Human Rights

Radio programme reveals extent of Turkmen oppression by Iranian regime

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

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Turkmen-Iranian women wait to greet reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during his visit to Ghorghan, Golestan Province, Iran, April 21, 2009. Golestan is a population hub for Iran's Turkmen minority, which has experienced discrimination and oppression. Mousavi lost to hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. [AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE]

ASHGABAT -- Residents of Turkmenistan are expressing outrage at the news that Iranian authorities are systematically violating the rights of ethnic Turkmens living in that country.

The hardships experienced by ethnics Turkmens in Iran were detailed in a special radio programme, "Turkmens of the World", which was broadcast on July 12 on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Turkmen service.

"There have been incidents where the authorities forcibly took land from Turkmens and settled it with Shiites brought from Herat Province in Afghanistan," a member of the Turkmen-Iranian intelligentsia told RFE/RL.

The man, whose voice was altered for his safety, talked about how agents from the Iranian secret police barge into the homes of ethnic Turkmens at night and confiscate computers and other devices, while whisking away the unluckiest victims to unknown locations for several years.

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Iranian soldiers line up in formation at a military event in Iran in 2019. Iranian security forces have been key in keeping down Turkmens in Iran. [Iranian Ministry of Defense]

The political and civil rights of Turkmens in Iran have always been limited, but recently pressure has intensified on the minority, said Aganiyazov the historian.

"The situation in that regard has now come to a head," he said.

After the Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown in 1979, ethnic Turkmens achieved some autonomy and representation in the highest organs of power, as well as respect for their language, traditions and customs, he said.

Now, there is no talk of those achievements.

The ayatollahs' regime mercilessly suppresses any steps in that direction, said Aganiyazov.

The Iranian government has dialed up pressure on ethnic Turkmens because of deteriorating relations with Turkmenistan and the gas dispute that Iran lost in the International Court of Arbitration, said a source in the Turkmen Foreign Ministry.

It is despicable for a state to take its grudges out on ordinary citizens who represent an ethnic minority, said Annaberdy the Serakhs resident with relatives in Iran.

Turkmenistan's government needs to demand that the Iranian regime respect ethnic Turkmens' political and civil rights, he added.

"It's high time to call the Iranian ambassador in Ashgabat on the carpet and give him a note about the systematic violation of the rights of our compatriots in Iran," he said.

Centuries-old diaspora

A large, centuries-old Turkmen diaspora lives in the Iranian provinces of Golestan and North Khorasan, which border Turkmenistan.

The Turkmen population in Iran skyrocketed throughout the first half of the 20th century, during the imposition of Soviet rule in Turkmenistan and the Stalinist persecutions in the 1930s and 1940s, say historians in Ashgabat.

Many Turkmens found refuge in Turkmen Sahra, a region in northeastern Iran, during that period, historian Yusup Aganiyazov (last name changed) said in an interview.

During the rule of the two shahs (1925-1979), the Iranian government estimated the ethnic Turkmen population at between 1.5 million and 2 million. Now that population, according to the statistics of the present-day regime, is smaller by 500,000 to 1 million than before, reported RFE/RL's Turkmen service.

Tehran is deliberately underestimating the size of its ethnic Turkmen minority and trying to erase its sense of self, say Turkmen observers.

'They have no rights'

Annaberdy, who lives in Serakhs, Akhal Province, Turkmenistan, knows firsthand about the plight of Turkmen-Iranians.

"Nearly all of my relatives on my father's side are there, and they have no rights," he said.

Annaberdy's relatives remained on the Iranian side when the two countries drew up their shared border.

"During the Soviet era, my grandfather grazed sheep in the borderland between the barbed wire fences. His brothers also drove their large flocks of sheep from the other side, and they communicated with one another, as if they were singing a song in their native language," said Annaberdy, recalling his grandfather's stories.

Now, no one is allowed to come close to the border, so Turkmens and Turkmen-Iranians can communicate only by email or cell phone, he said.

"Turkmen-Iranians now have no rights whatsoever. They are discriminated against. The regime of the ayatollahs is carrying out a policy of genocide against ethnic minorities. Our relatives tell us about it," he added.

Turkmens in Iran are deprived of everything, he said, adding that they do not have the right to educate their children or read books in their native language, nor can they observe their folk traditions and customs.

"Many things that are permitted for Persians are off limits to them such as fishing in the sea, owning hunting rifles and hunting game. People who violate these rules can be taken to an unknown location and held for two or three years without a trial or investigation," Annaberdy said.

"I'm telling you what i know from messaging with my relatives," he added.

Various human rights observers have denounced the Iranian regime for oppressing minorities that, like the Turkmens, are neither Persian nor Shia.

The regime "discriminates against ... religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims", said Human Rights Watch in a 2020 report.

"In state schools, children are effectively forbidden from speaking or learning in any language except Persian," said a 2019 study posted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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