Tall and heavy-set policemen, dressed in black, stand in the back of a police van behind the accused and beat them. Those who are beaten swear loudly, encircled by police cars and passersby who have stopped to watch. The release of this video on Tuesday, October 6 made waves on social media, with the naked violence of Iranian police decried as an insult to human dignity.
This, however, is far from the first time the Iranian police have paraded petty criminals in the streets. The regime-backed scheme, ostensibly to combat "thuggery" in neighbourhoods, has been going on for years. But this level of violence out in the open has come as a shock to many.
The officers in the video, filmed near the Aladdin shopping centre in Tehran, are dressed similarly to specialist units, and their brutal public display follows an announcement by Hassan Naja, commander of the NAJA Special Units Command – a sub-division of the Iranian police force that includes riot police and dog units – to say that special forces would be deployed “with full authority and readiness” to fight the “thugs” on the streets of Iran.
The Iranian news agency Mizan, which is affiliated with the judiciary, responded to the release of the video on Wednesday, October 7, 2020 with an article entitled "The story of the arrest of thugs that were paraded in the city yesterday". It named one of the detainees as “M. Sh”, a man apparently arrested after attacking a shopkeeper in Tehran’s Razavieh neighborhood about three weeks earlier. Classed as a “level one thug” in the police’s three-tier grading system, the man, Mizan said, had fled the shop amid clashes, destruction and shootings and taken refuge in Ardabil. It added that in the past three weeks, three people with a history of misdemeanors had been found hiding outside Tehran.
It is not clear at precisely what time the video of police brutality was filmed, and the judiciary’s news agency did not comment on the violence. But a person who witnessed the “parade” told IranWire: "During the coronavirus outbreak, the same show was staged here, in the Javadiyeh neighborhood. The cops were huge, tall, and strong and were beating the accused so hard in the heads that with each strike, I feared the person's brain would explode."
NOPO: The Real Face of Iranian Thuggery
An informed source in Tehran law enforcement told IranWire that in fact, the officers were not from NAJA but from NOPO, Iran’s Counter-fray Special Force, which is often scrambled to break up protests. “They are both the best and the most violent police forces used to control a situation,” they said. “In the ‘parading of petty criminals' scheme, two or three of these masked policemen are used to intimidate or, as they say, teach others a lesson and to create fear. They want to dominate the thugs, to imply ‘Your numbers are nothing; you should see our forces’."
NOPO agents, the source added, are also present at events in Iran where there is a possibility of chaos erupting. "For example,” they said, “several NOPO agents are usually on guard at public executions. Two stand by the executioner so that, for example, if the accused's family or friends want to disrupt the ceremony, they can control the situation."
Iranian police commanders generally consider NOPO the “best” special forces unit in Iranian policing, and the most highly-trained. In May 2013, Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the then-commander of the Iranian police force, discussed the shooting skills of various parts of the police force. He graded them as 80 out of 100 in regular police stations, 90 out of 100 across the special units, and “100 out of 100” within NOPO.
Hassan Karami, commander of NAJA, has gone so far as to call NOPO one of the top special forces in Asia, and even more experienced than some units of the Iranian armed forces including the IRGC's Saberin Takavar Brigade and the army commando brigade known as the Green Hats. NOPO agents wear black uniforms and black balaclavas that cover the entire face save for the eyes and mouth.
An informed source has previously told IranWire about how NOPO agents are recruited. "The officers are selected from among the special units. Height, physical fitness, a high IQ and good mental health are important factors in choosing future NOPO agents. Candidates who have these characteristics will be interviewed by experienced officers.”
In an interview with ISNA in August 2016, former NOPO commander Colonel Hossein Amjadian revealed that NOPO agents are also trained in free-running: "Our forces learn to overcome city barriers using parkour, and become specialists in martial arts and self-defense." In addition, he said, NOPO agents are trained in airborne skills including parachuting, freefall and paragliding, adding: “Of course, they also learn diving, steering, and water operations too."
Why would the police deploy their very best forces to publicly discipline petty criminals? An informed source speaking to IranWire said: "It is simply another method of suppressing dissent. Those people who have gathered to watch will understand that the slightest protest can be suppressed with enough brutal force. What this says is, 'We’re catching and beating up thugs like this; the suppression of ordinary people will be much easier’. They fear [the resurgence of] protests, and this is why the IRGC and the police are constantly talking about a plan to fight ‘thugs’."
In mid-September, Mohammad Yazdi, commander of the Tehran Revolutionary Guard Corps, announced the formation of strike teams in various parts of the capital ostensibly in order to combat “thugs”. This and the “parades” held by apparent NOPO officers are inexplicably taking place in the middle of Iran’s third wave of coronavirus infections.
"The fear is that these days, with the outbreak of the coronavirus and just when the bad economic situation has infuriated people, there will be protests and riots," said IranWire’s source. “This issue has been publicly acknowledged by both the health minister and the president. But there is another issue; they train the repressive forces from among these very same ‘thugs’.”
In the aftermath of the 2009 post-election protests, Hossein Hamedani, then-senior commander of the Revolutionary Guards, infamously said in an interview that 5,000 known violent criminals had been recruited by the regime to attack demonstrators instead. “Later,” he proclaimed, “these three battalions showed that if we want to train fighters, we must recruit such people, who are familiar with razors and machetes."