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Human Rights

Turkmen protests in northern Iran highlight regime's repression of minorities

By Dzhumaguly Annayev

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A video screenshot of Turkmen protestors demanding justice from Iranian authorities on March 24. [File]

ASHGABAT -- Recent protests in northeast Iran over the regime's inaction following the alleged rape of two young Turkmen girls underscores the unrest within Iranian society and regime's long-standing policy of discrimination and hostility toward ethnic minorities, analysts say.

The accused is a 55-year-old Golestan Dam security guard and undercover Basij militiaman, according to local news sources including Fars and Mashregh.

The families of two girls, aged 7 and 8, say the man raped the children.

Iranian authorities arrested the man and are charging him with kidnapping alone because forensic examinations ruled out rape, according to Khosro Khalili, the attorney general of Gonbad-e-Kavus, Golestan province.

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Protesters in Saravan, Iran, torched a police car on February 23 after Iranian forces killed dozens of ethnic minorities near the Pakistan border. [File]

The parents and other angry residents of Gonbad-e-Kavus, some estimates in the thousands, took to the streets March 23 to protest the judiciary's "unjust" ruling.

Instead of giving the protesters, many of them ethnic Sunni Turkmens, the assurances of justice that they sought, the authorities crushed the demonstration.

Protests continued on March 24 in front of a local courthouse, but additional police and security forces deployed from Gorgan, the Golestan provincial capital, and violently cracked down on the demonstrations, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)'s Turkmen service.

The security forces injured dozens of protesters and made about 100 arrests, RFE/RL reported March 28.

Outrage and injustice

Throughout the episode, ethnic Turkmens were outraged not only by the reported abuse of little girls but also by the Iranian authorities' attempts to silence Turkmens and to deprive them of the right to a fair investigation, said Agajuma, an Ashgabat-based journalist who has long studied the history, culture and life of Turkmen-Iranians and withheld his last name to protect himself.

"Our Turkmen-Iranian brothers did not go out to make political demands," he said. "They demanded an honest and fair trial of the pedophile. They didn't riot, didn't smash shops and didn't torch cars and trash cans. But the regime has treated them very cruelly and unfairly."

Iranian authorities are striking a truculent tone in response to the demonstrations.

Authorities "will not pause one second in guarding security and combatting ill-wishers", said Ali Malek-Shahkouhi, the Golestan provincial commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), according to Iran International and other media.

Turkmens comprise almost 1% of Iran's population but lack the rights and freedoms that ethnic Persians enjoy.

Iranian authorities are methodically trying to erase the ethnic identity of Turkmens, Kurds, Baluchis and other minorities living in the country, said Agajuma.

"I know of many instances of ethnic Turkmens' rights being infringed," he said.

Agajuma assembled his own file on the Iranian regime when, as part of a creative delegation from Turkmenistan, he twice visited Aktokay village, Golestan province.

"It pained me to hear people talk about their disenfranchised position," Agajuma said.

Abuse of minorities

The plight of minorities in Iran is grim, say outside investigators.

"The government disproportionately targeted minority groups, including Kurds, Ahwazis, Azeris and Baluchis, for arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, disappearances and physical abuse," said the US State Department's 2020 report on human rights in Iran, published March 30.

"These ethnic minority groups reported political and socioeconomic discrimination, particularly in their access to economic aid, business licenses, university admissions, job opportunities, permission to publish books, and housing and land rights," the report said.

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

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

Last September, Iranian authorities revoked the licence of the Sakhra newspaper, which had been published in the Turkmen language for 22 years, and shut it down.

Last July, the media reported on other harassment of Turkmen-Iranians by local authorities.

Turkmen-Iranians have long endured their situation, but they could not stomach the molestation of children and the authorities' attempts to cover up the affair, said Agajuma.

"I know that the police repression of the protesters did not intimidate anyone," he said. "To the contrary. The people are determined and will seek a [rape] trial for the rapist."

The behaviour of Iranian media outlets provides additional proof that discriminatory policy against ethnic minorities in Iran goes on at the state level.

"They do not talk about the root cause of the protests in Gonbad-e-Kavus, instead portraying them as a violation of the law, an attack on police officers," Shamerdanguly Myradi, an RFE/RL Turkmen journalist, said on March 28.

"The idea that the culprit's guilt has supposedly not been proven, as if he did not abuse the Turkmen girls but tried to kidnap them instead, is creeping about even in the so-called semi-official and independent Iranian media," he said.

"None of the publications are saying that the victimised girls and the protesters are ethnic Turkmens," he added.

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