Deaths, Injuries, and Arrests at Lake Urmia Demonstrations in Iran

The Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP) strongly condemns the brutal repression of peaceful protesters in the Azerbaijani cities of Urmia and Tabriz on August 27, 2011. Starting in the early evening, thousands of activists gathered in the central neighbourhoods in Urmia and Tabriz to protest the Islamic Republic’s mismanagement of the environmental calamity facing Lake Urmia, the third largest salt lake in the world. The protesters, who were demonstrating peacefully for their cause, were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and baton-wielding riot police. Hundreds of supporters were arrested in Urmia, Tabriz, and surrounding cities. ADAPP regretfully reports that scores have been injured and 3 killed in the clashes with riot police. It was reported that many of the detainees were arrested while receiving treatment at nearby hospitals for injuries sustained during the protests.

Lake Urmia is an ancient salt lake that sits between East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan provinces, a region of Iran dominated by ethnic Azerbaijani-Turks. In recent years, the government has actively built dams on more than 20 tributaries feeding into the lake, reducing the depth of the shallow lake by 7 meters. Experts claim that damming and an environmentally-damaging causeway linking the cities of Urmia and Tabriz, have reduced the flow of water into and within Lake Urmia, causing 60% of the lake to evaporate. A recent bill in Iran’s parliament to allocate funds to divert water from Araz River was struck down. Instead, to the dismay of the surrounding population, parliamentarians proposed relocating those living in the vicinity of Lake Urmia. There is great concern that inaction will lead to an environmental catastrophe in which the remaining salt would be picked up by winds and dispersed throughout the region, spreading disease, destroying crops and creating hazardous living conditions in a wide radius around the lake, plaguing not only Iranian Azerbaijan but the surrounding countries of Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iraq, and Armenia. Fearing that Lake Urmia would share the same fate as the Aral Sea, Azerbaijani environmental activists have pressed for action from the Islamic Republic.

The August 27 protests were an extension of a similar series of demonstrations held on April 2, 2011 at Lake Urmia and again on August 25 at a soccer game in the city of Tabriz. A popular viral video shows an impressive sea of Azerbaijanis in the soccer stadium chanting “Lake Urmia is dying; the Majlis ordered its execution.” As a result, over 70 were arrested in the April protests and an additional 30 on August 25th. These pale in comparison to the August 27 demonstrations in which thousands of people flooded the streets in protest of the government’s apathy toward the drying of Lake Urmia. It is with great concern, that the protests may only become more severe from here forth.

The Association for Defence of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran calls for the immediate release of the more than 100 protesters detained in the recent protests as well as a moment of silence for the three environmental activists that gave their lives to helping save this ancient lake. The brutal crackdown of Iran’s security apparatus in quashing protests should be of great concern to not only Iranians and Iranian diaspora communities but to the whole world.

Association for the Defence of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran (ADAPP)
Fakhteh Luna Zamani
Executive Director
Vancouver, Canada