A peaceful demonstration by Azeris in the Iranian city of Tabriz and the subsequent violent crackdown on the protestors by Iranian law-enforcement agencies has resulted in public outrage in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Politicians, non-governmental organizations, and the general public have condemned the Iranian government for the bloodshed, which they attribute to the chauvinism and brutality of the Tehran regime.
Peaceful protests started on May 22 after several hundred thousand ethnic Azeris of Iran, specifically in the city of Tabriz (the historic capital of united Azerbaijan) took to the streets to protest a cartoon published two weeks ago in the state-owned newspaper Iran. The cartoon made fun of ethnic Azeris in Iran and pictured a cockroach, speaking in the Azeri language. In Azeri culture, a cockroach is considered dirty and sly.
Iranian police responded with a brutal crackdown that killed four and wounded 50, according to local sources. In addition, nearly 200 demonstrators were arrested. However, the Day.az Internet news site in Azerbaijan reported on May 23 that 20 persons were killed and more than 250 arrested. World Azerbaijani Congress Representative Ali Nijat said that the organization has managed to learn the names of 10 people arrested, but the name of only one fatality (Turan, May 24).
There are an estimated 30 million ethnic Azeris and Turks in Iran, making it the largest ethnic group in the country. Yet, their human rights situation, particularly, the right to education in a native language, is severely limited. There is not a single school in the country where Azeris can study in their own language.
The violence in Tabriz and other South Azerbaijani cities, such as Miyan, Urmia, Zanjan, Khoy, and Ardabil sparked public outrage in Baku. More than 50 members of the youth movement Dalga (Wave) and the Movement for United Azerbaijan picketed the Iranian embassy in Baku and burned the Iranian flag and a cartoon of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to Ramin Hajili, chair of the youth movement, the demonstrators demand that the guilty police officers be arrested and the discriminatory policies against ethnic groups in Iran be stopped (Day.az, May 23). Azerbaijani law enforcement arrested four of the demonstrators.
Turan News Agency reported on May 24 that members of another youth organization, “Young Turks,” had also organized a demonstration in front of the Iranian embassy, but embassy employees refused to accept their petition. The protestors held signs with slogans condemning Tehran’s regime and supporting the national-liberation movement in South Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, members of Azerbaijan’s parliament have also voiced concerns about the events in Tabriz. Moderate opposition MP Gudrat Hassanguliyev stated, “The violence against demonstrators was groundless, because they were simply demanding their human rights.” His colleague Igbal Agazadeh has called upon the Azerbaijani government to file protests with international organizations: “We do not want to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries, but the lives of our compatriots worry us, and we need to do everything possible to defend them” (Day.az, May 23).
The Party of Democratic Reforms also joined the chorus of protests, harshly criticizing the Iranian regime for violence against its own citizens and called upon the Iranian government to respect UN conventions and take active and urgent measures to restore the rights of national minorities, including the right of Azeris to education in their own language. The party’s council has also called on the international community to pay attention to this violence in Iran and to do everything possible to prevent future outbreaks.
Some news agencies in Baku have complained about the lack of foreign media coverage of the events in Tabriz. Jahandar Bayoglu, chairman of the Committee for Protection of the National Movement in South Azerbaijan, declared, “It is surprising that foreign TV channels do not cover the events in Southern Azerbaijan” (Turan, May 24).
The Iranian ambassador in Baku organized a press conference and told assembled journalists that the newspaper Iran has been closed and the author of the cartoon arrested. The ambassador also openly accused “outside powers” of using the ethnic factor to try to destabilize the situation in Iran. Specifically, he referred to $75 million allegedly allocated by the U.S. government for that purpose (Turan, May 24).
The incident may hurt Azerbaijani-Iranian relations. Chicago-based Gunaz TV reported on May 23 that despite the bloodshed, an additional demonstration is scheduled to be held in Tehran in front of the parliament building on May 28 — Azerbaijan’s independence day. The movement is organized by Azerbaijani students from all South-Azeri Universities in Iran and more than one million participants are expected to attend.