U.N. Report: Rights Abuses in Iran

In March 2023, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran deplored the “brutal response” of the government to nationwide protests that erupted in September 2022. The Islamic Republic had killed hundreds of protesters, including children, since the demonstrations began. Javaid Rehman condemned Iran for potential “crimes against humanity,” including murder, torture, rape, and imprisonment. The violations were “part of an apparent policy instigated at the highest level of the State to crush the protests at all costs,” he said in a briefing to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

U.N. Special Rapporteur Rehman
U.N. Special Rapporteur Rehman

Rehman expressed alarm at other government abuses in 2022, including an increase in executions; persecution of ethnic, religious, and other minorities; and arbitrary detention of foreign and dual citizens. He urged Iran to accept responsibility for its actions and immediately cease widespread suppression and violations of human rights.

Rehman also called on the international community to hold Tehran accountable by sanctioning complicit officials and organizations, and to expand unfettered internet access for Iranians. The following are excerpts of Rehman’s report on the situation of rights in Iran during 2022.




Human rights violations leading up to and since the death of Jina Mahsa Amini

A. Background

“On 16 September 2022, Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman from the Kurdish minority, died in Tehran in police custody three days after her arrest for allegedly failing to comply with the country’s strict rules on women’s dress by wearing an ‘improper hijab.’ Her death sparked nationwide outrage and waves of protests across the country with women and young persons leading the charge under the banner ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ (‘Women, Life, Freedom’).

“The initial wave of protests quickly spread nationwide, spreading to 160 cities and all 31 provinces of the Islamic Republic of Iran and gathering all segments of society, all ages and genders from various ethnic, linguistic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, united in their resentment of the serious human rights violations, including gender-based violence and discrimination, and their will to end a theocratic, dictatorial system of governance. Between 16 September and 2 December 2022, more than 1,641 protests were recorded.

“The Special Rapporteur deplores the brutal response of the Iranian authorities to these protests. The unabated violent response by security forces reportedly led to the deaths of at least 476 persons, including at least 64 children and 34 women, hundreds of protesters being severely injured and thousands being arrested, detained or incarcerated. Consistent with widespread patterns of denial and cover-up, the authorities have attributed responsibility for these deaths to enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Special Rapporteur is alarmed at the continuing violence against women and girls, including cases of killings, physical and sexual abuse and fierce repression of ethnic and religious minorities, in particular the Baluch and the Kurds. The continuing repression and targeting of civil society activists, human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, lawyers and journalists is also deeply concerning, as is the authorities’ shutdown of all avenues of freedom of expression, including heavy disruption of the Internet and censorship of social media platforms.”

B. Death of Jina Mahsa Amini

“Jina Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police on 13 September 2022 while on a family visit to Tehran from her hometown of Saqqez in Kurdistan Province. Eyewitness accounts and other evidence indicate that she was violently beaten while being forcibly transferred to Vozara detention centre in Tehran. Reports, including images of Jina Mahsa Amini in the intensive care unit, suggest that she was assaulted on the head. Within hours of her arrest, she fell into coma and was transferred to Kasra Hospital. She was officially declared dead on 16 September 2022.”

C. Use of unlawful lethal force against protesters

“The violent State response to the protests started immediately following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, contrary to the reports by Iranian authorities, which claim that security forces were instructed to act with tolerance and restraint. On the contrary, directions given by the highest State authorities point out a deliberate policy to crush protests at all costs.

“On 22 September 2022, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps issued a statement condemning protests in the country as the product of an ‘enemy conspiracy,’ describing them as ‘sedition’ and calling on the judiciary to prosecute those spreading fake news. On 23 September 2022, the Iranian army issued a statement warning that it would ‘confront the enemies’ various plots in order to ensure security.’ On 25 September 2022, the head of the judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, emphasized ‘the need for decisive action without leniency against the core instigators of the ‘riots’.’ The President also stated that the country would ‘deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquillity.’

“Videos, reports and eyewitness testimonies have shown security forces (including the police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops and the Basij militia) violently cracking down on protesters and have revealed a widespread pattern of unlawful lethal use of force, including the use of shotguns, assault rifles and handguns against the protesters. Security forces were allegedly firing live ammunition, birdshot and other metal pellets directly at unarmed and peaceful protesters who posed no imminent threat to life or serious injury, as well as at bystanders and those who were running away, in many cases showing clear intention to kill or total disregard for whether their actions would result in loss of life or serious injury, as well as an intention to frighten all those participating in the protests.

