January 1, 2021
Iran has sentenced a rights activist from its Azerbaijani Turk ethnic minority to an effective five-year prison term for his peaceful campaign against discrimination of his minority group by the Islamist rulers of the Persian-majority nation, according to a knowledgeable source.
In a Wednesday interview with VOA Persian from Iran, the source familiar with the situation of activist Ali Azizi said a Revolutionary Court in the northwestern city of Tabriz handed the sentence to Azizi in a Saturday ruling verbally communicated to Azizi’s lawyer, Asghar Mohammadi. The source said the activist received a five-year sentence for alleged membership in an illegal Azerbaijani Turk rights group and a one-year sentence for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda.
Under Iranian law, Azizi would serve only the longest of the two sentences, five years, if they are confirmed in the forthcoming appeal stage of the judicial process. The activist remains free on bail at his home in Urmia, the largest city of northwestern Iran’s West Azerbaijan province.
Azizi arrested February 23
The source said Iranian security agents had arrested Azizi in Urmia on February 23 and taken him to Tabriz, capital of neighboring East Azerbaijan province, for interrogation before releasing him on March 25 on a 500 million toman bail, equivalent to $19,000 at the unofficial exchange rate tracked by bonbast.com.
When Azizi and his lawyer attended Azizi’s one-day trial on September 14, the activist rejected the charges against him as fabrications of security agencies, the source said. Azizi also denied any contact with the Azerbaijani Turk rights group of which he was accused of being a member, known as the South Azerbaijan National Liberation Front (GAMAC), the source added.
GAMAC has a website and is run by Iranian Azerbaijani Turk activists living in exile in several countries around the world.
Another activist jailed
The source said the Iranian court based its case against Azizi in part on an alleged association between Azizi and another Azerbaijani Turk activist, Abbas Lisani. Iranian authorities have imprisoned Lisani in the northwestern city of Ardabil since January 2019 for his peaceful public advocacy of the linguistic rights of Azerbaijani Turks, Iran’s largest ethnic minority. Azizi also has been involved in such advocacy, but his connection to Lisani is unclear.
Iran’s Azerbaijani Turks number as many as 15 million people, according to a March 2018 report by Britain-based organization Minority Rights Group International (MRG). Iran’s total population is about 85 million, based on a July 2020 estimate in the U.S. CIA World Factbook.
The MRG report said Azerbaijani Turks are concentrated in Iran’s northern provinces of West Azerbaijan, East Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan. It said most Azerbaijani Turks are Shiite Muslims like Iran’s Persian majority, but they have long resented restrictions imposed on the use of their Turkic dialect by Iranian Shiite clerical rulers.
Language ban violates Article 15
Many of Iran’s Azerbaijani Turks speak a dialect that the Iranian government does not allow to be taught in schools. Azerbaijani Turk activists have criticized the ban, saying it violates Article 15 of Iran’s constitution, which allows for “the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools.”
Iran’s Islamist rulers have long feared that permitting the official use of Turkic dialects in the country could promote separatism among minorities.
Iran’s judiciary filed an additional charge against Azizi in recent months, accusing the activist of “publishing lies” on digital platforms to disturb public order and requiring him to pay an additional $6,000 bail, VOA’s source said. The case was referred to the Tabriz Criminal Court and a trial date has not yet been announced, the source added.
VOA cannot independently verify the judicial actions involving Azizi as it is barred from reporting inside Iran. There has been no recent mention of those actions in Iranian state media.