A prominent Iranian Azerbaijani civil rights activist freed from prison last week in Iran is publicly defying his court-ordered sentence of “internal exile” in an act of civil disobedience.
Abbas Lisani served more than four years in prison after Iran's Revolutionary Court in Tabriz convicted him in 2019 of "forming groups with the purpose of disrupting national security."
The verdict cited his speeches, media interviews, and participation in protests as evidence of activities to disrupt national security. The long-time activist has spent nearly 10 years total in prison for his civil campaigns, such as taking part in cultural gatherings to mark International Mother Language Day.
When he was released from prison last week, a court imposed an additional two-year-long punishment of “internal exile.” Police escorted him to the central city of Yazd. He has since traveled back to his home city Ardabil, in northwest Iran, where he was welcomed by fellow civil rights activists and relatives.
Iranian authorities have not yet commented on his public rejection of the court’s sentence.
In an October 2020 report, Amnesty International said it considered Lisani's imprisonment politically motivated, pointing out his long history of activism for the rights of Iran's Azerbaijani-Turkish community. The rights group has named him a prisoner of conscience on several occasions since 2006.
"Lisani is known for his disobeying and not complying with regressive and strict laws. He stood up and did not comply with the cruel and inhuman flogging sentence in the past years, and now, he does not accept the additional sentence of living in exile in the city of Yazd," Sina Yuousefi, an attorney from the city of Tabriz, wrote in a Twitter post.
Many of Iran’s Azerbaijani Turks speak a dialect that the Iranian government does not allow to be taught in schools. Iran’s Islamist rulers have long feared that permitting the official use of Turkic dialects in the country could promote separatism among minorities.
Azerbaijani Turk activists have 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.”
Abbas Lisani has been a longtime vocal opponent of government policies both inside and outside of prison.
Ammar Maleki, an Iranian political analyst currently working as an assistant professor of comparative politics at Tilburg University, traces Lisani’s outspoken defiance to a 2007 incident when he was ordered to receive 50 lashes as part of a prison sentence.
Lisani had been sentenced to 18 months in prison and 50 lashes for taking part in mass demonstrations in May 2006. The protests, which took place in Iranian Azerbaijan and some other Turkish-populated regions, were sparked by a caricature that was published in state-run Iran newspaper.
The professor said Lisani challenged the sentence as illegal and that conscripts who were ordered to whip the man refused. Maleki wrote about the incident in an article and said he was later interrogated by Iranian authorities for publishing it.
While in prison, Lisani went on hunger strikes several times to defend his legal rights.
In May 2016, when Abbas Lasani started a hunger strike in Adel-Abad prison in the city of Shiraz, 11 other activists went into their own hunger strikes in different prisons in the cities of Tabriz, Ardabil and Karaj to support Lisani, according to the U.S.-based rights group, HRANA.
In March 2017, when he was being tried in the Ardabil province on charges of "acting against national security" and "propaganda against the regime," Lisani refused to defend himself in Farsi, Iran's only official language.
Lisani, who was serving an eight-year sentence in Ardabil prison, was released last week after serving more than half of his jail term. He is believed to have been released as a result of a government amnesty aimed at appeasing critics of the Islamic Republic following months of anti-government protests. According to AFP, the amnesty resulted in the release of several dozen well-known prisoners across the country.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Lisani is an ethnic Azerbaijani and prominent human rights activist in Iran.