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RIGHTS-IRAN: Intolerance Marks Sunni Student’s Death Sentence

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, Feb 18 2008 (IPS) - The death sentence passed in Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province, on civil rights activist and journalist Yaghub Mehrnahad, 28, has highlighted repression on Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Yaghub Mehrnahad, the Sunni Baluchi student leader on death row Credit: Iranonline

Yaghub Mehrnahad, the Sunni Baluchi student leader on death row Credit: Iranonline

Mehrnahad, a Sunni Baluchi, was a student of Baluchistan state university at the time of his arrest. He was detained by security agents on Apr. 26, 2007 after attending the annual gathering of a youth association of which he had been the founder and head for five years.

‘Questioning Youth, Accountable Authorities,’ was the theme of the gathering of the organisation, held in Zahedan, capital of the province that borders Pakistan. It was reportedly attended by a number of local officials, including the governor.

The association that Mehrnahad founded in 2002 also helped organise various cultural events such as music concerts and painting and computer classes for youth. Mehrnahad was also the representative of a reformist newspaper called ‘Mardomsalari’ (Democracy) in the province.

“Mehrnahad was little known outside Baluchistan before he was arrested. He did criticise the government for the neglect of Sistan and Baluchistan province and collaborated with the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a national non-government organisation (NGO),” a student activist in Tehran, who asked not to be quoted by name, told IPS.

“The death sentence is very unusual for something like that. Nobody knows what could have led to such a heavy sentence because he is not known to have advocated any violence. But there are suspicions that the death sentence is intended to cover up evidence of physical torture that, according to his family, he has been subjected to,” she said.

Five others, including Mehrnahad’s 16-year-old brother who had been arrested with him, were released after being held for up to three months. Mehrnahad himself was held in a prison run by security bodies for five months. He was later transferred to the central state prison in Zahedan where his family was able to meet him for the first time since his arrest.

Mehrnahad was tried by a court in Zahedan on Dec. 25 and was again transferred to the security prison. A month and a half later his family and lawyer, who had not been allowed to attend the trial, were informed of the death sentence.

Neither the sentence nor the charges that led to Mehrnahad’s death sentence have been officially announced. At the time of his arrest newspapers reported the apprehension of an activist in Baluchistan for allegedly assisting the militant Baluchi group, Jundullah.

In the absence of official reports and a free press most information about Mehrnahad and the death sentence passed on him come from unofficial sources such as his own blog and the news portal of the students of Amir Kabir University of Technology (AUT), which provides extensive coverage of human rights related news.

The contents of Mehrnahad’s blog indicate that he had been campaigning for establishment of a human rights committee in Baluchistan and for the recognition of the Baluchi language. Mehrnahad had also registered as a candidate to run in city council elections in 2003, but was disqualified by authorities with no reason assigned.

As reported by the student news portal, Mehrnahad’s family claimed that signs of torture were visible on his body when it last visited him in prison two months ago. They also said he had lost about15 kg and was not able to maintain his balance.

Baluchis claim discrimination as an ethnic minority as well as for being Sunnis. In spite of recognition, by the Iranian constitution, for Sunnis as a legitimate Islamic sect they do not have equal rights as Shiites. The constitution states that the supreme leader of the country and its president must be Shiites.

The province of Sistan-Baluchistan has seen several bloody encounters between government forces and various armed Baluchi groups, including Jundullah, during the past three years. Foreign journalists and western nationals are banned from travelling to the province.

Jundullah, that also calls itself the Iranian Popular Resistance Movement, has carried out several terrorist attacks against government officials in the province and has been involved in several hostage takings. The group has killed some of its hostages in the past, sending video recordings to the media.

On Feb.14, 2007 a car bomb by planted Jundullah killed 14 passengers of a Revolutionary Guards staff transportation bus and injured 30 more. A man arrested on the spot was hanged in public a few days later after a televised confession. Several other people, including a 17-year-old boy, were executed in connection with a bombing in May after making similar televised confessions.

Iranian officials allege Jundullah is connected to al-Qaeda or is sponsored by United States and British secret services. But Jundullah has denied these allegations and claims it is fighting for the rights of the Baluchi and Sunni people and for establishing democracy in Iran. The government also alleges that Jundullah is involved in drug trafficking.

According to a report by Amnesty International, from January to August 2007 out of the total 166 executions reported in Iran 50 happened in Baluchistan, many of them carried out in public for charges such as drug trafficking or murder. Iran has the second highest rate of death penalty after China.

According to a statement by the justice department of Sistan-Baluchistan on Jan. 6, released by Iranian Students News Agency, five men were sentenced to amputation of their right arms and left legs on the charges of taking up arms against the Islamic state, hostage taking and armed robbery and the sentences were carried out.

In a statement released on Feb. 11, Jundullah denied any connection with Mehrnahad and condemned the death sentence passed on him.

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