“There was evidence of deliberate killings in many cases reported to the Special Rapporteur, with security forces shooting at individuals at close range. Minoo Majidi, a 62- year-old mother, was shot by security forces, as reported by her daughter, with 167 gun pellets in Kermanshah and died on her way to hospital. Hadis Najafi, a 23-year-old woman who died during a protest in Karaj on 21 September 2022, was shot multiple times in the heart, abdomen and neck. A video filmed in Tehran around 1 November 2022 shows a defenceless man severely beaten with batons and shot by security forces. Many people who took photos or videos of the security forces were also shot or beaten, including Shirin Alizadeh, who was shot by Basij forces randomly shooting at protestors in Abbasabad; she died on 21 September 2022 while filming from a car.”

D. Arrests and detention of protesters

Mass arrests of peaceful protesters

“The Special Rapporteur is deeply concerned about the State policy of mass arbitrary arrests and detention of protesters. According to civil society organizations, more than 18,000 individuals, of whom the identity of 2,942 individuals has been confirmed, have been arrested since the start of the protests. These include dozens of human rights defenders, at least 600 students, 45 lawyers, 576 civil society activists and at least 62 journalists. As of October 2022, 1,700 Azerbaijani-Turks had reportedly been among those detained.”

Arrests and detention of children and students

“The detention and mistreatment of children and young persons is particularly alarming. The authorities have acknowledged the widespread participation of children and young persons in the protests and their overrepresentation among those arrested. On 5 October 2022, the deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps stated that ‘the average age of most people detained during the protests is 15.’ A member of parliament also stated in an interview with local media that the majority of protestors arrested in the Khorasan-e Razavi Province were aged between 14 and 18 years old. On 11 October 2022, the Minister of Education confirmed that an unspecified number of children had been sent to ‘psychological centres’ after they were arrested for participation in anti-State protests. Reports also indicated that children were being detained together with adults.”

E. Torture and ill-treatment of protesters, including sexual abuse

“The Special Rapporteur has received consistent reports and testimonies of torture and ill-treatment of protesters, including allegations of sexual and gender-based violence. Videos shared on social media provide evidence of the level of violence against women and girls, including slapping women across the face, beating them with batons, dragging them on the ground and violently pulling them by the hair to remove their headscarves. A video recorded in Shiraz on 24 September 2022 shows a riot police officer repeatedly and violently pulling the hair of one woman who had removed her headscarf as an act of protest, sexually assaulting another woman who attempted to intervene by grabbing her breast and pushing her violently to the ground, causing her head to hit the curb. On 21 November 2022, Soha Mortazaei, the former Secretary of the General Trade Union Council of Tehran University, was reportedly beaten, sexually harassed and arrested while going to work.

“Reports published on 3 November 2022 also revealed that two female detainees arrested during protests in Kurdistan Province had reportedly been subjected to beatings with batons, electric shocks, sexual assault, verbal assault and threats. The testimony of a young woman who had witnessed physical and psychological torture, and other ill-treatment, while detained was also published on 9 November 2022. On 21 November 2022, a media investigation revealed sexual violence against protesters, including children. In some cases, the sexual assaults were reportedly filmed and used to blackmail the protesters into silence and almost all of the latter abuses occurred in the Kurdish areas.

“In particular, it is alarming that the Islamic revolutionary courts have been relying on forced confessions extracted through torture and other forms of duress in convicting protesters. An emblematic case concerns two protesters sentenced to death, Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Mohammad Hosseini, who made confessions after they were reportedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment. According to reports, Mr. Karami was subjected to physical and psychological torture and, during his arrest, he was beaten so badly that he fainted. Mr. Hosseini was also beaten, kicked and injured with an iron rod and an electroshock weapon.”

F. Freedom of opinion and expression, journalists and human rights defenders and lawyers

“In an already restricted civic space, the sweeping crackdown on civil society has intensified since the start of the protests. In addition to mass arrests of protesters, security and intelligence agents have arrested a large number of civil society actors, including human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and artists, and charged many with national security or public order offences. In most cases, their homes and offices were searched and their laptops, mobile phones and personal items confiscated.”

G. Harassment of families and cover up of human rights violations

“The harassment and intimidation of the families of victims killed by security forces in the protests include: preventing families from seeking an independent autopsy or excluding them from autopsies carried out by the State Forensic Institute; restrictions on burial and memorial ceremonies; threats to withhold the bodies of victims and bury them secretly in unmarked graves; handing relatives the bodies of their loved ones, wrapped in shrouds and prepared for burial, so that the families could not see the injuries; denying families their right to conduct burial ceremonies in accordance with their own religious and cultural traditions; restrictions imposed on the location, timing or manner in which families could bury their relatives, including remote ceremonies or conducting funeral ceremonies; and prohibiting relatives from making public statements or giving speeches denouncing and disclosing the truth about the killings.

