Thursday, May 25, 2006

Growing Unrest in Azerbaijan

Navid Ahmadi, Rooz Online:
The publication of caricatures insulting Turkish-speaking Iranians in Iran newspaper (which is the official government newspaper belonging to the Islamic Republic News Agency whose editor is directly appointed by the government) led to demonstrations and unrest in the north western Azeri-speaking provinces of Iran. READ MORE

The demonstrators of the Azerbaijan region expressed their anger over the disregard of the different ethnic national minorities in Iran. The immediate backlash and government response to the protests has been the closure of the newspaper, the crushing of the demonstrators, the arrest of the caricaturist, the arrest of the editor of the paper, and the collection of signatures for censuring the minister of culture Saffar Herrandi.

Azeri students were the first to stage a protest against the caricatures who called for a response against the newspaper and an apology from its officers. The newspaper however waited too long to respond, which only ignited the anger of the Azeris even more. And when it did apologize, the language used was not articulate enough to calm the protestors. So the protest grew in size.

The protesters found a sympathetic ear in the Majlis (Iran's Parliament) among Azeri deputies. What further aggravated the issue was that Herrandi too responded to the event late. Soon the whole province was engulfed in protests and it is now in its fifth day.

On the first day, the demonstrators and the police clashed, causing the large Tabriz bazaar (market) and the shops around it to close for the day. The demonstrators marched to the Tabriz governor general’s headquarters and the East Azerbaijan governor’s office. By the time they got there, thousands had joined in. And all the while the demonstrators demanded attention to their province. Things got so out of hand that the Friday prayer of Zanjan publicly called for the execution of those responsible for the insulting caricatures.

When the demonstrators came to Tabriz University, clashes broke out between the Baseej para-military and the demonstrators. Then the special guard came into action and using batons and tear gas attacked people. The result of all this was still more injuries.

Baztab website run by former Passdaran Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai wrote, During these clashes which grew in size by the minute, a police minibus, a Toyota sedan belonging to the special forces, several police motorcycles, a Renault vehicle, and two Peykan cars were put to fire by the demonstrators. Tens of people too were reported to have been injured in the unrest, with 5 in critical condition. No deaths have been reported this far.”

The following day, revolutionary prosecutor Firuzi told the media that 54 individuals has already been arrested in connection with the unrest in Tabriz and in protest to the insults of Iran newspaper. We have filed a suite against those responsible for the publications of the caricatures and sent the file to Tehran.” He also spoke of infiltrators who he claimed had found their way into the demonstrations in which, in his words, “public and private property had been destroyed.”

While stressing on the need to act in a way that would not be misued by foreigners and enemies of the Islamic regime, Firuzi also said, “There were no anti-state slogans chanted during the demonstrations and that those who had been arrested were hooligans with criminal records and some ultra-nationalists with records too. Arrest warrants had been issued for others too who would be detained in the coming days.”

At the same time and with the mounting demonstrations, the government Press Supervisory body met and unanimously voted to close Iran newspaper which belongs to the government IRNA news agency.

The minister of the interior who is responsible for the administration and political events in the provinces announced that the country’s security council had met over the issue and requested the judiciary to act against those responsible for the unrest. This decree led to the arrest and detention of Mana Nistani, the well known caricaturist.

In the Majlis (Iran's Parliament) Eshrat Shayegh the representative from Tabriz called for the censure of the minister of Islamic guidance on grounds that his apology for the publication of the cartoons came too late. And in the words of another deputy Mehrangiz Morovati, this draft was circulated to get the necessary signature to be put on the house docket.

While acknowledging the eruptive condition of Iranian society, Keyhan newspaper which follows a hardline policy of unconditionally supporting the current administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and its editor Hossein Shariatmadari labeled the continuation of the protests after the government apology “a suspicious event.” Shariatmadari’s editorial called the caricatures the beginning of an excuse by suspicious people, claiming that the origins of the unrest lay somewhere else.

Mohammad Hossein Farhangi, another MP from Tabriz and the editor of Misagh newspaper connected to the Passdaran Revolutionary Guards and the Islamic Propagation Organization echoed what Keyhan had written and said that he had warned the government of the rising anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic activities under the guise of Pan-Turkism. He called for the execution of those responsible for the unrest.

Razavi, the intelligence tsar in the ministry of the interior said that those who had organized the event had undertaken an illegal act and would be legally prosecuted.

After all these events, Tabriz now has a military face. The streets of the city are plied by security men in plain clothes, by the Baseej para-military personnel, and by forces with anti-riot gear. While calm may appear for some hours, it does not seem to last. Just last night another round of clashes between protestors and security forces occurred in the Abresan district of the city. News reports indicate that the unrest in Tabriz has already spilled into other towns such as Oroomie, Marand, Zanjan, Ardebil, Khooi and Gazvin.