Unprecedented Crackdown After Protests

By Hadi Ghaemi


What is the state of human rights in Iran in 2019? Have any new patterns emerged? Has the regime targeted any new groups or notable people?

The Iranian government continued its assault on basic rights and freedoms including freedom of speech, assembly and expression in 2019. To crush street protests, the security forces have used violence unprecedented since the early years after the 1979 revolution. The crackdowns have targeted broader groups of people. The regime has imprisoned defense attorneys and gunned down women and children who happen to be near street demonstrations. It has squeezed civil society and prosecuted critics of state policies—on social media or in peaceful acts of civil disobedience, such as defying the ban on women in stadiums—for so-called “national security” crimes that can carry lengthy prison terms.

In recent years, the judiciary has also been aggressively going after lawyers who dare to represent detainees accused of criticizing state policies. Since 2018, at least eight lawyers have been sentenced to prison. In 2018, prominent defense attorney and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes for national security crimes, for which she would have to serve at least 12 years, subject to appeal. Sotoudeh has spent decades taking on politically sensitive cases and had already spent three years in prison. This time, she refused to appeal her sentence to protest the unjust and sham judicial process.


The United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in May 2018 and subsequently re-imposed biting sanctions. Has the government attempted to preempt or short circuit dissent, given deteriorating economic conditions?

The Iranian government has a stranglehold on all sectors of civil society to control dissent is constant. Its well-oiled machine has been in place for decades. Peaceful dissent was under attack before the 2015 nuclear deal. Iranians continue to be prosecuted on vague “national security” charges without due process and on scant evidence.


After an unannounced hike in fuel prices on November 15, protests erupted in at least 100 cities across Iran. The protests appeared to be the most serious since the sporadic demonstrations of December 2017 and January 2018, in which 22 people died. How has the government responded to the new unrest? How many people were killed and arrested?

At least 208 people were killed between November 15 and December 2, 2019 in cities across the country. There were many deaths in Mahshahr, Shiraz and Shahriar, according to Amnesty International. The United Nations reported that at least 7,000 people were arrested. As in the past, the Iranian government responded to these protests with an iron fist. Security forces repeatedly fired live ammunition into crowds, resulting in several deaths by bullet wounds to the head or vital organs, according to interviews by the Center for Human Rights in Iran with family members of victims and reporting by other rights groups. To avoid accountability, officials refused to give families death certificates, took over or rushed burials of victims, and pressured families not to publicize their losses.



Did the regime use new or different tactics to quell the unrest? If so, what?

The United Nations referred to verified video footage showing live ammunition fired by helicopters. Families of shooting victims also told the Center that they saw helicopters firing into crowds. The regime’s shut down of the Internet during the protests was designed to hide the scope of killings and repression.


Were Iranian officials united in their responses to the protests? Did any leaders, at the local or national level, call for a different approach?

The Rouhani government was fully supportive of the crackdown and vocally engaged in intimidating the protestors, although some lawmakers voiced concern that the fuel price hike was not done in consultation with Parliament.



How did the November 2019 crackdown compare to the regime’s response to demonstrations in previous years, such as the 2017-18 demonstrations and the 2009 Green Movement?

This time the approach was much more draconian and the orders to kill were issued immediately, which is why the number of casualties was much higher. The comprehensive shut down of the Internet was also unique to these protests.



In March 2019, the supreme leader appointed Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric, as judiciary chief. As deputy prosecutor general of Tehran in 1988, Raisi had reportedly participated in a so-called “death commission” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners. Today, as judiciary chief, what impact has Raisi had on human rights cases? How has his treatment of individual cases or the verdicts from cases taken to court differed from his predecessor Sadeq Larijani?

Two months after Raisi took office, he appointed Ali Alghasi-Mehr, a staunch supporter of harsh punishments under Sharia (Islamic law) as the new prosecutor general of Tehran. Throughout his career, Alghasi-Mehr has advocated for ultra-hardline approaches to criminal justice, such as public executions and amputations. Like his predecessor, Raisi has allowed long prison terms for peaceful activism. The prison population swelled after mass arrests during November’s protests; there has been grave concern for detainees who have severely restricted access to due process, including a lawyer.


In November 2019, an Iranian court sentenced six wildlife conservationists to between six and 10 years in prison on charges of espionage. Why? What was the evidence—and was it credible or political? Why is the environment a sensitive issue in Iran?

This was certainly a political case with no evidence supporting charges of espionage. It remains a mystery why the Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization detained the wildlife conservationists and pursued the prosecution even after the Intelligence Ministry and the Supreme National Security Council challenged the Guards’ case.

The most prominent detainee in this case, Kavous Seyed-Emami, died under suspicious circumstances in prison only three weeks into his detention.

Environmental advocacy has become sensitive because Iran faces many related crises, ranging from severe droughts and water mismanagement to dangerous air quality levels and massive flooding. Yet, entrenched economic interests, especially by entities controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, do not want scientific and expert input on resolving resolve environment issues.



Hadi Ghaemi is the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.