“Emblematic cases include that of Sarina Esmailzadeh’s family, which was forced into repeating the false suicide narrative of the authorities about Sarina’s death. The same pressure was exerted on the families of Nika Shahkarami and Behnaz Afshari. A video published on 4 November 2022 shows the mother of Mohammad Hassan Torkaman killed in the protests, declaring that: “They asked me to state that my son was killed in an accident, no I will not lie. You killed my son.” The father of Nasrin Ghaderi, a Kurdish woman who was killed by security forces in Tehran on 4 November 2022, was reportedly forced into stating that she had flu and that she had not participated in any protests.”

H. Sentencing of protesters following grossly unfair trials

Violations of the right to due process and fair trial

“The Special Rapporteur is alarmed by the use of mass arbitrary arrests and detentions, the conduct of expedited trials and convictions in violation of the State’s obligations to ensure the right of every person to a fair trial and due process, resulting in the exponential increase in death sentences issued and indictments on vague and broadly formulated criminal offences that carry the death penalty, including moharebeh (taking up arms to take lives or property or to create fear in the public), efsad-e fil-arz (spreading corruption on earth) and baghy (armed rebellion).”

Death sentences and executions of protesters

“Contrary to the constitutional principle of the separation of powers, on 6 November 2022, 227 parliamentarians called on the judiciary to carry out the death penalty for protesters. The next day, the head of the judiciary asked judges to issue sentences more swiftly. On 30 October 2022, the first trial of a protester facing the death penalty was announced by the judiciary’s Mizan news agency. On 28 November 2022, the head of the judiciary stated that cases involving protesters were being processed in the shortest time possible and that in cases in which members of the security forces had been killed, sentences had already been issued, with some upheld by the Supreme Court.”


Human rights concerns during the reporting period

A. Death penalty

“The Special Rapporteur is alarmed at the sharp increase in executions in the country, in particular the exponential upsurge in the execution of drug offenders, the continuous execution of persons sentenced to death as child offenders, the resumption of public executions and the disproportionate use of the death penalty against persons belonging to ethnic and religious minorities during 2022. As of 4 December 2022, it was reported that at least 500 persons, including two persons sentenced as children and 13 women, had been executed in 2022, the highest number of executions in the past five years. This is in comparison to at least 330 executions in 2021 and 267 in 2020. Only 58 executions were reported by official sources for 2022. On 26 December 2022, a third person sentenced to death as a child was reportedly executed.

“The Special Rapporteur is extremely concerned at the sharp increase in the number of executions of drug offenders, estimated at 222 in 2022. This is in comparison to 126 in 2021 and 25 in 2020.

“Iranian authorities have continued to execute persons sentenced as children in violation of the State’s international obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Omid Alizehi, from the Baluch minority, and Mohammad Hossein Alizadeh, an Afghan national, both 17 at the time of the alleged offences, were executed in August 2022. Yousef Mirzavand was 16 years old at the time of his arrest; he was executed on 26 December 2022. At least 85 child offenders remain on death row.

“On 1 September 2022, two lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights activists, Zahra (Sareh) Sedighi and Elham Choobdar, were sentenced to death for vaguely worded and broadly defined charges of efsad-e fil-arz. A third co-defendant, Soheila Ashrafi from Urmia, currently held in Urmia Central Prison, is awaiting the verdict in her case.”

B. Ethnic, religious and other minorities

“Ethnic minorities, including minority women, continued to be disproportionately affected by executions in 2022. At least 147 Baluchis, who only represent between 2 and 6 per cent of the total population, have reportedly been executed, representing 30 per cent of all executions, and more than half were executed on drug-related charges.

“The Baha’i minority remained most severely persecuted, with a marked increase in arrests, targeting and victimization. The situation of more than a thousand Baha’is remained unresolved at various stages of the legal process. They were either waiting for a ruling on their cases or the enforcement thereof, including cases related to forms of harassment, such as arbitrary arrests; imprisonment and ill-treatment; raids on homes and confiscation of personal belongings; temporary release in lieu of unjustly heavy bail guarantees pending the conclusion of their trials; expulsion from or denial of entry to universities; raids on, and sealing of, business premises or refusal to issue work permits; confiscation of properties owned by Baha’is; confiscation and destruction of Baha’i cemeteries or continuous questioning of their ownership despite the presentation of legal deeds; prevention of the burial of deceased Baha’is; and many other instances that continue to entangle the Baha’is in the country’s unjust judicial system.

