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Student Death Fuels Protests Among Iran's Azerbaijani Turks

FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran shows students at a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of the country's morality police, in Tehran, Oct. 7, 2022.
FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran shows students at a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of the country's morality police, in Tehran, Oct. 7, 2022.

Iranian authorities are reportedly detaining dozens of people among the Azerbaijani Turk communities in the country's northwest after a local medical student was killed during an anti-government protest last week.

Aylar Haqqi, a 23-year-old medical student, was killed last Wednesday while attending protests in Tabriz. On Friday, mourners attending her funeral at Tabriz's Vadi Rahmat Cemetery were attacked by Iranian security forces.

Videos posted online show security forces on motorcycles beating mourners and protesters who are heard chanting anti-government slogans such as "we are all Aylars, we will fight back," "the people of Azerbaijan will not tolerate this oppression" as well as the popular slogan of "freedom, justice and national government."

By Saturday, protesters angered by Haqqi's death took to the streets of Tabriz, as well as the city of Malekan (locally known as Melikkendi), Haqqi's hometown located south of Iran's East Azerbaijan Province.

Iran Wire, a diaspora news website run by journalists outside Iran using social media and other content from citizen journalists from inside the country, reported on Sunday that dozens have been arrested in the provinces of East Azerbaijan, West Azerbaijan and Ardabil, after calls to hold memorials for those killed in anti-government protests. Iran Wire published names of more than 40 Azerbaijani Turks who were detained by Iranian security forces in the cities of Tabriz, Melikkendi, Urmia, Khoy and Ardabil in the past few days.

Iranian authorities continue to claim the ongoing protests are being backed by outside "enemies" including the United States, France and other European countries. In remarks Sunday published by the IRNA state news agency, President Ebrahim Raisi said authorities are taking steps aimed at "nullifying the seditions plotted abroad."

The U.S., Canada, Britain and the European Union have announced sanctions against those behind the crackdown on protesters. However, they have declined to go along with some protesters' calls to cut ties entirely with Tehran.

Twitter feed charts political divides

Iran's state news agency IRNA claimed that Haqqi died after falling into a construction pit. However, one of her close relatives told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Haqqi was shot from behind by security forces when she took part in protests in Tabriz.

Posts on her Twitter account from the last two years (where she published under the nickname "Ay Yuzlu" meaning "moon-faced" in Turkish), show she spoke out on women's rights, as well as other social, political and human rights issues faced by Iranian people, and by the Azerbaijani Turks in particular.

In the past couple of months, Haqqi had been tweeting in support of the nationwide protests that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, whose death while being detained by Iran's morality police sparked nationwide protests.

In her last tweet, apparently posted shortly before her death Wednesday evening, Haqqi wrote, "In Tabriz, all the shops were closed except for Lara [women's clothing store]," referring to the nationwide strike in protest of Iran's violent crackdown.

She tweeted in support of anti-government protests in previous years as well.

In July 2021, hours after a gathering that took place in Tabriz in solidarity with protests over water shortages in Iran's Arab-populated Khuzestan province, Haqqi tweeted, "Azerbaijan knows well when not to be silent."

Haqqi made notable efforts on social media to learn writing in her native language, which is banned from being taught in the Iranian schools.

"I have been thinking for several days that something is missing. Now, I remember, I have not tweeted in Turkish for long time. Even if I get fewer likes, this is my mother tongue," she tweeted in December 2020.

A day after Haqqi's death, Ruzbeh Saadati, a former political prisoner and civil rights activist living in the Azerbaijani-Turkish-populated city of Zanjan, quoted her tweet, stating that "one day, schools will be built and books will be published in Aylar Haqqi's mother tongue, but does her tweet not deserve our likes today?"

The Turks are Iran's largest linguistic minority, residing primarily in Iranian Azerbaijan bordered by the nations of Azerbaijan and Turkey.

The government of Iran has never published official statistics on the population of the country's ethnic and linguistic groups. However, during his official visit to Turkey in January 2011, then-Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated that 40% of Iranians speak Turkish.

Most Azerbaijani Turks are Shia Muslims, which is the official state religion of Iran, but they have long been barred from education in their native tongue.

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