Gunning Them Down: State Violence against Protesters in Iran

May 2020, A report from Center for Human Rights in Iran

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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 stampede 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.

These protests were in essence a continuation of unrest that had begun in Iran in December 2017, which differed significantly from previous protest in Iran. Up until that point, protest had certainly been an enduring feature of the Islamic Republic’s political landscape. Despite the government’s intolerance of dissent and the ever-present risk of state violence, arrest and imprisonment, protest had persisted—by students, including major protests at universities across the country in 1999 and 2003; by massive numbers of citizens who demonstrated against the disputed presidential election results in 2009; by women (and men) against forced hijab; and by steel workers, teachers, heavy machinery workers, bus and truck drivers, railway workers, nurses, sugar mill workers, bazaar merchants, petrochemical workers, farmers and many others in continuous labor protests over the last few decades.

Yet the unrest that broke out across Iran in December 2017 was different; it was diffuse, unorganized, leaderless and less focused on specific grievances. These protests grew quickly in number and participants to encompass hundreds of cities and towns across the country, with protesters voicing a fundamental rejection of the country’s political and economic system. Expressing rage over economic hardships and inequities, these protests were prevalent in working class areas in the provinces that had previously been a strong base of support for the Islamic Republic, and included large numbers of young men who had left drought-stricken smaller towns for provincial cities where they were typically unemployed.

The unrest continued into January 2018, until the state’s crackdown, which included mass arrests and the widespread beating of protesters and detainees by security agents, as well as a brief (approximately 30 minutes) shut down of access to the global internet, seemed to somewhat quiet things down.13 Yet protests continued sporadically throughout 2018, for example by farmers14 over severe water shortages that summer in areas hit by drought and environmental mismanagement, by workers15 protesting unpaid wages and the imprisonment of their labor leaders, and by merchants of the bazaar16 —until November 2019, when mass protest began again across the country.

In the following report, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has detailed and documented the state response to these latest two clusters of protest—November 2019 and January 2020—which were both characterized by extraordinary and lethal state violence, massive arrests and detainments, blatant due process violations, the muzzling of the press and prolonged internet shutdowns.

In addition, there have been widespread reports documented here through firsthand accounts obtained by CHRI, that officials refused to notify families of those detained, injured or killed, and refused to release the bodies of those killed to the families until either payment by the families was made and/or pledges made by the families not to speak to the press or hold mourning ceremonies, and to bury their dead quietly in ceremonies and cemeteries dictated by the state.

Throughout there has been a complete lack of transparency, which has meant that there is still significant uncertainty regarding the number of deaths, lack of information on the number of injured (other than credible and consistent reports that hospitals were overflowing with the injured), and little information on the actual number of arrests, the number of people who remain in detention, their condition and the state of their cases. To date, the Iranian government has issued no official numbers on any of the above.

In addition, as of this writing there has been no accountability for the deaths or injuries that occurred during the protests. Even regarding instances in which credible reports indicate that unarmed civilians were chased by security forces, cornered, fired upon and killed, there has been no independent investigation or actions taken to determine and enforce accountability.

CHRI has based this report on dozens of firsthand accounts and interviews with eyewitnesses, victims, their families and lawyers and verified photos and video obtained from eyewitnesses on the ground in Iran, during the period from November 15, 2019 through February 2020, and desk research that included extensive review of Iranian media, both traditional and social, review of Iranian government, parliamentary and judicial decisions and statements, UN assessments and statements, and reports by other reputable and trusted human rights organizations to corroborate and supplement our findings.

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