian authorities violate the rights of prisoners and detainees can clearly be seen.
In this regard, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances acknowledges that this leads to further suffering and grief among the families of prisoners of war and detainees, because of their continued lack of knowledge about their loved ones’ fate and whereabouts, which in itself amounts to torture. This has been emphasised by the UN Human Rights Committee, which considered absenteeism in prisons and detention centres, the confidentiality of the date of execution and place of burial, and the refusal to hand over the body for burial, to have the most significant impact in punishing of the families of the victims and causing psychological trauma which amounts to a violation of the prohibition on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (13).
Indeed, while international humanitarian law has not established binding or strict rules for the protection of the rights of prisoners and detainees; there are, however, several internationally agreed legal regulations and agreements introduced specifically to protect the rights of prisoners or detainees. Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for instance, states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. In its general comment on this article, the Human Rights Committee indicated that the purpose of this article is to protect the dignity and both the physical and mental integrity of the individual. It was also recommended by the first United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in Geneva in 1955 and endorsed by the Economic and Social Council in its resolutions 1957 and 1977 and the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, demanding that prisoners and detainees should not be distant in any way from the community they live in and even officials should make every effort to ensure and emphasise that they are still part of this community they live in, believing that they can be a key and essential factor in its construction. Therefore, Rule 61 of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that:
“The treatment of prisoners should emphasise not their exclusion from the community, but their continuing part in it. Community agencies should, therefore, be enlisted wherever possible to assist the staff of the institution in the task of social rehabilitation of the prisoners. There should be in connection with every institution social worker charged with the duty of maintaining and improving all desirable relations of a prisoner with his family and with valuable social agencies. Steps should be taken to safeguard, to the maximum extent compatible with the law and the sentence, the rights relating to civil interests, social security rights and other social benefits of prisoners. And these steps should be taken to safeguard, to the maximum extent compatible with the law and the sentence, and that all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated humanely and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and enjoy the rights recognised in international conventions, and may not be invoked that the state recognises them in a lesser degree, in particular, the rights relating to the right to an appeal against the authority’s exercise of powers that are not legally authorised, the right to report due to arrest, the right to make statements as soon as possible, access to a lawyer, the right to access to information and the reasons for detention promptly and the right to obtain information about his rights, interpretation of these rights and how to use them.”
On 30 March and 31 March 2020, according to Amnesty International, Iranian regime forces used excessive force to quell prison uprisings in Sepidar and Sheyban prisons following the failure of the Iranian authorities to release any Ahwazi prisoners facing the threat of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in confinement (14). As many as 36 prisoners were killed by Iranian authority forces in both prisons, with many more injured. According to journalists and activists cited in the Amnesty reports, following the protests, surviving participants were detained, stripped, and beaten in the prison courtyards by prison guards. Ahwazi human rights activists Mohammed Ali Amouri, Jabber and Mokhtar Alboshoka had been transferred to intelligence facilities and are being held incommunicado (15). According to human rights reports, the authorities used torture against prisoners who took part in the protests. Bodies of prisoners killed by the authorities have been returned to their families under suspicious circumstances. A number of wounded prisoners remain in custody; information about their situation has not been released to their families. These reports show evidence of systematically degrading and abusive treatment of prisoners in violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Furthermore, in failing to release Ahwazi prisoners under threat of death from a dangerous infection, the authorities play a part in stigmatising and isolating the prisoners from other citizens and from the community and placing their lives in danger as the authorities have proven unable and unwilling to ensure adequate sanitary conditions in its Ahwazi prisons. This discriminatory treatment has increased the potential for additional abuse and the violation of prisoners’ rights and the fundamental human rights of their families.
Ahwazi detainees and prisoners of war have been subjected to the most horrific forms of treatment in violation of the principles and rules of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including the international conventions governing them, notably the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols thereto. The fact is that this has happened since the theocratic regime came to power in Iran and disavowed the promises of its leaders to the Ahwazis. Since July 1988, the regime has subjected thousands of opposition political prisoners to enforced disappearance. Many families were summoned without warning and informed of their children’s’ death by way of handing over their possessions in prison, without giving them details of how they were executed and why, or telling them where their bodies were buried. In some cases, families have not been informed in any way whether the prisoners of war or detainees have died.
