August 29, 2020
On Wednesday, August 26, residents of the ramshackle village of Abolfazl on the outskirts of Ahvaz were attacked with bullets and teargas when they tried to stop the municipality’s anti-riot police and loader trucks from destroying their homes.
Pictures and videos of this violent encounter have since proliferated online. But Colonel Mohsen Dalvand, commander of Ahvaz police, denied the incident and claimed that the videos had been “fabricated” by a group of “opportunists” and “profiteers” who, he said, would be prosecuted for “disrupting public peace and security.”
Abolfazl village, with its nine streets and 300 informal houses, is not an officially recognized administrative area. As such it is denied access to the electricity grid, piped water and other basic infrastructure. For the past year, locals say, village life has been riven by clashes and confrontations between its residents and the Mostazafan Foundation over ownership of the land.
The Mostazafan Foundation, or the Foundation for the Oppressed, was founded in February 1980 after the Islamic Revolution with the stated purpose of supporting the poor and disabled. Now it has swelled to become the second-largest commercial enterprise in Iran, after the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company, and the biggest single holding company in the Middle East. Its activities are directly supervised by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.
The Foundation claims that the villagers of Abolfazl have illegally built their homes on the land that it owns. But the villagers insist that they have occupied this area for more than 40 years and have worked hard to cultivate the land.
They Made a Farmland in the Desert
Abdolrahman, a resident of Abolfazl, told IranWire that most villagers have paid either middlemen or sometimes even agents of the municipality to buy the land on which they have built their homes, and have invested everything into making their farms productive.
According to Abdolrahman, around 3:30 pm on August 26, two municipality loader trucks flanked by a number of police agents bore down on the village.
“They tell us that we have usurped the land the belongs to the Foundation, and the police have to destroy our houses on the orders of the provincial government,” he said. “But we’ve been living in this house for 30 years. My father paid money to a broker to buy this land, but now they say that we didn’t pay the rightful owner: meaning the Foundation for the Oppressed.
“They say that the municipality employees who issued the building permits were lawbreakers, and our houses are not properly registered – and are therefore illegal. The question is this: why throughout all these years they did not come to us, or arrest those brokers or “lawbreakers”?”
Abdolrahman pointed out that the official mission of the Foundation is to help the oppressed. The people living here are among the most deprived and marginalized in the whole of Ahvaz.
“They call us landgrabbers. We, who 30 or 40 years ago, took a piece of barren land on the fringes of Ahvaz and made it into a productive farmland. In 1986, my father received a permit to supply a piece of land here with water. During the [Iraq] war some people even sought refuge here.
“In those days it was a totally barren piece of desert, a forgotten place on the margins of Ahvaz. Our people cultivated it. They do not hold the official deeds, but they have a right to it.
“People built humble huts for themselves and lived here in utter poverty. Now the wealthy Foundation for the Oppressed has come to drive us out – and in the time of coronavirus.”
Where Was the Foundation Before Now?
The Foundation of the Oppressed officially owns 300 hectares of land surrounding the village of Abolfazl, while the village itself only occupies about 25 hectares.
In a field report from the village, the newspaper Shargh quoted a local representative who declared that the government had given its residents the “right of roots”, because they had bought the land and cultivated it.
“If the Foundation was the owner of this land,” they reportedly said, “it should have prevented the building of the very first homes here: not [interened] now that the villagers are established here and some have even bought their homes from others.
“The foundation has a little office nearby and there is always someone it. Why didn’t it stop the construction? Each time one of the villagers built a house, agents of the municipality came to the village, took some money and went away.”
Abdolrahman confirmed that some residents had purchased their homes from previous owners. Some houses have changed hands several times, and throughout these years, construction has continued. “Now they ask us for our deeds,” he said. “Our deeds are our shared ownership.
“Or they tell us that they’ll provide us with places to live – and that they have agreed to provide homes for 36 households. Where are the other 264 families are supposed to go?”
Abdolrahman told IranWire that village men have also been arrested. “Two weeks ago they detained a number of people and took them to prison. Then they said they needed a deed [as a property bond] to release them. But do not have the property deeds.” Instead, the men had to sell their wives’ bracelets to post the bond. They were them made to give an undertaking that they would vacate their homes and turn them over to the Foundation for the Oppressed.
At midnight on August 26, Abdolrahman said, two houses were flattened by the municipality’s loader trucks. But Jamal Alemi Neysi, the governor of Ahvaz, insisted that the reports about the destruction of villagers’ homes were untrue and the situation was being dealt with entirely through the judiciary.
Off the Grid
In his announcement on the situation, Alemi Neysi also stated baldly that in the Ahvaz administrative area, there was no village by the name of Abolfazl. The area in question, he said, was an informal place of residence, occupied by a group of “opportunists” and built on while the law’s back was turned.
“Either the brokers were swindlers,” Abdolrahman said, “or the municipality employees let the buildings go up simply by pretending that they hadn’t noticed. But neither of these would be the fault of the people who live here.”
During the clashes on Wednesday, August 26, Abdolrahman’s brother’s right arm was wounded by gunfire. Police, he said, attacked people with teargas indiscriminately; and it made no difference whether they were young or old, man or woman or child.
“How can you deny what was happening before the eyes of hundreds of people and the drivers that were passing by?” Abdolrahman demanded. “The trucks weren’t there? All these people weren’t beaten and hurt? Was it just a lie that people resisted the police with sticks and stones because they were afraid of homelessness and had nothing to lose?
“During the war with Iraq, many of these people fought off the enemy in this same place. They turned the desert into farmland. Why doesn’t the Foundation go and take back the lands in northern Tehran as well?”
After widespread public anger at the violence done to the villagers, the Foundation for the Oppressed issued an official statement via its public relations team claiming that the destruction of homes in Abolfazl would be paused. The Foundation told Shargh newspaper: “Immediately after the Foundation learned about the action being taken, it asked that the implementation of the judiciary’s verdict concerning these lands be stopped… Any further action will depend on finding a way to support the residents of this area.”
The villagers haven’t drawn much comfort from this. “In the past 30 years,” Abdolrahman said, “they repeatedly came and promised to give us the title deeds. Every time, somebody from the municipality – or a related or unrelated organization – came over here and swindled the people by promising them that this time, their problem would be solved.”
The Oppressed Cannot Fight Back
The Foundation has made headlines twice in recent weeks. In a TV appearance earlier in August Parviz Fattah, the foundation’s head, accused government institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and the army, as well as individuals including ex-speaker of parliament Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, former vice president for women and family affairs Shahindokt Molaverdi, of illegally seizing public property. He promised that he and the Foundation would wrest back the properties these groups had “usurped” from the public and the Foundation.
Shortly afterwards it was announced that the properties in question had been fitted to these institutions and figures by the Supreme Leader himself, forcing Fattah to apologize and beg forgiveness.
Now that the Foundation for the Oppressed has failed to recover any stolen property from the powerful, it seems that it is targeting the powerless and the poor, who have received no such blessing from Ayatollah Khamenei.