Son Of Prominent Afghan Scholar Self-Immolates In Iran To Protest Discrimination

Celebrated Afghan scholar Najib Mayel Heravi has lived in neighboring Iran for nearly 50 years, penning scores of acclaimed books and other treatises on ancient Persian manuscripts, literature, and Islamic mysticism.

The 68-year-old native of Herat in western Afghanistan has an Iranian wife, and both of his sons were born in Iran.

But with only temporary residency, Heravi has lived for decades in constant dread of deportation. Iran has routinely expelled members of its estimated 3.5 million-strong Afghan community, many of whom have no legal status and are deprived of basic rights.

Those fears materialized when Iranian authorities in April issued a 15-day deadline for Heravi to leave the country, a move that shocked and infuriated his family. They gave no reason for the threat against a man who had twice been honored by Iran's president -- in 2015 and 2017 -- for his lifetime of research into Persian and Islamic manuscripts.

In desperation, his eldest son, Shahab Heravi, staged a drastic protest. Drenching himself in gasoline, the younger Heravi set himself on fire on May 16 outside the Iranian Foreign Ministry office in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

Heravi, who suffered burns to 58 percent of his body, was in a coma for a week at the city's Imam Reza Hospital. But he survived, after receiving treatment for nearly a month. Now at home, he uses an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

In a phone interview with RFE/RL, Heravi said he was forced to take a stand because of the "the Iranian government's humiliating treatment of my father, the government's failure to fulfill its promises to my father, and the failure to grant my father Iranian citizenship after living in Iran for 49 years."

"Of course, this was not just to protest my father's treatment," he said. "It was also against the mistreatment of Afghans in Iran who do not even have access to basic rights."

The case has served to highlight the discrimination suffered by documented and undocumented Afghans in Iranian society, where many are subjected to abuse and injustice.

It comes weeks after the deaths of three Afghan migrants in a car blaze in central Iran provoked outrage in Afghanistan, after reports that the vehicle went up in flames after being shot at by Iranian police.

In May, Afghan officials accused Iranian border guards of killing 45 Afghan migrant workers by forcing them at gunpoint into a river along the two countries' 900-kilometer border.

The two events sent Afghans protesting in the streets and on social media to denounce Iranian authorities.

'Government Pressure'

Shahab Heravi's self-immolation was only reported after he was discharged from the hospital on June 15. In an Instagram post the following day, Heravi uploaded a graphic photo of himself in the hospital. He is pictured fixed to an oxygen mask, his face disfigured by extensive burns.

In the post, Heravi wrote that due to his father's "residency problems" and the "government's pressure on him," he decided to set himself on fire.

Since then, the photo has gone viral on social media, with Afghans and Iranians condemning the widespread discrimination against Afghans in Iran, which shares deep historical, cultural, and linguistic ties with Afghanistan.

After the protest that nearly took his life, Heravi alleged that the Iranian Intelligence Ministry "indirectly" warned him not to speak to the media and accused him of "trying to create tension between Afghanistan and Iran."

But Heravi said he could not remain silent, warning he would set himself on fire again, this time in front of the United Nations office in the capital, Tehran, if his father was not made a citizen.

Heravi said Iranian authorities last year granted his father a temporary residency permit. But he said that status bars his father from traveling outside the country, including to his native Afghanistan.

Heravi also said authorities had denied his father royalties and copyright on his works. An anthropologist, researcher, and author, the senior Heravi has written or edited 102 books in Iran. The Tehran Times, the Iranian government's own newspaper targeting English-language readers abroad, has described him as "a remarkable figure in Iranian studies, calligraphy and paleography."

His son also said the government had given inadequate housing to his father, who he said was in "extreme financial difficulty" and was suffering from depression.

On June 17, the Iranian government announced it had agreed to grant citizenship to Heravi, saying the process was at the "last administrative and legal steps."

Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance also said that it had awarded Heravi its highest medal for artistic achievement, praising him for his "many years of cultural service" to Iran, his contribution to the Persian language and literature, and promoting "cultural ties" between Afghanistan and Iran.

The statement said that, in coordination with the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, he would be presented with a residential unit in Mashhad.

Coming one month and a day after Shahab Heravi's self-immolation, neither the official statement nor reports in the official Iranian press made any mention of the protest.

Now, the younger Shahab has said, his father will not accept the offer of Iranian citizenship until the government fulfills all its promises and pays him full compensation for his work.

"We will then decide whether to accept," he said.

Heravi said he would continue to work to highlight the plight of Afghans living in Iran, adding that his father "is just one example of how the Iranian government discriminates against Afghans."

Afghanistan's acting foreign minister, Hanif Atmar, visited Tehran on June 21 as tensions persisted over the Afghan migrant deaths in Iran.

In a joint statement, the sides said they agreed to sign an agreement of strategic cooperation within the next three months that would legalize the presence of Afghan migrants in Iran and give them access to education, work, and health care.

History Of Discrimination

International human rights groups have documented years of violations against Afghan refugees and migrants in Iran, including physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced payment for transportation and accommodation in camps, slave labor, and the separation of families.

In 2015, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree allowing all Afghan children to go to school. But Afghans are still denied many other basic services, including access to medical care, jobs, and housing.

On June 5, Iranian police opened fire on a car carrying Afghan migrants, causing it to explode in flames. Three Afghans were killed and five wounded. Iranian authorities said police fired on the vehicle because they suspected that it was carrying drugs and undocumented migrants.

Angry Afghans staged dozens of rallies across Afghanistan to demand action by their government in Kabul.

In May, dozens of Afghans illegally crossed into Iran and were detained by Iranian border guards who allegedly beat, tortured, and then forced them to jump into the Harirud, a 1,100 kilometer-long river shared by Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkmenistan. Many of them drowned.

Iranian officials denied the incident took place on Iranian soil. But Afghan and Iranian authorities launched a joint investigation, the results of which have not yet been released.

And in December 2018, a viral video appeared to show an Iranian police officer slapping, insulting, and humiliating a group of Afghan migrants.

For decades, Afghans weary of war and poverty have turned to Iran to earn a living. Tehran has expelled many Afghans -- who are often blamed for insecurity and unemployment -- and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsion.

Many other Afghans moved to Iran following the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the long civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Others sought refuge in Iran after the fundamentalist Taliban took power in Afghanistan. After the U.S.-led invasion that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, some Afghans left for Iran in search of jobs, although hundreds of thousands of them returned last year amid a crippling economic crisis in that country.

So far in 2020, more than 337,000 Afghans living in Iran have returned home, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Some have returned due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Iran particularly hard, and the worsening economic situation there. A lot of Afghans take on menial work that many Iranians are not interested in.