Vancouver woman risks her life to expose the persecution of Azerbaijani Iranians

Tara Carman, Vancouver Sun


Then on May 12, 2006, the cockroach cartoon was published in an Iranian national newspaper and thousands of Azerbaijani Iranians took to the streets. The protesters, mostly unarmed, were brutally repressed by security forces. In a 2007 report on human rights in Iran, Amnesty International estimates that "hundreds, if not thousands, were arrested and scores were reportedly killed by the security forces."

There is a haunted look in Fakhteh Zamani's eyes as she recalls guiding Iranian activist Vahid Davarpanah through the streets of Turin, Italy. 


He asked Zamani to describe the buildings around them and she couldn't find the words because the streetscape was so unlike anything he would have seen in his native country. He could not see them for himself because he was blinded by one of the 90 pellets fired into his body by Iranian security forces with riot guns. His crime: protesting a cartoon published in a state-run newspaper that compared his people -- Azerbaijani Iranians -- to cockroaches and suggesting 10 ways of exterminating them. Davarpanah was in his early 20s and unarmed at the time.
When Zamani asked him if he would do it all again, he said: "That was the best day of my life. For the first time we could go out and ask for our rights."

After the protests in May 2006, Davarpanah escaped to Italy, where he was treated for his injuries. When Iranian embassy officials came looking for him at the hospital, he fled to Switzerland, where his application to stay as a refugee has so far gone unanswered. He lives in that country without legal status, afraid to leave his apartment, blinded and alone.
Azerbaijani Iranians are ethnic Turks who form about a quarter of Iran's total population, which the CIA World Factbook pegs at about 66 million. Persians constitute just over half the population and other minorities, including Kurds, Arabs and Turks, form the other 25 per cent. Azerbaijani Iranians live in the northwest corner of Iran, which is bordered by Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey. Like most Iranians, Azerbaijianis practise Shi'a Islam, but they speak Azeri Turkish rather than Persian.

The plight of Azerbaijanis and other ethnic minorities in Iran has slowly taken over Zamani's life. From her apartment in downtown Vancouver, she communicates by instant messenger with her network of contacts in Iran, who tell her -- often at great risk to themselves --about Azerbaijani activists who have been detained, tortured or killed by Iranian police for demanding language rights. They are often accused of being separatists who want to break up Iran. Zamani, who is also Azerbaijani Iranian, takes down their reports, translates them and sends them to Amnesty International officials in London, who publicize the cases. She has also formed a non-profit organization in Vancouver called the Association for the Defence of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners (ADAPP), which she funds mostly out of her own pocket.

As an Azerbaijani growing up in Iran, Zamani said she experienced some discrimination, but was shielded from the worst of it because her parents were well known in the community. She grew up in Tabriz, the largest city in the Azerbaijani part of Iran. Her father's family had been landowners for generations, but in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution her family's land and belongings were seized, their house was burned down and her father was imprisoned and threatened with execution.

In school, Zamani and her classmates were forced to speak Persian, even though most were Azerbaijani and spoke only Azeri. After the revolution, the government amended the Iranian constitution to protect minority languages and cultures, but it was never enforced, Zamani says, recalling that her classmates were beaten or fined for speaking their native language.

"There is a story that this kid of a friend of ours -- he saved up his allowance, gave it to the teacher and said 'This is, like, 20 words of Azerbaijani ... and I'm paying you [the fines] in advance so I can speak it,'" she recalled.

"I was not punished because [the school authorities] knew my parents. They would keep me in the principal's office and I would cry and refuse to speak."

Many Azerbaijani Iranians get frustrated and drop out of school, limiting their options later in life, Zamani said, adding that some become ashamed of their ethnicity.

"Humiliating jokes and printing things -- like being called cockroach and donkey -- has become part of [Iranian] culture. They joke, and if you say 'This is insulting,' then they would turn to you and say 'You are not cool. Why don't you take insults?' "

After high school, Zamani went to Ankara, Turkey. There she met her future husband, Shahrouz Torfakh, an Azerbaijani Iranian who had fled to Denmark after being imprisoned while still in high school for owning banned books. He was later accepted into Canada as a refugee. Zamani said his experience is one reason she does the work she does.

