Iranian Man Burns Himself to Death in Anti-Government Protest

Iran talks
Critics say the talks over Iran's nuclear programme are overshadowing human rights abuses. Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters

There are growing fears that human rights abuses in Iran are being overshadowed by the ongoing nuclear talks, highlighted by the death of a young Iranian who set fire to himself in protest against the government last week.

Ahwazi Arab and father of two Younes al-Asakirah, 34, died last Sunday as a result of his burns, which he received when he set himself ablaze to protest against the government who had confiscated his fruit and vegetable stall earlier in March. The authorities were reportedly clearing away unlicensed stalls in preparation for state-organised tours which will bring visitors from other provinces to the city of Khorramshahr, in the south west Ahwaz region of Iran, to show them the destruction caused by the 1980s Iraq-Iran war.

Al-Asakirah, despite suffering 70% burns to his body, did not receive proper help from the authorities, and the family had to collect donations and rent an ambulance in order to take him to hospital in Tehran.

The region's minority Arab population, the Ahwazis, have long been persecuted by the Iranian authorities, and experts say the situation is getting worse. Hundreds of furious protesters took to the streets chanting anti-government slogans, both this week and last, in the wake of al-Asakirah's death, according to local media reports.

Mamoon Alabbasi, a London-based news editor at Middle East Eye who covers the region, explains that the Ahwaz region is rich in natural resources, particularly oil, gas and water and yet the wealth is not distributed among the Ahwazis. "This region is different from the rest of Iran," Alabbasi says. "There is particular dislike for them because they are Arab, and some have ideas of federalism or independence. Although they are Shi'a, they are persecuted as an ethnicity."

Alabbasi explains that al-Asakirah had repeatedly asked for the authorities to provide him with a new means on income after taking away his stall, but to no avail.

Talks resumed in Switzerland today between foreign ministers from the so-called P5+1 - the U.S., UK, France, China, Russia and Germany - and Iran's Mohammad Javad Zarif, ahead of tomorrow's deadline for a preliminary nuclear deal with Iran.

"The Americans are so eager to have this nuclear deal that they are willing to overlook and turn a blind eye to the abuses," says Alabbasi. "The speeches of Netanyahu and the U.S. Republicans in Congress do a big disservice to the people of Iran, because they allow the Iranian government to portray itself as heroic in the face of so much opposition. As a result of the focus on the nuclear issue, where much of the public is in agreement with the regime, humans rights violations inside Iran and beyond in the region are being ignored."

"In general it seems that the nuclear talks have completely overshadowed the human rights situation in Iran," says Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, of the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group, pointing out that al-Asakirah's family had to sign a document agreeing that his funeral would not be a traditional Arabic ceremony. The hospital also initially declined to release the body citing orders from the Iranian intelligence service.

"Iran is a multi-ethnic country," Amiry-Moghaddam continues. "The human rights violations taking place in the whole country are often much worse in the ethnic regions. The authorities seem to have full control, but in fact the situation is explosive. It is a big mistake to think that an agreement on the nuclear issue will solve the problems," Amiry-Moghaddam continues.

Amiry-Moghaddam explains that most of those executed on security or political charges belong to the ethnic regions of Iran. At the same time, these are among the poorest parts of the country. Khuzestan, where al-Asakirah was from, is Iran's most oil rich region, but also one of the poorest, and there are more than 600,000 illiterate people in the province and high unemployment. "Al-Asakirah's story is indicative of the increasing desperation among the marginalized parts of the Iranian society," Amiry-Moghaddam concludes.

Human rights experts say that under Rouhani, the situation in Iran has deteriorated. Earlier this month, an Iranian man was convicted of blinding another man by throwing acid in his face was punished by having one of his own eyes gouged out by medics.

According to the Oslo-based Iranian Human Rights group's latest report, executions in Iran have soared under president Rouhani, with an average of two now being carried out every day.