Iran: The death of Dr. Mohammad Taghi (Taqi) Zehtabi in December 1998 and the situation of other leaders of the Azerbaijan (Azeri) national movement

In a document dated 27 May 1999, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) published the name of Mohammad Taqi Zehtabi along with the names of 46 other people it claims were victims of politically-motivated murders carried out by the Iranian government since 1995 (NCRI Statement). The NCRI stated that Zehtabi was killed in December 1998 in Tabriz (ibid.).

Corroborating information could not be found by the Research Directorate within time constraints; however, a 27 January 1999 story in the Tehran Times reported the death of a person named Zehtabi in the following terms: "Khordad had previously claimed that someone called Zehtabi had died in Tabriz in mysterious circumstances. The report, however, was later denied when it was announced that Zehtabi had died due to illness."

On 5 May 1998 Dr. Mohammad Taghi Zehtabi was among the Iranian Azeri intellectuals who signed a letter addressed to the president of Iran calling on the government to adopt a more positive attitude to the Azeri language (Azerbaijani-Turki; Turki) (Azerbaijan International Winter 1998).

The following part of this Response deals with the Iranian Azeri nationalist leadership.

On 7 September 1999 the Baku newspaper Avrasiya, relying on information provided by the Baku-based South Azerbaijan National Liberation Movement (SANLM), reported that "the political leader [name not supplied] of the student unrest in Iran and 31 other students were arrested on 5th September." Of the 31 arrested persons, 19 were from Tabriz, an Iranian city largely populated by Azeris (ibid.). The SANLM did not explicitly state that any of the arrested student leaders were Azeri nationalists, but stated that "[t]he SANLM believes that the student movement will provide fresh impetus for development and increase the national consciousness in Tabriz" (ibid.).

With regard to the identities of persons identified as prominent in the Azeri national movement in Iran, the Research Directorate has been able to find specific references only to Mahmudali Johragani, as detailed below.

On 20 March 1999 the Baku newspaper Millat reported that over 300 Iranian Azeris were arrested during a rally that was attended by thousands of people after Dr. Mahmudali Johragani, a professor at Tabriz university, was barred from running as a candidate in parliamentary and local elections. The newspaper did not explicitly state that the Johragani's candidacy was barred because of any nationalist motives ascribed to him, but the newspaper stated that the unrest following the measures against Johragani suggested that "Southern Azerbaijan northern Iran is on the eve of a new national liberation movement."

On 20 January 2000 the Russian-language Baku newspaper Zerkalo reported that the Iranian authorities had brought criminal charges against Johragani, and provided the following details about testimony he gave in court on 19 January:

As for Johragani himself, according to reports from the information and analytical centre of the NLMSA [National Liberation Movement of Southern Azerbaijan], on 19th January he gave a statement in the Tabriz branch of the Islamic revolutionary court (investigation of political crimes), where he had been summoned the evening before.

The trial was a closed one and Johragani's interrogation lasted around three hours in total. Three charges were brought against him - "telephone communications abroad" (?), "participation in the past 48 months in the national struggle in Tabriz" (?) and, the most interesting, Johragani was charged with the fact that Piruz Dilenchi was smuggling some goods to him. No further details were reported as to what kind of goods these were.

According to the NLMSA, Johragani himself described the last charge as slander by the Iranian regime. In turn, the chairman of the Baku committee of the NLMSA, Dilenchi, described it as "another blackmail by the Iranian regime". It is expected that the trial will continue today as well.

On the whole, according to the Iranian constitution which estimates a national liberation movement struggle as an encroachment upon the territorial integrity of Iran, Johragani's political crimes are sufficient to apply capital punishment - the death penalty - against him.

But why has Johragani not yet been convicted? Probably, the Iranian authorities are afraid that a death sentence against Johragani will raise a storm of protest in Southern Azerbaijan. However, the latest wave of pressure (or its imitation) by the Iranian authorities against Johragani implies that there is no such fear.

The second explanation is that Johragani is not at all a leader of the liberation movement of Southern Azerbaijan, as some people aspire to present him, but just one of the dissidents whom the Iranian authorities are able to use in their interests. Iran needs him in Iran and not outside of it ...
In an interview published in the Baku newspaper Yeddi Gun on 5 August 2000, NLMSA leader Piruz Dilenchi alluded to the rally mentioned above, held in Iranian Azerbaijan in response to the barring of Johragani's candidacy in an Iranian election, and to the subsequent arrest of Johragani, when he said that: "Tens of thousands of people went out into the streets of Tabriz last year in response to a little pressure on Johragani." Dilenchi also stated that the Iranian authorities were emboldened to arrest Johragani in response to a signal from Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev: "Heydar Aliyev said something about Johragani. He called him a foreigner. Iran was afraid of arresting Johragani until that time. It was afraid that the north [i.e. former Soviet Azerbaijan, of which Aliyev is president] might support him. But Heydar Aliyev's words gave the green light to Iran."
On 17 August 2000 the Baku newspaper 525 Gazet reported that Johragani had been released following his trial. The article featured the following quotes from Johragani, replying to the question whether he thought that he was arrested because of actions by people in the [former Soviet] Republic of Azerbaijan:
When I was released, the [Iranian intelligence service] Ettela'at warned me that I had no right to give interviews to the foreign press. Nevertheless, I shall reply to your questions within the boundaries of the law. Nobody played any role in my arrest. I was arrested because I love Azerbaijan and fight for the national rights of my people. I have been released honestly, proudly and irreproachably. My fault is that I love my people. I have no other faults.
As regards hands in my arrest, I should say that this had been plotted by the Ettela'at long before. We were cheated. Traitors appeared in our ranks. We were accused in court of crimes we never committed. The traitors from our ranks testified against us. Both Allah and the regime know well that we are innocent. History will prove it. In the course of the trial 40-50 bottles of perfume and shampoo boxes were gathered in the courtroom with a slogan in Persian on it saying: "Aid to Johragani from Iran's enemies Abulfaz Elchibey and Piruz Dilenchi!"

As you see, the regime wanted to humiliate us but thanks to Allah, they did not succeed. Nobody from those parts helped me.
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.
- Avrasiya [Baku, in Azeri]. 7 September 1999. "Arrests in Iran." (BBC Summary 9 Sept. 1999/NEXIS)
- Azerbaijan International. Winter 1998. "Letter to President Khatami of Iran." [Accessed 21 Nov. 2000]
- Millat [Baku, in Azeri]. 20 March 1999. "Azeri Authorities Dancing to Iran's Tune, Opposition Paper." (BBC Summary 24 Mar. 1999/NEXIS)
- National Council of Resistance of Iran. 27 May 1999. "NCRI Statement." [Accessed 21 Nov. 2000]
- Tehran Times [Internet edition]. 27 January 1999. "Murdered Writer's Wife Reportedly Denies Being Attacked." (BBC Summary 27 Jan. 1999/NEXIS)
- Yeddi Gun [Baku, in Azeri]. 8 August 2000. "Iranian Emigré Tells Azeri Paper Iran Is Afraid of Azeri National Movement." (BBC Summary 8 Aug. 2000/NEXIS)
- Zerkalo [Baku, in Russian]. 20 January 2000. "Paper Questions Role of Ethnic Azeri Dissident in Iran." (BBC Summary 21 Jan. 2000/NEXIS)
- 525 Gazet [Baku, in Azeri]. 17 August 2000. "Iranian Azeri Dissident Hopes to Welcome Aliyev, 'President of All Azeris.' " (BBC Summary 17 Aug. 2000/NEXIS).
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