Iranian authorities have failed to hold security forces accountable for excessive and unlawful use of lethal force in confronting large-scale protests that began on November 15, 2019, Human Rights Watch said. Members of the United Nations Human Rights Council should take urgent action to address the brutal crackdown.
Over three months later, the government has failed to announce the total number of deaths and arrests during the protests, which spread to many parts of the country over a week. Interviews with victims and witnesses, a review of photos and videos from the protests, and satellite imagery analysis strongly suggest that security forces used unlawful lethal force on at least three occasions. The total number of such cases is most likely higher.
“Iranian authorities have systematically repressed dissent for decades, and they are now confronting popular protests with an astonishing level of violence,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Principled international voices should send an unequivocal message that Iran cannot get away with killing protesters.”
The protests began over an abrupt fuel price increase, but they transformed into broader popular discontent with the government’s repression and perceived corruption. The government imposed a near-total internet shutdown from November 15 to 19.
Due to the internet shutdown and authorities’ threats against families of victims, documenting the full extent of the crackdown, including the total number of people killed, has been difficult. Amnesty International has estimated that at least 304 people were killed. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) has verified the identities of more 100 people killed. Media reports indicate that the death toll may be much higher. A member of parliament put the number at 170, while official media outlets have reported the deaths at least 5 members of the security forces during the protests. One parliament member said about 7,000 people were arrested.
Four informed sources told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have banned families from conducting interviews with media and threatened them with retaliation if they do. On December 23, the authorities arrested several members of the Bakhtiari family after they called for a public mourning to commemorate the 40th day of their son’s death. On January 22, the authorities released Bakhtiari’s father, pending trial.
After initially greenlighting the crackdown, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was later quoted as saying that families of people killed who had not been protesting should be compensated, and that detained protesters should be treated with what he called “Islamic mercy.” However, nothing in Khamenei’s response to the events suggests that the security forces will be investigated for their excessive and unlawful use of force. Moreover, according to several media outlets, prison authorities have beaten and abused detained protesters. There are also reports of Iran’s revolutionary courts sentencing at least 3 arrested protesters to death.
Human Rights Watch interviewed nine people, including witnesses, victims’ family members, and others with firsthand knowledge of the security forces’ violent response to protests in Khuzestan, Fars, Kermanshah and Alborz provinces. Human Rights Watch also reviewed videos and photos of incidents in which security forces apparently used unlawful and excessive lethal force, as well as satellite imagery of some protest locations. The evidence strongly suggests that on at least three occasions, security forces used unlawful lethal force while responding to protesters who were blocking roads, or in some cases throwing stones and attempting to take over public buildings.
Photos and videos of the protests circulating on social media and verified by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Special Forces under the supervision of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as the Special Forces belonging to the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NAJA), played major roles in the government’s violent crackdown.
People interviewed and videos on social media indicate that in at least three instances security forces shot people who were fleeing the scene of protests. One of these cases can be seen in a video posted online on November 17, 2019, recorded from Zeyn-Od-Din Highway overlooking Taleghani Street in Tehran. The video shows people on Taleghani Street starting a fire, while others throw what appear to be sticks and stones at security forces. About two dozen security force personnel are visible, dressed in black with a white stripe on their helmets. One of them opens fire at people on the street but it is unclear if anyone got hit.
The black uniforms and black helmets with white stripes are worn both by forces of the IRGC, as well as by the Basij, a paramilitary force under the IRGC with responsibilities for internal security and a long track record of committing serious human rights violations.
A person with close knowledge of a second case said that Borhan Mansournia, a 28-year-old veterinarian, told his family that on November 16, security forces shot him in Dolatabad, in Kermanshah province, while he was running away from security forces who were shooting at protesters.
Mansournia told his family while he was injured in the hospital that two other protesters were killed there. Mansournia was hospitalized with gunshot injuries and died on November 18. The authorities have refused to provide Mansournia’s family with information about the weapon and ammunition that killed him and threatened Mansournia’s family with arrest if they speak with the media.
Family members and people with close knowledge of four other cases of people killed said that in each case the victim died from gunshots to the head and/or chest. A family member of Pouya Bakhtiari, a 27-year-old electrical engineer, said that security forces fatally shot Bakhtiari in the head during a November 17 protest in Karaj, in Alborz province. A relative of a 15-year-old child, Mohammad Dastankhah, said that security forces shot him in the heart on November 16 as he was returning from school in the town of Sadra, the city of Shiraz, in Fars province.
Nearby and on the same day, Alireza Anjavi, a 27-year-old graduate of architecture studies, told his mother by phone that he was passing through a protest area. His family heard nothing more from him. A week later, a security agent called Anjavi’s mother to inform her that her son had been shot dead. Anjavi was shot in the forehead, a source with close knowledge of the case said.
The area surrounding Bander-e-Mahshahr, a city in Khuzestan province, experienced some of the most violent repression. Two local residents said that on November 18, special units opened fire on protesters who had been blocking roads in the town of Chamran since November 16, as well as on those who were fleeing to a marsh close by. The security forces appeared to use live ammunition and heavy machine guns, the two residents said. Videos posted to social media show tanks being deployed in Taleghani town and a pickup truck equipped with an automatic weapon in Chamran. At least one member of the security forces was reportedly shot and killed during the clashes on November 18 in the Chamran area, and another law enforcement officer there died of his injuries a week later.
The video showing a vehicle with an automatic weapon in Chamran appeared online on December 3, 2019. The exact location of where the video was recorded was identified by France 24 as part of a detailed investigation it conducted into the protests and crackdown.
HRANA reported that people wounded during protests in Karaj, Islamshahr, Bahbahan, and Sirjan avoided seeking treatment in hospitals for fear of being arrested. At least two people injured during these protests died from their wounds, HRANA reported.
Prisoners detained in Rajai Shahr and Evin prisons have reported that prison authorities beat arrested protesters. The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that lawyers still have not been able to get information about the condition of people arrested as “leaders” of the protests.
“Iran should not use geopolitical turmoil to distract from holding perpetrators accountable,” Page added. “The families of those killed deserve a thorough and transparent investigation instead of authorities trying to threaten and coerce the families into silence.”