On May 27, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) released a report documenting Iran’s violent crackdowns on protestors in November 2019 and January 2020. Dozens of victims and witnesses described use of lethal force, massive arrests, due process violations, press censorship and prolonged internet shutdowns. “The chilling testimonies in this report regarding the women, bystanders and children killed by Iran’s security forces reveal a state that has dropped any pretense of lawful behavior and has grown fearful of its own people and their discontent,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI executive director.
In November 2019, Iranians took to the streets after the government suddenly raised gas prices and introduced a new rationing system. Security forces killed hundreds in just four days. In January 2020, Iranians launched a new wave of demonstrations after the government admitted that the Revolutionary Guards had mistakenly shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. All 176 people on board, including dozens of Iranians, were killed. Police fired tear gas canisters and beat people to disperse demonstrators.
“The international community should not only condemn the Iranian government’s violent suppression of the right to protest and the slaughter of its own citizens, it must also continue to call for an independent investigation into the state’s actions during these protests,” Ghaemi added. The following are excerpts from the report.
Gunning Them Down:
State Violence against Protesters in Iran
In November 2019, mass street protests broke out in hundreds of cities and towns across Iran. Initially triggered by a state-imposed gasoline price hike that month, the unrest was more broadly a reflection of long-building societal frustrations over worsening economic conditions, governmental mismanagement, corruption and political repression in the country.
The violence of the state’s response—indiscriminate firing of live ammunition into crowds of civilians which resulted in at least 304 deaths (with many documented shots to the head, neck and chest, indicating lethal intent), untold injuries from gunshots, tear gas and beatings, and more than 7000 arrests in the span of roughly a week—represented a level of state violence not seen in Iran since the 1980s. In addition, a state-imposed shutdown of the internet in Iran for approximately one week and a news blackout allowed this violence to be carried out away from public scrutiny.
Protests flared again less than two months later, in January 2020. This unrest was fueled by outrage over the Revolutionary Guards’ shooting down of an Ukrainian passenger flight on January 8, 2020, which killed all 176 people aboard—and the government’s admission of the downing only after three days of public denial. Coming only days after 56 people died in a stampede9 at a badly managed funeral for Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on January 7, the protests reflected public fury at the government’s incompetence and lack of transparency, even though many in the nation had briefly united against the killing of the General by the US days earlier. The January protests were also quickly crushed by the state by mass arrests and violence that included the firing of pellets and other unknown ammunition at protesters, the use of tear gas and water cannons, and beatings of protesters by security agents.
The November 2019 Protests
Excessive and lethal use of state force resulting in deaths and injuries
The excessive and lethal use of force by state security forces was documented by CHRI and included the firing of live ammunition indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed civilians, hitting both protesters and bystanders who happened to be in the vicinity (and the large number of reports we received of shots to the head, neck and chest indicated lethal intent) as well as the use of tear gas against civilian crowds and the widespread beating of protesters by security forces and associated militias.
Videos shared on Twitter, YouTube and the Telegram messaging app showed police and security forces firing tear gas canisters and using water cannons to disperse the protesters while attacking them with batons. Several video clips that slipped through the Internet blockade in Iran showed security forces firing directly at the protesters.
Amnesty International has put the number killed at “at least 304” (other estimates have been significantly higher) and stated that “thousands” were injured. On January 2, 2020, the Iranian opposition news site, Kaleme, estimated that at least 631 people had been killed in connection with the November protests. On December 23, 2019, Reuters reported “About 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on November 15,” a number Reuters said was provided to them by three Iranian interior ministry officials, and was based on information gathered from security forces, morgues, hospitals and coroner’s offices, and included “at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women.”
In what appears to be one of the worst incidents, which took place on November 18 and demonstrates the extreme and unlawful state violence used against protesters, corroborated reports indicate Iranian security forces used heavy machine guns against protesters in Jarahi Square in Mahshahr, including against people fleeing the area and hiding in nearby marshes, resulting in at least 23 people killed, possibly more. As well as protesters, it is reported that bystanders in the street and people watching from their homes were also hit with bullets during the Mahshahr incident.33
Juveniles were among those killed by state security forces, as documented by firsthand accounts obtained by CHRI and excerpted below. In addition, Amnesty International has reported that at least 23 children, including 22 boys (ages 12 to 17) and a girl (between the age of 8 and 12) were killed by Iranian security forces (many by injuries to the head and torso, indicating intent to kill) in the provinces of Isfahan, Fars, Kermanshah, Khuzestan, Kurdistan and Tehran during the period from November 16 to November 18, 2019.
