Arab farmers are being intimidated and forced to leave their homes and farms on Minoo Island, which falls under the plans for a massive military-industrial project on the border with Iraq.
The Hamsayeha newspaper has reported complaints from Arabs living on the island that agents working for the government and the Arvand Free Zone are bullying them into selling their homes ahead of a planned land confiscation programme.
Mostafa Motowarzadeh, the Majlis (parliament) member for Mohammarah (Khorramshahr), confirmed the problems facing the farmers. He added that the Iranian authorities were pushing ahead with acquisitions before the end of the official consultation period for the land acquisitions.
Mohammad Hazbari, the editor of Hamsayeha, was last month the subject of an Amnesty International appeal after he was arrested during a crack-down on journalists, intellectuals and tribal leaders in the province of Khuzestan, the homeland of the Ahwazi Arabs. He was later released. Mr Hazbari's objective reporting of the developments in the Arvand Free Zone runs the risk of his incarceration and the closure of his newspaper.
The Arvand Free Zone will cover 155 square km, including Minoo Island and large sections of land around Abadan and Khorramshahr. The plans will involve the acquisition of land currently occupied by thousands of indigenous Ahwazi Arabs, including entire villages. The zone is located in one of the Middle East's the most geographically strategic areas. It will enable the Iranian government to influence Shia areas of Iraq, particularly in controlling the extremist militias operating in Iraqi provinces such as Basra.
Similar developments in the Ahwaz region have seen large numbers of Ahwazi Arabs displaced and forced into city slums or other provinces. Many of these projects include a significant involvement of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). A report by the British Ahwazi Friendship Society on the implications of the Arvand Free Zone as well as the official documents commanding Arabs to surrender their lands can be downloaded by clicking here.
More than 200,000 hectares of land owned by Ahwazi Arabs farmers have been confiscated since the 1979 Revolution and given to the government sponsored "Sugar Cane Project", an intensive sugar cultivation project. Around 47,000 hectares of Ahwazi Arab farmland in the Jofir area have been transferred to non-indigenous Persian settlers and a further 25,000 hectares have been taken from Ahwazi Arab farmers and given to the government-owned Shilat corporation and government agencies. More than 6,000 hectares of Ahwazi farmland north of Shush have been taken to "resettle the faithful non-indigenous Persians", according to directives by the Ministry of Agriculture and the IRGC's Command. In 2004, the homes of 4,000 Arab residents of Sapidar were destroyed and bulldozed over in 2004 with little or no compensation.
UN and EU condemnation
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the European Parliament have recently condemned the forced displacement of Ahwazi Arabs. Following his visit to Khuzestan in July, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Miloon Kothari, said: "Development projects, like the ones ... in Khuzestan, are ... leading to the displacement of entire villages - with thousands of people not consulted on the projects, informed of the impending displacement, nor offered adequate resettlement and compensation. There is a strange system in the country where if the government wants to confiscate land, you can't challenge it. All you can do is to put up some sort of resistance to get good compensation.
"We looked in detail in some areas on the issue of compensation and, for example, in Khuzestan the compensation being offered to the Arab villagers who were being displaced is sometimes one fortieth of the market value - and there's nothing they can do about it. It's a fait accompli. That's how it is. And all of these phenomena are continuing. It's something that is happening almost every day." Mr Kothari's interview can be downloaded here.
On 13 October, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution on Iran that included a condemnation of the treatment of Ahwazi Arabs. The European Parliament's decision to censure the Iranian regime over the abuse of Ahwazi Arabs and Kurds was the result of intensive lobbying by the British Ahwazi Friendship Society and Portuguese Socialist MEP Paulo Casaca. The motion stated that the European Parliament "condemns the treatment of minorities such as ... the inhabitants of the area around Ahwaz city, the provincial capital of the ethnic Arab dominated Khuzestan province, who are being displaced from their villages according to statements by Miloon Kothari, UN Rapporteur on Adequate Housing."
Addressing Parliament, European Commissioner Jan Figel, speaking on behalf of Benita Ferrero-Waldner (European Commissioner for External Relations), underlined the "excessive use of force to suppress unrest in the provinces of Khuzestan and Kurdistan" as a matter of "deep concern." He added that EU would not sign a trade and cooperation treaty unless human rights issues and concerns over Iran's nuclear programme were addressed.
Call for international solidarity
Nasser Ban Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said: "The international community should call a halt to the Arvand Free Zone, which is a major threat to regional stability and human rights. Arab farmers are being forced off lands they have settled for hundreds of years and their livelihoods will vanish, along with a date cultivation industry that has thrived for hundreds if not thousands of years.
"The area will be decimated and the Arab farming families who have lived on Minoo Island for generations will be forced into city slums, without even a decent price for their land. This is all for the benefit of a despotic government that wants to export oppression and state terrorism to Iraq. The tragedy in Minoo Island is just the beginning. The entire Shatt Al-Arab will soon witness further ethnic cleansing and militarisation.
"The international community backed the right of Kosovar Albanians to self-determination and went to war with Yugoslavia's Milosevic regime to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The Ahwazis do not want war or invasion, but they do expect the international community to intervene and stop the forced displacement of indigenous Arabs from the lands that belong to them."
Click here to hear Radio Farda's report on the Arvand Free Zone, in Farsi, featuring an interview with Karim Abdian, Director of the Ahwaz Education and Human Rights Foundation
23 October, 2005
Sunday, October 23, 2005 BAFS