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Iranians: Police Arrest 17 Azeri Rights Activists in North

In this undated photo published by the U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, Iranian Azerbaijanis stage an annual July protest against discrimination targeting their community at Babak Fort in East Azerbaijan province. The slogan on the white banner calls for the release of a detained Azeri rights activist, Siamak Mirzaei.

Residents of Iran’s northwestern ethnic Azerbaijani region say police have arrested 17 local activists to prevent them from staging an annual rally at a mountain fortress to promote minority Azeri rights.

In messages sent to VOA Persian on Thursday, the residents provided names of the 17 activists who they said had been detained in recent days. They said the arrests happened in several cities, including Tabriz and Ahar in East Azerbaijan province and Meshgin Shahr in neighboring Ardabil province.

In recent years, Azeri rights activists have gathered each July at Babak Fort in East Azerbaijan to protest what they say is discrimination against Iranian Azerbaijanis by the government of Persian-majority Iran.

The fort, which state media say originated in the Sassanid era (224-651), is named after Babak Khorramdin, a Persian warlord who fought against Arab invaders until his death in 838. Babak, a native of the predominantly Azerbaijani region, is lauded by many Azeris and other Iranians as a national hero.

Iranian Azerbaijanis traditionally have climbed the steep path to Babak Fort in early July to celebrate what they say is Babak’s birthday. A resident of the region sent VOA Persian a mobile phone video of the fort’s ramparts on Thursday, saying the clip had been filmed earlier in the day. About a half-dozen police officers can be seen in the clip, with a similar number of other people nearby, who appear to be tourists.

WATCH: Iranian police deployed at the historic Babak Fort in East Azerbaijan province, July 5, 2018

The sender of the video and other residents said there has been a stepped up police presence around the fort to coincide with the observance of Babak’s birthday. They said police in the region’s main cities arrested the 17 Azeri activists to stop them from going to the fort and also warned several other residents not to travel there.

The U.S.-based Center for Human Rights in Iran says ethnic Azerbaijanis make up 16 to 25 percent of the country’s population. Many of them speak an Azeri-Turkish dialect that the Iranian government has banned from being taught in schools. Azeri rights activists have long criticized the ban, saying it violates Article 15 of Iran’s constitution, which allows for “the use of regional and tribal languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools.”

Iran’s Islamist rulers have long discouraged the official use of Turkic languages in the country, fearing it could promote nationalism and separatism among minority groups.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.