Iranian Azeri Rights Activist on Trial for Advocating Mother Language
Abbas Lesani, an Azeri ethnic rights activist, is being tried for advocating state recognition of his mother tongue and making a speech at his friend’s wedding calling for an end to the discrimination of Azeris in Iran.
Speaking in an interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on April 10, 2017, Lesani said his first trial was held in the Revolutionary Court in Meshkinshahr, Ardabil Province, on March 7 for the charges of “acting against national security” and “propaganda against the state.”
This week he was tried at the Revolutionary Court in Ahar, East Azerbaijan Province, for allegedly “organizing and leading opposition groups intent on overthrowing the state.”
Lesani told CHRI he has been presenting his defense in the Azeri-Turkish language.
“At the March 7 trial, I wrote my defense for the first time in Turkish and I rejected the charges. The judge wouldn’t accept it in Turkish at first, but since this is our legal right, he eventually did,” said Lesani.
Between 16 to 25 percent of Iran’s population are Turkish-speaking (different from the language spoken in Turkey) Azeris living mostly in Iran’s East and West Azerbaijan, Ardabil and Zanjan Provinces.
Azeri civil rights activists have long been fighting, among other discriminatory policies, a state-imposed ban on Azeri-Turkish being taught along with the official Persian language in their schools.
“The International Mother Tongue Day is marked around the world, and my Azeri friends and I attended an event that was completely peaceful,” he said. “Now they have accused us of acting against national security and I’m due to appear in court in Ahar on April 12.”
Lesani, 55, is a grocery seller in the city of Ardabil, 373 miles northwest of Tehran.
His peaceful activism for Azeri rights has made him a target of Iran’s security agencies trying to suppress alleged “secessionist” sympathizers.
Lesani has already spent a year in prison for “propaganda against the state.” He was released in June 2016.
“At the wedding for my friend, who’s also an Azeri rights activist, I gave a talk and hoped for an end to discrimination and the realization of the rights of all,” he said. “For this reason, I was accused of propaganda against the state and summoned to court in Meshkinshahr.”
According to Article 27 of Iran’s Constitution: “Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”
Article 15 states: “The official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian. Official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as textbooks, must be in this language and script. However, the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for the teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.”
On February 21, 2017, on International Mother Language Day, activists Alireza Farshi, Akbar Azad, Behnam Sheikhi and Hamid Manafi were issued long prison sentences for peacefully defending Azeri rights.
Farshi was issued a 15-year prison sentence and two years in exile. His three codefendants were each sentenced to 10 years in prison and two years in exile.
They had been arrested by agents of the Intelligence Ministry in 2014 during a peaceful event marking International Mother Language Day and charged with “forming an illegal group” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”
“I don’t like to see discrimination against ethnic groups,” Rouhani said on May 31, 2016, in a speech to the people of Mahabad, in West Azerbaijan Province where Kurdish and Azeri-Turkish are more common than Persian.
“Hiring should be done on the basis of competence, and the mother tongues, especially Kurdish, should be respected,” he added. “We are also expanding mother tongue language centers, of course.”