Death in Urumiya

In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 15 in the isolated and overcrowded Urumiya prison in western Iran, the authorities hanged one of their opponents.

Hossein Khazri, an alleged activist with the Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), was 29. He had been in custody since early 2009. His crime, of which he was convicted on July 11, 2009, was that of being an “enemy of God” in the eyes of the Islamic Republic.

Khazri’s specific activities against the deity worshiped by the rulers of Iran appear to have consisted of political agitation for democracy and federalism in the country of his birth.

In the course of his incarceration, in prisons administered by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Intelligence Ministry, Khazri had been severely tortured, according to human rights organizations. His hanging was the latest in a wave of executions of Kurdish activists and other opponents of the regime carried out in recent weeks. Fourteen other Kurdish activists are currently on death row, condemned for their political activities.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran this week described the authorities as on an “execution binge,” orchestrated by the intelligence and security agencies.

The hanging of Khazri brings the number of people executed by Iran since the beginning of the year to 47.

A spokesman for ICHRI said that the “execution of Kurdish activists, without fair trials and following torture, increasingly appears as a systematic, politically motivated process.” The roundups and executions of Kurdish activists are part of an ongoing, brutal and little-reported war waged by the Revolutionary Guards against a separatist insurgency in the predominantly Kurdish areas of western Iran. Urumiya jail, which was built to house 150, is currently teeming with 300 inmates, as a result of recent crackdowns on independent political activity.

PJAK HAS been fighting the Iranian authorities since 2004. It defines its fight not in ethnic nationalist terms.

Rather, it claims to be fighting for “federalism and secular democracy” in Iran.

Based in the Qandil mountain range on the Iraqi border, the movement engages in periodic raids into Iran. Since February 2009, it has been designated a terrorist organization by the US. PJAK is an offshoot of the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, and belongs to the same umbrella organization.

It lacks the deep roots among the Kurds of Iran which the PKK possesses among the Turkish Kurds, however.

Unverified media reports have suggested that despite the terrorist designation, the group has received US support, as part of a larger effort to foment unrest and instability in Iran. There have also been rumors of Israeli contacts with the organization. These supposed Western links feature prominently in the propaganda of the Iranian authorities against PJAK.

But whatever the particular provenance of PJAK, it is clear that the people in whose name it wishes to speak, the Kurds of Iran, currently endure something much less than a free life. The movement’s potential for growth is thus considerable.

The repression of it by the regime is correspondingly harsh.

THE IRANIAN system is dominated by ethnic Persians, but the Islamic Republic does not define itself officially according to ethnic identity. Rather, it rules in the name of religion. As such, the regime constitutionally recognizes the Kurdish language. In practice, however, discrimination against Kurds and other minority ethnic and religious communities is widespread and of long standing.

Around 5 million Kurds live in Iran, concentrated in the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Ilam and Kurdistan. Separatist sentiment is particularly strong among Sunni Muslim Kurds, who constitute just over half the total. In the earliest days of the regime, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a jihad against Kurdish separatism, and 10,000 Kurds were killed as the Revolutionary Guards fought to establish regime control in these areas.

After the unrest following the rigged presidential elections of July 2009, the Islamist authorities’ repression in Kurdish areas of the country has once more sharply increased. Last May, the authorities began a crackdown as the anniversary of the elections approached. Four Kurdish activists, one a woman, were convicted of membership in PJAK and executed following severe torture.

None was given access to lawyers. PJAK denied any links with the four. All were convicted, like Hossein Khazri, of the crime of war against God.

The incidents led to widespread demonstrations and further bloody suppression.

And this is where things remain. The period since the successful repression of the countrywide dissent that followed the elections of July 2009 has seen the consolidation of an Islamist counterreaction within the regime.

The power of the intelligence and security apparatuses has grown. This is reflecting itself in the brutal repression of dissent taking place in the Kurdishspeaking areas along the border with Iraq. Khazri was the latest victim of this repression. He was almost certainly not the last.

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