Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

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Human Rights Watch

Syria: Ethnic Arab Refugees Face Persecution if Returned to Iran

Human Rights Watch
April 4, 2007
Press Release

Syrian authorities should immediately release six Iranian refugees of Arab ethnicity, or disclose a credible legal basis for detaining them, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned that the men may be forcibly returned to Iran, where they will be at risk of persecution. Iran has sentenced one of them to death in absentia.

Syrian security forces arrested the six men on March 5. Five of the six are refugees recognized by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNCHR) and all were reported to be residing in Syria legally.

“Last year Syria forcibly sent four refugees of Arab ethnicity back to Iran, where they are in prison and at risk of execution,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria must not return refugees to the risk of persecution or detain them without legal cause.”

According to their friends and family, the six men left Iran out of fear that they would be persecuted as part of the Iranian government’s crackdowns following a series of bombings in 2005 and 2006 in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, which caused the death of a number of civilians. Ahvaz is located in the oil-rich province of Khuzistan, where much of Iran’s ethnic Arab community lives. Iranian authorities blamed the bombings on separatist and foreign-funded ethnic Arab groups, and arrested hundreds of mostly ethnic Arabs in connection with the attacks.

Iran has executed at least 12 Iranians of Arabic ethnicity in connection with these bombings, and at least 13 others have received a death sentence.

Friends of the six men, along with the family of one detainee, told Human Rights Watch that their repeated requests to various Syrian authorities regarding the whereabouts and legal status of the detainees have gone unanswered.

“They will only tell us that they have been arrested and that is all,” a relative of one of the detained men told Human Rights Watch.

Syrian human rights organizations that have been following the case and advocating for the release of the detainees told Human Rights Watch that they too have been unable to obtain information about the reasons for the arrests, the conditions of the detainees, or what the authorities plan to do with the six men.

In May 2006, Syrian authorities arrested and forcibly returned four ethnic Iranian Arabs back to Iran. The men were UNHCR-registered refugees who were imprisoned upon their return to Iran and are at risk of execution as part of the Iranian government’s crackdowns on ethnic Arab political activists following the Ahvaz bombings. These forcible returns violated the internationally recognized principle of non-refoulement and Syria’s obligations as party to the Convention against Torture, which prohibits returning or extraditing a person to a country where they may be at risk of torture or ill-treatment.

“The Syrian authorities should take immediate steps to clarify the situation of the current detainees and ensure that the forcible returns of the previous year are not repeated,” said Whitson.

The six detainees are:

  • Afnan Azizi, 20, a civil engineering student in Damascus;
  • Ahmad Asadi, 28, a student of Arabic literature at the University of Damascus;
  • Ali Bouazar, 24, who fled to Syria after he was sentenced to death by a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary court; he has been living in Syria since the end of December;
  • Jaber Ebayat, 19, a sociology student at the University of Damascus;
    Kamal Naseri, 27, who had been living in Syria for eight months at the time of his arrest; and,
Salahuddin Helali Majd, 23, a science student at the University of Damascus.