This summer a landmark court hearing will take place in The Hague, with the Islamic Republic on trial. Among the 200 witnesses are bereaved families, Iranian citizens with pellets still lodged in their bodies, and the officers that put them there.
The Aban Tribunal was announced on the first anniversary of the November 2019 protests. These initially peaceful demonstrations were sparked across Iran by a sudden three-fold hike in fuel prices. They led to hundreds of civilians being killed by the security forces.
The Iranian authorities have refused to initiate a judicial or criminal enquiry into how the protests were handled, on the orders of the Supreme Leader. The Aban Tribunal, established by a consortium of human rights groups including Justice for Iran, Iran Human Rights and ECPM - Together against the Death Penalty, aims to do the same in its stead.
Over four days starting on July 3, a panel of international lawyers will hear evidence from scores of eyewitnesses about the events of November 2019. They will then determine whether Iranian state forces committed crimes under international law. The panel will also name the perpetrators in its final judgment.
Hamid Sabi, a London-based human rights attorney who also served the Iran Tribunal [of 2012, on the massacre of political prisoners in 1988], is one of two members of the co-counsel collating the evidence for the hearing, which was postponed until July due to coronavirus.
He told IranWire: “A lot of people in Iran will see these proceedings. We can’t force the government to appear before the tribunal, but it has an impact as a form of soft power.
“Our power is in our powerlessness. We rely on public opinion and we encourage people to become empowered through this process. When people see that 200 others are saying the same thing, it has a massive cathartic effect. It’s important to hold the government to account.”
In November 2019, reports that protesters were being killed began to emerge shortly after the protests commenced on Friday, November 15. Police and security agents used live ammunition as well as rubber bullets to kill and disperse the protesters.
The atrocities were accompanied by a nationwide three-day shutdown of the internet, which aimed to disrupt the protests but also hampered Iranians’ ability to communicate the horrors that were taking place on the ground.
Since then, human rights organizations have variously reported a death toll of between 304 and 1,500. Incidents of unlawful lethal force were documented in at least 39 cities across 15 provinces. Hundreds of other demonstrators were arrested and brutalized in prison, while the families of those killed have reported harassment and intimidation by the Iranian authorities.
“Thousands and thousands of people were shot,” Sabi said. “They shot through protesters who up until that time had been peaceful. It was an atrocity on a massive scale.
“Some of our witnesses still have the pellets in their bodies. They didn’t dare go to the hospital or clinic to have them taken out because they would be handed over to the police.
People inside Iran responded to the Aban Tribunal’s call for evidence in droves. Most of the 200 witnesses interviewed so far will not be named in the hearing for their own safety. They also include people who, as Hamid Sabi describes them, “come from the other side”: participants in the lethal suppression, who were either part of the chain of command, or observed events and wanted no part in it. One, Sabi said, is a command officer in one of the provinces who passed orders on to the IRGC, then had a “Damascene moment” on seeing the consequences. He has asked to be named in public.
“Apart from the witnesses,” Sabi said, “we have people who were shot at, a person whose mouth was torn, people who received pellets in their skulls. The accounts they give are unbelievable. As is the treatment of those families whose loved ones were killed – how they were torn apart, and forced to keep silent.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, so far no-one has come forward as a witness in defense of the Islamic Republic, though Sabi says any such submissions would be “welcome”. The co-counsel has collated a list of 38 individuals directly named as having had some degree of responsibility for the atrocities – including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, provincial governors, and officers in the IRGC and security forces – and has issued repeated calls for the Islamic Republic to send a delegate to The Hague for the tribunal.
Any judgement issued by a “people’s tribunal” such as this will be difficult to enforce. But the panel’s published findings could be used as a basis for future Magnitsky-style sanctions or other legal proceedings against members of the Iranian regime.
The published findings of the 2012 Iran Tribunal, into mass atrocities committed against dissidents in the 1980s, included the names of the perpetrators. One of the names was that of Hamid Nouri: a former prosecutor alleged to have been involved in the executions of dissidents in 1988. Nouri was later arrested in Sweden, coincidentally in November 2019, and the Iran Tribunal’s findings were used by Swedish police when building the case against him for crimes against humanity, which is now due to be heard in Stockholm in June 2021.
More to the point, Hamid Sabi says, in November 2019 “they shut off the internet and tried to treat it as a small uprising. The culture we are fighting is the culture of impunity: for the last 42 years, anyone in Iran who commits a crime has been able to hold their head up high, and sometimes even go into parliament and boast about the number of people they killed and tortured.
“Because they are in power, they come to the conclusion there is no consequence for their crimes. This is what we are fighting against.”
The co-counsel is still actively seeking evidence and submissions can be made through the WhatsApp and Signal number +447770057007.