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Mahmudali who?

March 9, 2000

A court in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz has sentenced a prominent ethnic Azeri dissident to six months in prison after finding him guilty of smuggling. Mahmudali Chereghani was arrested last month after running into trouble with the authorities over his calls for more cultural rights for Iran's large ethnic Azeri minority. Although he's not that well-known in his own country, Mr Chereghani has a lot of supporters across the border in the Republic of Azerbaijan where he's become something of a cause celebre. Jenny Norton of the BBC Central Asia and Caucasus Service reports.

According to the official version of events Mahmudali Chereghani was sent to prison for six months and fined the equivalent of twenty thousand dollars after a revolutionary court in Tabriz found him guilty of smuggling cosmetics.

He denies the charges, but his wife told the BBC that his application to appeal had already been turned down. Mr Chereghani was arrested in February after months of friction with the local security services. He says they deliberately arrested him last year to stop him registering as a candidate in the parliamentary elections. They say it was nothing to do with the elections. But they're obviously unhappy at his increasingly outspoken comments about the need for more respect for Azeri culture in Iran -- and the amount of publicity he's been getting abroad.

Until recently almost no-one outside Tabriz had ever heard of Mr Chereghani, who teaches literature at the local university. That's starting to change because of the fuss that's being made about him across the border in Azerbaijan. The media there has been following every detail of his case and they portray him as a hero, bravely defending the rights of Iranian Azeris against Persian dominance.

People in the republic of Azerbaijan tend to see everything that happens in Iran through the prism of nationalist politics. Not surprising perhaps in a country which has fought for years to defend is own culture against Russian encroachment. But there's also very little information in Azerbaijan about the wider political isues in Iran.

There are at least two small Iranian emigre groups in the Azeri capital Baku, who've taken up Mr Chereghani's cause. They've organized protests outside the Iranian embassy and have circulated a lot of information, and misinformation, about him. Surprisingly their reaction to his sentence has so far been rather muted.

A spokesman for one of them (the Iranian Azeri Human Rights Association) says they're planning to organize hungerstrikes later this week. Observers say it's possible they've come under pressure from the authorities in Baku to keep quiet. President Heydar Aliyev is planning a long-awaited visit to Iran in the next few months. His trip is being seen as an important step towards improving Azerbaijan's sometimes tense relations with its southern neighbour, and officials are anxious that nothing should spoit it.

Azerbaijanis have long been fascinated by their Azeri cousins in Iran, but most people know little about what goes on south of the border. The common view is that Iranian Azeris are an oppressed minority, forced to speak Persian and discriminated against at all levels. The fact that Iran's armed forces, religious authorities and business community are dominated by ethnic Azeris would no doubt come as a surprise to many.

There's very little understanding of wider political issues in Iran, and there's also a lot of misinformation. Much of it is generated by an obscure Baku-based Iranian emigre group called the National Liberation Movement for Southern Azerbaijan, which claims to speak for Azeris in Iran and is responsible for much of the current controversy. If the Azerbaijani media is to be believed, then Iran's northern city of Tabriz is now in a state of virtual siege. Reports over the past month, based largely on information from the National Liberation Movement, speak of demonstrations, shootings and mass arrests.

Mahmudali Cheraghani -- a literature professor at the local university -- is portrayed as a kind of Sakharov figure at the head of a bitter liberation struggle. It's said he's under house arrest, that he was tortured in police custody, and that he's been denied medical treatment, and that he's appealed to the Azeri president for help. All this has provoked strong emotions in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. Students have demonstrated outside the Iranian embassy and there've been howls of protest from nationalist MPs.

Some of these reports do have a basis in fact. There have been arrests in Tabriz -- not of Azeri activists, but of young people involved in last year's student unrest, which happened across the country. Tabriz is a very politicized city, but it's mainstream political issues that dominate, and not Azeri cultural rights and wrongs.

Mahmudali Cheraghani is fairly well-known in the city. He comes from a prominent local family and is involved in local politics. It's true he's been in trouble with the local authorities. He told the BBC he was detained for three days last December, preventing him registering as a candidate for Feburary's parliamentary elections.

Like many Iranians with strong political views he's subject to harassment by the security services. His passport has been confiscated so he can't travel, but he continues to work. He also says that he has not appealed to Azerbaijan for help, although he would like to travel there. There was recently a small demonstration in Tabriz to support him, but contrary to some reports, it passed off peacefully and no shots were fired.

Mr Cheraghani's fame in Azerbaijan rests on his strong views about the Azeri language and culture. Azeri is not an official language in Iran although it's widely spoken. There's little Azeri language broadcasting and it's not taught in schools. Mr Cheraghani thinks more should be done to promote Azeri culture, but he says he's calling only for rights to which all minorities are entitled by law. "I'm not a separatist and I'm not part of any organization," he told the BBC in a recent interview. "I'm just insisting on our constitutional rights".

Outside Tabriz Mr Cheraghani is still virtually unknown. There've been a handful of interview and articles about him in national newspapers like the Tehran Times, but it's the fuss being made in Azerbaijan, rather than his views about Azeri culture that are the focus of the story. For Tehran the issue is no more a very minor irritation.

Statement from the National Liberation Movement for Southern Azerbaijan


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