"He told me about his time in prison. They were teenagers and ... several times [guards] put a gun on their heads. Also, when he was in Denmark he had to be treated for the tortures he suffered. All his ribs were broken when he was in prison and his back was cut, just for owning books."

Zamani moved to Ottawa to be with her husband. She had strong enough marks in math and science that she was accepted by the University of Ottawa on government scholarships, even though she spoke no English. She completed an undergraduate degree in physics with a specialty in microwave engineering, then moved to Vancouver to work on an emergency preparedness project with a professor at the University of B.C.

But just as she was getting settled in a new city, she heard about some Azerbaijani teenagers who had been arrested in Iran. "One of them was a first-year university student. He was in the same prison that my husband was in when he was a teenager. He was studying architecture and my husband is an architect. Somehow I felt, what would I want someone else to do for him in that time when he was there as a kid and being tortured? So I thought of helping these prisoners. I called around and to my surprise, some of these teenagers had been missing for months," Zamani said.

"I tried to find Iranian human rights groups who would help out and to my surprise, they were not interested at all."

Zamani told her supervising professor that she was going to "do something for my community for an hour or so [a week]." She looked for human rights organizations willing to take on the cause. An official with one prominent international group told Zamani that if families of detained activists wanted to make a statement it had to be in Persian, Iran's official language. Amnesty International was more receptive; its representatives told Zamani they would publicize these cases if she would document and translate them.

Then on May 12, 2006, the cockroach cartoon was published in an Iranian national newspaper and thousands of Azerbaijani Iranians took to the streets. The protesters, mostly unarmed, were brutally repressed by security forces. In a 2007 report on human rights in Iran, Amnesty International estimates that "hundreds, if not thousands, were arrested and scores were reportedly killed by the security forces."

Zamani was overwhelmed with requests for help from the families of detained activists. She used to contact the families by phone, but Iran's intelligence service has now tapped the lines of known activists, forcing them to move their correspondence to the Internet.

"As time went on and we got some publicity, I started receiving some reports that people were imprisoned for speaking to me. At the beginning I did not believe that the government would put my name on a court order. So I asked these people to scan and send me a copy of the court order. After that, we started communicating through the Internet and I saw court orders with my name on them, like, 'for speaking to Fakhteh Zamani.' "

So far, activists charged with speaking to Zamani have been sentenced to six months in prison. Some have been tortured, Zamani said, but not as much as prisoners whose cases aren't made public.

Zamani began getting death threats herself when she started going on satellite television and radio stations broadcast in Iran and talking about minority rights. Her parents live in Iran and are regularly called in for questioning by intelligence service agents. Zamani said her father tells the agents that they have no control over what she does and that she doesn't listen to them. The authorities have already taken their land, their home and many of their belongings.

"They are kind of safe," she said with a nervous laugh. "They have not much to lose except their lives. ... I told them on the phone that there is no way that I would be bullied."

Zamani is gaining an international reputation for her work. In March of 2008 she was invited to Washington to give a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives' Iran working group. When she began talking about minority rights in Iran, she was interrupted, heckled and almost physically attacked by other Iranians, said Kathryn Cameron Porter, whose organization, the Leadership Council for Human Rights, organized the meeting.

"Of all the years I've been in Washington -- and I came here in 1980 -- it was the most difficult meeting I've ever attended," Porter said in a telephone interview from Washington.

"When Fakhteh spoke, several of the people got right in her face. It was very threatening. ... In Fakhteh's case, I think it was compounded by the fact that she was a woman," Porter said, adding that police had to be called to remove the half dozen men who were threatening Zamani. The men never identified themselves.

Zamani says she is always on guard, even though the Vancouver police have taken the threats against her seriously and worked hard to protect her.

"I am always afraid. ... The simple things in your life change. I used to look forward to flying and travelling, but now I face anxiety before travelling ... especially after being threatened in Congress, because I don't know where the threat comes from," she said.

"I used to go out jogging early in the morning. I stopped that after my first phone call saying that they would kill me.

"Very simple things that I used to do, I don't do."

tcarman@vancouversun.com

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