Fifteen year-old Ma’edeh Shabaninejad was arrested two months ago at her
aunt’s house in the southern city of Ahwaz, where she was hiding after security
forces raided her own home and confiscated her poems, her father said, according to a Reuters report.
Sahid Shabaninejad said his daughter had told her mother in weekly calls she is allowed from jail that she had been accused of inciting violence through her poetry about Iran’s Arab minority.
“Resist, my homeland, there is not much left of you,” one of her verses said. “Soon you will hear in your sky the sound of smiles and liberation’s call.”
Arabs have long said they face discrimination in Iran, but two human rights groups say that hundreds of people have been arrested around Ahwaz in the last few weeks alone amid protests against water and power cuts, poverty and alienation.
The community is also caught in a struggle between Iran’s Shi’ite rulers and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia that has fueled civil wars in Syria and Yemen and spread fear of wider instability.
“I am amazed the Iranian government is afraid of a 15-year-old girl,” Shabaninejad said by telephone. “A young girl is in constant fear in prison and cannot sleep at night.”
Another relative said Ma’edeh’s aunt was detained the same night and some cousins were arrested the following day. Reuters was unable to confirm their accounts with the authorities, who do not usually release the names of detainees.
Government officials, who keep tight controls over civil movements of all kinds, were not immediately available to comment when Reuters contacted them to ask about the spate of arrests reported by the local Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation and the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Officials have stressed the importance of addressing minority grievances and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned against discrimination.
“Islamic values and the country’s constitution oblige all bodies of the Islamic Republic to prevent any discrimination and inequality toward Iranians of any ethnicity, race or religion,” he said in a statement on his website last July.
Ahwaz is the regional capital of the ethnically diverse southwestern Khuzestan province, home to most of Iran’s Arabs.
When protests erupted nationwide in January against high prices and alleged corruption, clashes broke out between police and demonstrators in the southwest.
Sporadic demonstrations continued there after they died away elsewhere, with local Arabs voicing anger against what they say are barriers to fair employment and political rights in a region which accounts for 85 percent of Iran’s oil wealth.
Another major cause of unrest has been drought, which locals say has been exacerbated by the diversion of water supplies to ethnically Persian provinces such as Isfahan.
The Iranian government says it recognizes drought is a major problem and is doing what it can. In 2016, it acknowledged discrimination in employment in Khuzestan, saying it resulted from the province’s internal affairs, not government policy.
Ahwaz Human Rights Organisation says that of the hundreds arrested in recent weeks it has identified 70 by name. Five individual activists told Reuters the detainees are being held on security charges including separatism, Islamist militancy or being agents of Saudi Arabia.
The activists say dozens of others have also been summoned, interrogated and released.
Several released prisoners and detainees’ relatives told Reuters they had come under pressure from security forces, especially the Revolutionary Guards, not to publicize their detention.
Three released detainees told Reuters they had undergone routine beatings, threats and torture with electric shocks, including in one case, to the genitals.
One former detainee said he had wires attached to his head while making a phone call to relatives from jail and told he would get an electric shock if he said anything out of line.
The office of the Khuzestan governor, the Iranian Prisons Organisation, the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the reported numbers of arrests or conditions in jail.
Arab demonstrators say Iran should not be spending money in Syria, Iraq and Yemen while people at home are struggling.
At a demonstration in Ahwaz in February, participants drew parallels between water and electricity shortages in the town and in Syria’s Aleppo, where Iran is building power plants after helping the government to oust rebels at the end of 2016.
“Ahwaz is like Aleppo, it has no electricity, no water,” video footage on social media showed Iranian Arab protesters chanting at the rally, before police broke it up.