“These people were treated like prisoners of war. Because they called them ‘rioters’ instead of protesters, it gave them the prerogative to do whatever they wanted with innocent people.”
So said Witness 407, a former judicial official who heard from colleagues in Iran about the events of November 2019. He was speaking via videolink in London on Friday at the second hearing of the Aban Tribunal, a fact-finding mission examining the events of that bloody month.
“Even in Iran, the individual should know exactly what the charges [against them] are,” said the witness, who spoke with his face and voice disguised. “They should have the right to a lawyer. Unfortunately this isn’t always practiced. I don’t believe that any of those who were killed committed any crime. They were just asking for their rights.”
The Aban Tribunal was launched by a consortium of Iranian-led human rights organizations in a bid to establish accountability for the lethal state-sponsored suppression of civilian protesters during and after November 2019. Estimates of the number of Iranians killed vary from 300 to more than 3,000, while thousands more were detained, tortured and arbitrarily jailed.
During the first five-day hearing at Church House, Westminster last November, the co-counsel and panel heard from 33 factual and expert witnesses as to potential crimes against humanity committed by the authorities in Iran. Some 145 testimonies were submitted. After the tribunal was widely publicized in Iran, 88 more would-be witnesses came forward, prompting a second hearing.
The number of Iranian officials accused of being complicit in crimes that month, from members of the Supreme National Security Council to IRGC commanders to local governors, has risen from 133 to 160. “We urged them to come forward and answer the serious case raised by the evidence,” panel chair Wayne Jordash QC said on Friday, “including evidence of involvement in crimes against humanity, and numerous human rights violations.” Co-counsel Hamid Sabi confirmed that not one of them – nor Mohsen Baharvand, Iran’s ambassador to London, who was invited to make representations on their behalf – had responded to repeated letters.
The panel is expected to hear from 17 more witnesses, based both inside and outside Iran, between now and Sunday afternoon. For security reasons the sittings are no longer being live-streamed.
“You’re Not Allowed to Take Him. He’s Alive”
Two Iranians who testified on Friday said their loved ones were shot and killed on the streets by security forces firing indiscriminately at crowds. Provincial security councils across Iran, following a decision from the Supreme National Security Council on Saturday, November 16, are understood to have ordered local forces – from the paramilitary Basij, to the police, to the IRGC and plainclothes units – to suppress the demonstrations “by any means necessary”.
Tahereh Bejravani, of Shahr-e Qods, told the panel that her late husband Ali Fotouhi, a construction worker, had been out with a group at about 4pm that Saturday. In the face of her rising anxiety on the phone, he told her: “It’s not dangerous. Everybody is out. Don’t be afraid.”
Then he stopped answering her calls. Told by relatives that he had been hit by a rubber bullet, she eventually tracked him down to a hospital, where he lay unresponsive with a chest injury. Though he was alive and on oxygen, she said, doctors and nurses told her there was nothing else they could do for him. Eventually Ali was sent to hospital in Tehran.
The next time she saw her husband, Bejravani told the panel, he was being put into a body bag. But she was convinced he was still alive. “I shouted and opened the zip to see his mouth. I said ‘You’re not allowed to take him. He’s alive. The doctors could operate on him. He could recover.’” At the same time, she said, other gunshot victims were being brought to hospital, some of whom did not even reach the emergency department before being pronounced dead. “They were putting bodies into the ambulance,” she said, “to the extent there was no room. They said, ‘Close the doors, take these so we’ll have room for the rest.’”
Ali’s body was not returned to the family until three days later. The family were passed from one local administrative branch to the next trying to find out who had killed him – initially, they were told he was a “rioter” – and then warned off speaking to the media by unnamed IRGC intelligence agents who stalked her personal Instagram. They told her, she said, to “try to behave”.
“I’m seeking justice for my husband,” Bejravani said, “and I’m here on behalf of all Iranian women who lost their partners up until now and were not able to seek justice. They want someone to hear their voice.”
