Execution of Kurds Arouses Unprecedented Sympathy

Province stages one-day strike for first time as national opposition leaders express support for minority.

The hasty execution of five Iranian political dissidents, four of them Kurds, has sparked unprecedented support for their cause including a one-day strike that shut down much of the country’s Kurdistan province.

National opposition leaders also protested, even though the Kurdish case has never gathered much backing in the rest of Iran in the past, partly because they were suspected of wanting a separate state.

Kurds, an ethnic group without a state spread across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, make up about eight per cent of Iran’s 74 million population.

When the phone lines at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison went down on May 7, many prisoners knew from past experience to expect unpleasant news. The next day, a government website announced the execution of five “terrorists and members of counterrevolutionary groups” on charges of Moharebeh - waging war on God or his representative.

Four of the five executed individuals– Farzad Kamangar, Farhad Vakili, Ali Heydarian, Shirin Alam Holi – were Kurds. A statement by the Tehran prosecutor’s office accused them of membership of the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, PJAK – the Iranian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, of Turkey, which is fighting to establish a Kurdish confederation in the region.

The fifth man executed, Mehdi Eslamian, was accused of membership of the paramilitary Iran Monarchy Association, a group accused of bombing a mosque in the city of Shiraz in 2008, which killed 14 people.

Many in Iran were shocked by the political executions. Khalil Bahramian, Farzad Kamangar’s lawyer, said his client was executed while his appeal was still being processed. The family of Kamangar, a teacher, said a judicial official had previously told them he would be released. They learned about his execution via news websites.

None of the families or the lawyers of the executed five were told of the time of the executions, despite rules requiring 48 hours’ notice so that a prisoner can see his family for the last time.

The secrecy surrounding the executions convinced Iranian public opinion that the regime was trying to scare the opposition into backing down from its demands. The executions took place one month before the anniversary of last year’s disputed presidential election and at a time when opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have requested permission for a rally on the anniversary on June 12.

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi announced a week after the executions that six people held in protests that followed the election had been also sentenced to death for links with the rebel Mujahedeen Khalq Organisation, MKO.

Kurds have been fighting the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979 when some wanted autonomy for Kurdistan. However, most now seek a federal structure for the entire country.

In the chaos that followed the 1979 revolution, some Kurds decided to take up arms to pursue their demands. Months of negotiations with the newly-established Iranian government yielded no results and fearing Kurdistan’s secession, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in August 1979 finally ordered the deployment of troops to the region. The conflict lasted years but went little noticed because of the more serious war between Iran and Iraq that lasted from 1980 to 1988.

The former commander of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, IRGC, Mohsen Rezaei, who held the post from 1981 to 1997, said in an interview with Fars news agency that the rebellion in Kurdistan lasted until 1995. According to Rezaei, 1,200 government forces were killed between 1979 and 1992 in Kurdistan.

In the years that followed, the government meted out harsh treatment to peaceful Kurdish movements. In 1997, when the people of Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Kurdistan, attempted a silent march in protest against the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, government forces cracked down severely.

The local authorities said five people were killed but unofficial reports put the death toll at at least 20. In July 2005, Kurdistan once again became the scene of peaceful protests and marches after a Mahabad citizen named Shuan Seyyed Ghaderi was killed by police. This protest was savagely suppressed too. Kurds in the town of Saghez also protested over Ghaderi and were shot from police helicopters and killed.

In the years following the 1979 Islamic revolution, human rights violations were common in Kurdistan but never got much attention across the country, the Tehran government blaming the need to put down the threat of Kurdish separatism and open opposition to the revolution.

The Kurdistan war was used by the government as a justification for demanding unity and patriotism and as a means to arouse religious sentiment in order to put down rival political movements in the 1980s.

In another recent case at Sanandaj Azad University, student Ebrahim Lotfollahi was arrested in 2008 and a few days later the authorities announced that he had committed suicide in prison. His supporters believed he died under torture. His family was never allowed to see his body and his lawyer’s plea to exhume the corpse and perform an autopsy was never acknowledged.

This month’s case prompted the leaders of the opposition Green Movement that arose after last year’s election, including Mousavi and Karroubi, to express their sympathy and solidarity with the Kurds by condemning the executions as unjust.

The strike on May 13 closed down the major Kurdish towns including Sanandaj, Marivan, Kamyaran, Saqez, Divandareh, Boukan, Mahabad, Oshnaviyeh, and Piranshahr almost completely. Eyewitnesses reported that the conservative and traditional Asef bazaar in Sanandaj, which is seldom closed even on national holidays, was not working. A large number of students did not attend classes.

Despite repeated calls by the Kurdish opposition for widespread strikes over the years, it was the first time that this kind of response has been seen.

Many Iranians believe the latest executions signal a willingness by the regime to radicalise the political atmosphere in Kurdistan in order to divert public attention from other domestic issues. But the widespread support shown to their cause may not have been anticipated by the government.

Dr Mohammad Ali Tofighi is a former central committee member of the banned Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organisation, many of whose members have been arrested. He is a former adviser to the governor of Kurdistan, the former head of the Sanandaj Medical Council and also was editor-in-chief of two Kurdish weekly newspapers.