Baneh, its residents say, is "turbulent". Everything is locked down. From Tuesday this week, the internet and telephone lines have been intermittently disconnected. Patrols are everywhere, looking, they say, for six people in connection with the killing of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Citizens have been rounded up and interrogated one by one, and shown pictures of the wanted parties. The most important among them seems to be an elderly, disabled man in a wheelchair.
This abrupt incursion into their lives began around Sunday, December 6. By Wednesday, according to the human rights organization Hengaw, raids had been conducted on some 30 homes in the Baneh neighbourhood of Hamzeh Abad and at least 20 people had been arrested in connection with the assassination on November 27. Fakhrizadeh, a senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a key figure in the Iranian nuclear program, was murdered in the Damavand area near Tehran.
Locals have told IranWire that on the morning of Thursday, December 10, a convoy of armed security agents and plainclothes officers entered a house in Pouya One Alley in Baneh and ransacked the place. They understand that these officers believe the six suspects are trying to escape Iran by sneaking across the Kurdistan border.
"They are showing the photos of these six people to everyone,” one said. “The first is of an elderly, disabled man sitting in a wheelchair. It seems his arrest is very important to them. But no-one knows the name of this person."
In addition to the raids, they say, a number of prominent local businessmen were summoned to Baneh Intelligence Office on Wednesday and asked to co-operate with the investigation by tracing these people’s whereabouts and inquiring for clues. Members of the Basij have also been asked to close routes in and out of the city and give support to a crack team of security agents dispatched from Tehran.
"Security forces and Basij-affiliated businessmen,” one person claimed, “have offered money to some of the kulbars [border couriers who convey goods across the Iran-Iraq border]. They told them they would pay ten times the amount they might receive for smuggling these people across.” They added that kulbars had been told: “If you do not cooperate, you will be arrested on charges of complicity with spies". Some kulbars are also understood to have been told not to attempt the border crossing for the time being.
To the south of Baneh, sources in Marivan County say that at around 1.30pm on the Wednesday security vehicles, along with several minibuses and an ambulance, were seen on the approach to Marivan from Sanandaj, passing through the villages of Shuyesheh and Negel. "It’s not clear what is going on," said a Marivan resident, who said the convoy finally entered the city at around 4pm. "They blocked off the entrances and exits to the city and security forces were stationed in the main square, inspecting vehicles that were foreign or did not have Kurdistan license plates. Drivers and passengers were also interrogated. The route from Marivan to the Bashmagh border [with Iraq] was also closed and vehicles were stopped and inspected."
A Bashmagh border guard was more straightforward in response to questions about heightened security in Marivan. "Security forces,” they said, “in cooperation with the border regiment of Marivan, have closed all entrances to the Iraqi Kurdish region.”
Local sources in the city of Saqqez, northeast of Baneh, have also told IranWire that three temporary checkpoints have been set up at the entrances and exits to their city. There is also a heavy security presence in the city center, notably in the area close to Saqqez Central Prison, which lies on the road to Baneh. One resident in Saqqez said: "Since the morning of Wednesday, December 9, security and law enforcement officials have been stationed in the crowded central square of Saqqez, inspecting foreign cars and interrogating the drivers and passengers." To their knowledge, no-one has been arrested so far and the presence has lessened since Thursday.
Of the three cities in Kurdistan, Baneh seems to be under the most intense surveillance at present. A human rights activist in the city said it was not clear how many citizens have been detained, nor who the detainees are. "The rapid descent of security forces on the city, and the mass arrests of anyone suspected to be involved, have made it very difficult – practically impossible – to identify the number of detainees or their identities. I believe more than 30 people have been arrested now. We simply have to wait.”