“Since July 2022, the 333 reported incidents of persecution included 80 arbitrary detentions, interrogations and unlawful arrests, and other incidents, such as beatings, workplace and home searches, confiscation and destruction of properties, denial of education, economic pressure, court summonses and cemetery desecration. At least 92 Baha’is were in prison, including those under house arrest who were rigorously controlled with the use of electronic ankle bands. Those arrested include two former leaders of the Baha’i community, Mahvash Sabet and Fariba Kamalabadi, arrested on 31 July 2022; on 11 December 2022, they were sentenced to a second term of imprisonment for 10 years, after having already spent 10 years in prison.”

C. Continued arbitrary detention of foreign and dual nationals

“The Special Rapporteur is extremely concerned at the arbitrary arrest, detention and harsh sentencing of foreign and dual nationals by the Iranian authorities, apparently to put pressure on foreign Governments for prisoner swaps or other returns. Swedish-Iranian national Ahmedreza Djalali, arbitrarily detained since 2016, remains at risk of execution. In December 2022, Olivier Vandecasteele, a Belgium aid worker detained since February 2022, who was placed in solitary confinement, subjected to ill-treatment and inhumane conditions of detention, resulting in deteriorating health, was sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment and 74 lashes on charges of espionage. As of October 2022, at least 21 foreign and dual nationals reportedly remained detained, primarily on espionage charges, among them are reportedly seven French nationals. In November 2022, a spokesperson for the judiciary, Masoud Setayeshi, indicated that 40 foreign nationals had been arrested for their involvement in the protests. Seven “British linked” individuals are among them.”

D. Accountability efforts for serious human rights violations

“The Aban Tribunal, constituted to investigate human rights violations during the protests of November 2019, in its judgment of 1 November 2022, among other findings, unanimously established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt that the Iranian Government and the security forces … designed and implemented a plan to commit crimes against humanity of murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence in order to quell the protests and conceal the crimes committed.’

“In July 2022, a Swedish court operating under the principle of universal jurisdiction convicted Hamid Nouri, a former prosecutor and prison official arrested at Stockholm airport in 2019, for his role in the torture and mass executions in the Islamic Republic of Iran during 1988, when reportedly thousands of political prisoners were executed on the orders of the then supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. The court found Mr. Nouri guilty of war crimes and murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

“On 14 September 2022, a communication was submitted, under article 15 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, on behalf of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, with information and evidence of potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, preceding and following the shooting down of the Ukrainian aircraft on 8 January 2020.”


Conclusions and recommendations

“The Special Rapporteur pays tribute to all those who have continued to communicate information despite the heavy risks taken by all those in the Islamic Republic of Iran reporting on human rights violations. On the basis of the large amount of information and testimonies received and after having reviewed all available evidence, the Special Rapporteur presents the following conclusions:

“(a) The so-called investigations into the death of Jina Mahsa Amini were neither credible nor transparent and have failed the minimum requirements of impartiality and independence. Available evidence provided by various independent informants, as well as the reported comments from reliable medical sources, point to State culpability, violence and brutality;

“(b) Since the start of the protests, the highest levels of the State have instigated violence and instructed the security forces to “confront the enemies”. In line with these martial instructions, Iranian security forces, in what appears to be a policy followed in all regions of the country and particularly in Kurdish and Baluchi regions, have killed hundreds of protestors, including children. These killings amount to arbitrary deprivation of life in violation of article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the Islamic Republic of Iran is a State party;

“(c) In breach of its international obligation guaranteeing the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention, the Iranian authorities have proceeded to the mass arrest and detention of thousands of persons as a punishment for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly and association, specifically targeting students, human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists and lawyers. The Iranian authorities have also violated their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by arresting and arbitrarily detaining children taking part in demonstrations and sending them to “psychological centres” for correctional purposes or to adult detention centres;

“(d) The Special Rapporteur is alarmed at the execution of two protesters and the reported sentencing to death of several others after sham trials, violating the right to a fair trial and denying the right to due process. He reiterates that all death sentences and consequent executions constitute arbitrary deprivation of life;

“(e) Reports of systematic torture and ill-treatment of protesters, including allegations of gender-based and sexual violence and rape and torture of children and young persons, are deeply shocking and perpetrators of these very grave crimes in international law must be identified and held accountable;

“(f) Severe violations of the rights to life, liberty and security of person, the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right not to be subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence, and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention have been documented since the start of the protests as part of an apparent policy instigated at the highest level of the State to crush the protests at all costs. The scale and gravity of these violations point to the possible commission of international crimes, notably the crimes against humanity of murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture, rape and sexual violence, and persecution.”