Anti-aircraft guns, tanks, exploding ammunition, shotguns, tear gas and rubber bullets. These weapons and more have been deployed by the Iranian security forces in recent years, not against external threats, but the civilian population.
In mid-November 33 people testified at the Aban Tribunal in London, including several who had been severely injured by direct fire from regime operatives. Others had lost loved ones to bullets seemingly fired at random into crowds. “They were aiming for my heart,” one witness said on Friday, November 12. “I was shot twice. Once by pellets, and the second time I was hit by a sniper. Of 30 to 40 injured individuals, I was in the best condition.”
Not only civilian eyewitnesses but experts and regime insiders gave evidence to the panel in Westminster that highlighted the disturbing catalogue of weapons used by Iran’s regime to inflict grotesque levels of violence upon protestors in November 2019. Weaponry normally used in wartime was unleashed on unarmed, largely peaceful demonstrators across Iran, killing a reported 1,500 people and leaving an untold number of others life-changing injuries.
Qualified witnesses at the tribunal said in their view, Tehran’s behavior that month had amounted to serious violations of international human rights law by subjecting individuals to cruel, inhumane treatment and preventing their free assembly.
Videos collated and verified ahead of the tribunal by Shadi Sadr, a human rights lawyer and executive director of Justice for Iran, showed a heavy machine gun, believed to be a DShK, being used by Iranian special forces to target fleeing protestors in the Jarrahi marshes, Khuzestan on November 18.
Invented by the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the DShK is an anti-aircraft and heavy infantry machine gun capable of firing 600 rounds per minute. It has featured in some of the bloodiest conflicts in recent decades, including the Iran-Iraq War and the Syrian civil war.
In three separate incidents, Iranian-made Boragh tanks were also documented “terrorizing” local populations in Mahshahr, Sadr said. Fully amphibious, this armoured fighting vehicle has night vision equipment, travels at speeds of up to 65km per hour and can be armed with a 30 mm cannon and 120 mm mortar.
Hamid Sheikhani, the father of a seven-year-old girl, was arrested on November 18th for standing in front of one of these tanks in an attempt to block it from entering Taleghani City near Mahshahr. A week later Hamid’s body was delivered to his family with bullet wounds to the neck.
The month after the protests, an official in Khuzestan said 148 people had been killed in Mahshahr over five days in November 2019. Between 40 to 100 people are thought to have lost their lives on the day the tanks rolled in.
Another witness at the tribunal was a member of the Iranian security forces who had commanded a battalion of prison inmates deployed by the regime to attack people and provoke riots in November 2019. Some of the convicts, he revealed, had been equipped with exploding ammunition, which is illegal under international law.
“On impact with the body, they create a big wound,'' the witness said, speaking with his face and voice obscured for safety reasons. “These bullets are used only when you want to kill somebody.”
He also said the weapons given to regime forces “were out of use, so that if somebody is shot by a bullet, forensic medicine and the coroners cannot tell where it came from. They would not be able to relate it to the police.”
Birdshot and Buckshot
It’s not only military weaponry that has been deployed against protestors in Iran to deadly effect. Seemingly non-lethal weapons have been wielded by security forces to “punish and intimidate demonstrators, and cause maximum pain and suffering,” according to Bahar Sabi, a human rights researcher.
One example is multiple shot metal pellets, otherwise known as birdshot and buckshot. Fired from shotguns, these metal projectiles, which can range in size from small, serrated pellets to larger balls, are designed for hunting animals. At long range the pellets spray and scatter across a wide area, which Sabi pointed out would be “inherently indiscriminate”.
With an individual cartridge containing tens or even hundreds of pellets, these weapons can cause grievous and painful injuries to soft tissue. “The manner in which security forces used them further exacerbated their indiscriminate nature,” Sabi added. “Forces fired metal pellets from elevated positions, increasing the risk of individuals, including innocent bystanders, being shot in the head and face.”
Injuries from metal pellets caused multiple November 2019 protesters to lose their sight. Between November 15 and 19 in one city alone, Sabi said, more than 80 individuals needed specialist treatment for eye injuries as a result of being shot in the face.
People also reported penetrating traumas from being hit with a large number of pellets. Some sustained wounds from more than 60 pellets across their face, head, neck, torso, arms, back and legs.
Multiple Shot Projectiles
More commonly referred to as plastic or rubber bullets, these projectiles are contained in weapon-launched cartridges or grenades. While rarely fatal, they can leave victims with severe bruising, brain damage and blindness.
As another indiscriminate and inaccurate weapon, multiple shot projectiles are only permitted for use under international law where individuals’ actions are posing an imminent threat to life. Less lethal, single projectiles, such as those with foam tips or single rubber balls, should be used for crowd control if this is not the case. Sabi said she had found no evidence of the correct type being used by Iranian regime forces in November 2019.
While chemical irritants can be deployed against crowds legitimately, Sabi said, in November 2019 tear gas was deployed in a manner that “violated international law, alongside the physical and mental integrity of civilians”.
She described how tear gas was shot by police at people along a flat and direct trajectory, or from elevated positions, increasing the risk of injury. It was also fired into people’s homes. According to Sabi, at least two people were killed by tear gas canisters that had been shot directly at them. Others reported concussions, bruising of the brain, fractured skulls, suffocation, burns, blistering of the skin, and cardiac arrest.
“Tip of the Iceberg”
The extent of the devastation caused by the regime’s use of such weaponry is impossible to gauge. With security forces stalking hospitals in the aftermath to identify and arrest protesters, Sabi said: “in numerous cases individuals had not sought medical care due to fear of persecution”. But, she added, one thing was certain: “Security forces intentionally inflicted pain and suffering on protesters for daring to participate in what the authorities considered illegal assemblies.”