Eyewitnesses have told IranWire that at least eight people have been killed in the city of Behbahan in Khuzestan province and the surrounding area as protesters clashed with police and security forces over the weekend.
A police officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told IranWire he and other officers were ordered not to hand over the bodies of the dead to families in case it caused further unrest. He said he had heard from fellow policemen that some of the bodies had been transferred to Ahvaz.
The policeman confirmed that government agencies had not made an official announcement regarding the death toll, or informed the families of the dead. But he says that at least eight people have been killed, and that protesters had attacked several law enforcement personnel, two of whom are now in a critical condition. Protesters were still out on the streets late into the night of Sunday, November 17.
He spoke of massive fires at government buildings and attacks on the city’s banks, with only a few left unscathed, and expressed frustration that people had set fire to public property, buildings that he says belonged to them.
Behbahan, which is located in eastern Khuzestan, has a population of 130,000 people.
Mehdi, a resident of the city, took part in the protests, which started after Iranian officials hiked the price of gasoline four days ago.
”On November 15, which was the first day of the protests, people were sitting calmly on the asphalt outside the Melli Bank, between Javanmardi Square and Shiraz Square, chanting slogans without being offensive. But the violence of the police, who hit the people with batons and stones, inevitably made the people angry."
According to Mehdi, law enforcement forces led the people to violence and anger: "There was no attempt to calm the people down. They were throwing stones and pushing people away with high-pressure water and then firing guns."
Mehdi says he still has not been able to digest what has happened, and he says he can’t justify the violence he saw with his own eyes: "It was as if I was standing on location for a violent film. Batons came down violently on people’s heads as if they were trying to kill them. The people of Behbahan are very peaceful and calm, but there has been a deliberate intention to create public outrage. Interestingly, there were large numbers of police everywhere, but when the people tried to set fire to a bank, there were no policemen and nobody stopped them. I think they didn't stop the people so they would have an excuse to beat them."
Mehdi said police changed their tactics on November 16. "On the second day of the protests, when it was getting dark, people were sitting on the ground in front of the armed forces, who had come from the Revolutionary Guards. Soon afterward, the guards came three meters into the crowd and stopped. No one got up. People yelled, 'Come and kill us. We are not the citizens of Lebanon or Gaza; we are haram; killing us is mubah [allowed]."
Behbahan is one of several cities to have had their electricity and internet shut down. Over the past 48 hours, residents endured blackouts lasting several hours, day and night. People have had very intermittent access to the internet since the initial blackout, but access usually lasts only a few minutes at a time. Communication with the outside world has been very difficult, and often impossible.
I talked to Leila, whose cousin went missing during the protests. She says her uncle knocked on every door trying to get news about his son. They suspect he has been killed. “No one confirmed that he was killed and his body was not returned to his family, nor was there any confirmation that he was in prison," she says. "But a friend in the forensic department said he was probably among the dead."
"They told my uncle that they did not know where his child was. 'We have not detained him,’ they said. But someone we know said he had seen someone firing at his cousin from the top of the ministry of finance building and had shot him in the head. His face was covered in blood and he fell to the ground; then people moved him so he could be transported to the hospital. But there is no news of him now. His name is not even registered at either of the two hospitals in the city.”
Leila went with her mother and cousin to the Shahidzadeh Hospital and Behbahan Social Security Hospital to find her missing cousin. She said the situation in both hospitals was very distressing.
"All the corridors of the hospital were full of bloody, wounded people and people with broken bones. They were either sitting on chairs or in the middle of the hallway, and of course there was a pronounced police presence in the hospital. One nurse said they had arrived to identify the injured and to transfer them to the detention center after treatment was completed".
Several other people confirmed the shootings from the top of the ministry of finance building, which is adjacent to the city’s old prison. They said shots were fired at people as they walked toward the building.
Leila described the streets of Behbahan as looking like a war-torn city from the Iran-Iraq war.
"People defended themselves by throwing stones. Then they fled and hid behind lamp posts and walls to stay safe from gunshots. The city was in a state of war on November 17, and the sound of shooting did not stop. Armed soldiers guarded the wall leading up to the terminal near the highway to Behbahan.”
Cars Riddled with Bullets — and Fears for People’s Lives
A man going by the name GH Hassanzadeh described how his father’s car was riddled with bullets: "More than 20 bullets hit my father's car, which was parked near the City Library near Melli Bank Square. My father took the car and showed it to the authorities, telling them that his transportation vehicle has now become useless. They said, ‘just run and save yourself.’ If he had insisted, they would have questioned him about the reason why he was near Melli Bank Sqaure.” He said he was certain that the bullets had probably hit people as well as his father’s car.
Hassanzadeh says a man whose two nephews live in Islamabad and had worked on his father's farm last year phoned his father and told him that his sons were on a sidewalk watching protesters when they were shot and killed.
He said the family name of the two dead men was Parsaei, but added that he could not confirm the news because the number of arrests was so high and some may have been injured or arrested while their families may think they have been killed.
Behbahan was one of the first cities where protests broke out following the government’s announcement on November 15 that it was increasing gas prices.
The price of gas increased by 50 percent in some places, reaching 1,500 tomans per liter, while free-market gas prices tripled, reaching 3,000 tomans per liter. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was said to have supported the increase, and a government spokesperson said it had been a difficult decision but necessary given the current economic situation.
People took to the streets in protest in various cities across Iran, and it was not only residents of Behbahan who faced harsh treatment from police.
Unofficial media sources say that up to 50 Iranian citizens have been killed in the protests. Official government sources have so far failed to comment on the figure.