The Ahwazi cause is a historical issue that remains a subject of ongoing conflict from the viewpoint of international law. Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II, state that persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to the conflict must also be treated humanely in all circumstances. They are mainly protected from murder, torture, and cruel, humiliating or degrading treatment.
The conditions of Ahwazi prisoners and detainees in the prisons of the Iranian regime, from the point of view of international law, constitute a concrete, ongoing and continuous model of blatant disregard for international law and human rights, for decency, as the detainees and Ahwazi prisoners, continue to be deprived of their status, whether as prisoners of war and freedom fighters or as civilian detainees; they are thus deprived of the protections afforded to them by rules of international humanitarian law regarding parties to conflict and international human rights law, while the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ policies continue to treat them according to special political, sectarian and ethnic objectives, intending to delegitimise their struggle as prisoners of war, or as members of a persecuted minority, and as detainees, delegitimising their just cause, and thus undermining their rights, violating their humanity and dignity, and all safeguards to the protection of life and preservation from human injury.
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42
Mostafa Hetteh is a writer and journalist: https://twitter.com/mostafahetteh
Editing by Penina Sarah, attorney, human rights advocate and commentator on Middle East and national security issues.
1- Al-ain.com, الأحواز.. اعتقالات جديدة وتظاهرات مرتقبة في بروكسل , (in Arabic) “Al-Ahwaz: new arrests and upcoming demonstrations in Brussels”. On the link: https://al-ain.com/article/ahwaz-arrests-demonstrations-expected-in-brussels
(2) See Amnesty International’s report, “Iran: Authorities Must Investigate Death in Custody of Ahwazi Arab Detainee”. Link: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/06/iran-authorities-must-investigate-death-in-custody-of-ahwazi-arab-detainee/
- – IRAN: AHWAZI ARAB MEN AT RISK OF EXECUTION: ABDULLAH KARMOLLAH CHAB AND GHASSEM ABDULLAH, 8 May 2019, on the link:
- See: Third Geneva Convention of 1949, Additional Protocol I of 1977.
- For more, see Abeer Baker, تعريف السجناء الفلسطينيين في السجون الإسرائيلية كـ “سجناء أمنيين – الدلالة أمنية للتمويه على الممارسة السياسية, (in Arabic) “The Definition of Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Prisons as ‘Security Prisoners’ Security Semantics for Camouflaging Political Practice”, Adalah’s Review magazine, Volume 5, 2009.
- See: Third Geneva Convention of 1949.
- See Amnesty International Report, Iran: Hundreds arrested in vicious crackdown on Ahwazi Arabs, 2 November 2018, on the link: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/iran-hundreds-arrested-in-vicious-crackdown-on-ahwazi-arabs/
- See the provisions of Article IV of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, para. 4.
- See Amnesty International Report, Iran: Hundreds arrested in vicious crackdown on Ahwazi Arabs, op. Cit.
- See: Abdulrahman Ali Ibrahim Ghunaim, الحماية القانونية للأسرى وفقاً لأحكام القانون الدولي الإنساني دراسة تطبيقية على وضع الأسرى الفلسطينيين , (in Arabic) “Legal Protection of Prisoners of War in Accordance with the Provisions of International Humanitarian Law, An Empirical Study on the Status of Palestinian Prisoners of War, Democratic Arabic Center for Strategic, Political and Economic Studies, 2018, p 22 and the following.
- See Amnesty International Report, Iran: Prisoners killed by security forces during COVID-19 pandemic protests, 9 April 2020 , link: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/iran-prisoners-killed-by-security-forces-during-covid19-pandemic-protests/
- See the Washington Institute Report, While Iran Releases some Prisoners, Ahwazi and Other Prisoners Face Imminent Death, 7 April 2020. Link: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/iran-coronavirus-prisoners-ahwaz
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