Witness 86 was Mohammad Mehdi Shahbazifard, whose sister Ameneh Shahbazifard, a mother-of-three, was shot dead with a single bullet to the neck after going to the aid of another protester in Karaj. Ameneh had gone to the pharmacy to collect some medicine for her four-year-old, he said, and on seeing an injured young man in the street, had tried to bandage his leg with her shawl.
Later, he said, an eyewitness gave a TV interview that made the family certain both of them had been shot by a sniper. Staff at the Emam Sajjad Hospital in Shahriar also initially told the family there was no female body in the morgue. It was only on the covert intervention of a Basij officer who’d lost a son, Shahbazifard said, that Ameneh’s husband was allowed to see the body; he was told “don’t let anyone know we’ve allowed you to do so”.
They were then made to pay 20 million tomans (about US$700) for her body to be returned to them. When they questioned this, Shahbazifard said, they were told: “This is the order that’s come from above.”
Forced to ‘Confess’ for TV
The tribunal also heard from Fatemeh Davand, a 42-year-old activist and mother-of-three from West Azerbaijan, who famously stood on a car in front of the Bakan governor’s office in the middle of a protest on Sunday, November 17 to rail against the economic situation in Iran. She was eventually pulled down and went home, she said, afraid of the escalating situation.
Davand was then arrested at home in a violent raid. “They were insulting me, they were manhandling me. They beat up my son in my presence. Even the landlord was saying ‘This person hasn’t done anything. My child wet himself out of fear.” She was blindfolded, cuffed and driven to an unknown location, which she later learned was a Ministry of Intelligence detention center in Urmia.
Every night in detention, Davand said, she could hear young men screaming as they were beaten up and tortured in adjacent cells. Terrified that she would be raped or killed, she gave a forced confession to cameras for the IRIB’s infamous 20:30 program, which falsely painted her as an agent of the US and Britain: “What they wanted me to say was inhuman.”
Davand was able to flee Iran after her electronic tag was removed. Asked by panel member Justice Zak Yacoob if she really had any friends in Britain, she said: “I wish... I think now I do.”
Military Bullets ‘Removed from Bodies’
Witness 451 was introduced as an ambulance driver who conveyed the bodies of some of those killed in the November 2019 protests away from the scene. He saw 20 to 30 people killed during his shift on the night of November 16, he said.
The witness was on his way to work when traffic was brought to a standstill by drivers who stopped their cars in peaceful protest against the three-fold hike in gas prices announced the day before. When security forces started shooting, he said, “it was as if I was witnessing a war scene”.
Then when he got to work, he said, “security forces had control of the hospital. They came and checked the bodies. Those who had bullets in them, they removed their personal IDs. Anyone who was injured they handcuffed to their hospital beds. Those whose injuries weren’t serious were just taken away.” The morgue, he said, was “full” – and “plainclothes officers” were assessing which bodies contained military-grade bullets, and removing the bullets from those that did.
“There were even some who weren’t at the protests at all,” he said. “They were just passersby. But they’d been shot in the chest or head. We weren’t allowed to take their bodies back to the families.”
Khuzestan Residents Gunned Down in Marshes
Witness 503, an Arab from southern Iran, gave evidence to the tribunal in person with his face covered. He said he was speaking on behalf of residents of cities including Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, Shadegan and Mahshahr, and that on Monday, November 18, “tens” of locals including at least eight children had been “massacred” while fleeing security forces in Nizar, Mahshahr.
Protesters had set up roadblocks outside a petrochemical complex, he said, to stop fuel trucks entering and leaving in defiance against the price hike. At about 9am on the Monday, IRGC Navy drones began circling overhead. At 9.36am a wall of security forces including the IRGC and young Basij members gave the unarmed civilians a five-minute warning to disperse. Then at 9.41am, he said, they opened fire with Kalashnikovs.
Witness 503 spoke painfully of a friend, a fruit seller he named as Mr. Abbas, who was shot and died in hospital. Many of his companions fled to the marshes, he said, and another friend was shot in the ribs. “I tried to help him. He said ‘Don’t, don’t; they’ll kill you.’ They took him away, but they didn’t take him to hospital. We didn’t carry any arms. We didn’t commit any acts of sabotage. And yet they were shooting at us.”