There have been no official numbers released by the Iranian government for those injured, but there were reports that hospitals in Tehran were overwhelmed with the injured.35 Similarly, there have been no numbers released by the Iranian government regarding those killed or reported missing.
While the Iranian authorities have not released any official figures regarding the number of people arrested, before a joint meeting between members of Parliament and security officials on November 25, 2019, Member of Parliament Hossein Naghavi Hosseini said about 7,000 people had been arrested during the unrest.36 CHRI has not verified this number and many arrests transpired after the date of his statement.
As of this writing, the government has also not released numbers regarding those who still remain in detention. On January 11, 2020, the head of the State Prisons Organization Ali Asghar Jahangir, said “a significant portion of the detainees have been released” and that the remainder would soon appear in court.37 He did not provide further details.
The January 2020 Protests
During the January 2020 unrest, state security forces and members of the Basij volunteer militia beat peaceful protesters with batons, used tear gas against crowds of civilians (including in enclosed places), and fired what appeared to be live ammunition at unarmed civilians. This violence has been documented by firsthand and eyewitness accounts, and video footage sent to CHRI from Iran from protesters in Iran that was verified by the Associated Press.
In one video obtained by CHRI, Iranian state forces fire tear gas and beat protesters who have gathered in the streets on January 11, 2020. A second video sent to CHRI, also from January 11, shows protesters at Amirkabir University in Tehran being beaten and tear-gassed by security forces. In a third video acquired by CHRI, tear gas is shot directly into a crowd outside the Shademaan Metro Station in Tehran at approximately 7:30 pm Tehran time on January 12, 2020. A fourth video shows the preceding incident from a different angle.
Amnesty International reported: “The evidence indicates that on 11 and 12 January security forces fired pointed pellets from air guns…at peaceful protesters causing bleeding and painful injuries. Security forces also used rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters as well as kicking and punching them, beating them with batons and carrying out arbitrary arrests.”
The Iranian government has released no official information or numbers regarding any deaths related to the January protests or the number of people who were injured, and due to the news blackout, there is no reliable information on these numbers. However, the following testimony in this report, the above-referenced video footage, and reports from other credible organizations indicate multiple injuries from indiscriminate beatings, tear gas (including its use in enclosed places), and the firing of undetermined ammunition by security forces.
There were also credible reports that injured people did not go to hospitals for fear of arrest, as state security and intelligence agents maintained a heavy presence at some of the hospitals, further inhibiting estimates on the number of people injured.
As during the November 2019 protests, the authorities violently arrested civilians exercising their right to public protest. Included in the arrests were significant numbers of students at universities engaged in peaceful sit-ins. Moreover, the authorities routinely withheld information on the arrests from the families, including those of juvenile detainees, as the accounts below indicate.
In addition to the reports CHRI received from the University of Tehran, the University of Isfahan in central Iran, Noshirvani University in Babol (Mazandaran Province), Kharazmi University in Tehran and Razi University in Kermanshah (western Iran), there were also reports of students at other universities who were arrested. For example, Amnesty International also received reports of arrests in Ahvaz (Khuzestan province), Isfahan (Isfahan province), Zanjan (Zanjan province), Amol and Babol (Mazandaran province), Bandar Abbas (Hormozgan province), Kermanshah (Kermanshah province), Sanandaj (Kurdistan province), Mashhad (Razavi Khorasan province), Shiraz (Fars province), and Tabriz (East Azerbaijan province).
There have been no official numbers provided by the authorities on arrests after the January 2020 protests. However, on January 14, 2020, Judiciary Spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaili said “about 30 people have been arrested during recent incidents” in connection with plane crash protests. No further details were given. Based on the firsthand accounts CHRI received on the arrests, this number is a gross underestimate. Unconfirmed reports have reported those arrested numbered at least 500.
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