Human Rights Watch has condemned the arrest of protesters in various Iranian cities who were demanding government action to stop the drying of Lake Oroumiyeh.

In a statement, the rights organization urged the Islamic Republic government to allow peaceful demonstrations against government policies that may be accelerating the ebbing of the lake in Western Azerbaijan province. The group calls for the “release of people arrested for exercising their right to assemble or speak out against the government.”

On August 27 and September 3, protesters gathered in Tabriz and Oroumiyeh calling for action to preserve the lake, where water levels are rapidly falling.

Yashar Hakkakpour, the public relations officer for the Association for the Defense of Azerbaijani Political Prisoners in Iran, spoke to Zamaneh about the September 3 protests, saying: “Oroumiyeh protests were received with great violence and some protesters were even shot at.”

He added that a significant number of protesters were arrested, including one who was bleeding badly after anti-riot police beat him with batons.

Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “This latest round of arrests shows how intolerant Iranian authorities are toward any form of public criticism." He added that the detained residents of Azerbaijan should be released because “they appear to have been arrested solely for gathering peacefully.”

The Fars news agency has linked the gathering in Tabriz to ethnic separatist movements.

The authorities first arrested about 30 people at a private gathering in Tabriz. The guests had gathered for iftar, the breaking of the fast of the Muslim month of Ramadan. Human Rights Watch reports that, according to family members, none of those detainees has been released yet.

In Oroumiyeh on September 3, about 300 people reportedly were arrested, and dozens have been released so far.

Human Rights Watch reports that Iran has “for years rejected government responsibility for the drying up of the lake and has instead contended that global warming and other uncontrollable environmental factors are at play.”

Following the protests, on September 5, the Iranian Parliament finally announced that it has approved a $95-million budget to divert water from the Aras and Kurdistan Rivers into Lake Oroumiyeh. According to Human Rights Watch: “Local activists have largely dismissed the measure as a disingenuous face-saving measure, and there are reports that more demonstrations have been planned.”

Stork condemned the Iranian government’s lack of tolerance for anti-government protests and advised the Islamic Republic authorities that: “Instead of criticizing protesters for not getting proper permission for previous protests, [they] should free all those arrested for demonstrating peacefully and allow them to participate in future protests.”