Young Iranians, shot in the heads and necks by police firing birdshot and live ammunition. Children hauled out of classrooms by plainclothes agents with stun guns. An order, issued to police via walkie-talkies, that was tantamount to “shoot to kill”.
The second day of hearings at the Aban Tribunal, which aims to shed light on crimes committed by the Iranian state during and after November 2019 protests, was full of horrifying testimonies from victims and observers. Speaking from an undisclosed location in Iran, one man identified only as Witness 366 told a panel of international lawyers in London how the assault on civilians had left him in a wheelchair at the age of 25.
Two years ago on Saturday, November 16, Witness 366 joined thousands of his fellow citizens in protesting a sudden three-fold hike in gas prices announced the day before. The gathering was spontaneous, and still peaceful at noon. Then at around 2pm, security forces opened fire.
“There were bullets flying,” the young man said from behind a bandana and sunglasses to protect his identity. “Unfortunately I was shot by one of the bullets, in my left arm, and it also went into my left lung. They were shooting directly at people.”
Police had shot him from inside a marked car about 150m away. It took five hours to get a CT scan at the local hospital; only then did they discover he was no longer able to breathe. Initially, Witness 366 was told the bullet would have to stay lodged in his spine forever. It was finally removed by a private hospital but the damage left him partly paralyzed. He was 23 years old.
“As you can see,” Witness 366 said, “I’m sitting in a wheelchair now. I had to do exercises for two months just to be able to sit. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep. I was like a newborn baby. The whole system of my body had been disrupted. I couldn’t be comfortable, even in my waking hours.” While Witness 366 was convalescing, his family filed a complaint with the court. Like countless others they received no redress. “Ten to 15 people had been taken to the hospital that day,” he said. “All had been shot.”
“Authorities Celebrate the Crackdown as a Crushing Victory”
There is no record of how many Iranians were killed or injured in November 2019, when police and security forces initiated a violent crackdown on the orders of the Supreme National Security Council. The estimated death toll ranges from 1,500 to 3,000. For now, Amnesty International has managed to independently verify 323 – but, as Amnesty’s Iran researcher Raha Bahreini told the tribunal on Thursday, they expect the real number to be higher.
“We’re aware of additional cases that have been reported online,” Bahreini said, “but we don’t have enough reliable detail to include them in the current list. This lack of access to information is due in large part to the climate of intense fear created by the authorities, which has resulted in fewer families and other informed individuals willing to speak up.” Despite this, based just on the testimonies received by Amnesty, Bahreini said, the crimes committed in November 2019 were “unprecedented, and the most lethal crackdown observed in Iran since the 1980s”.
Of the deaths from fatal injuries Amnesty has verified, 70 people were shot in the head or neck and 52 in the chest, indicating there was an order to shoot to kill. Seventeen others died from gunshot wounds to the abdominal area, and 14 to the back. Forty-four percent of those killed were in their 20s, and 26 percent in their 30s. But there were also 22 children, all but one boys, aged 12 to 17, among the cases reviewed by Amnesty. The last one was a girl, aged eight to 12.
Rights groups are also in the dark about how many Iranians were detained during the protests. But in Kermanshah, Khuzestan and Kurdistan alone, Bahraini said, “hundreds” were arrested, including tens of schoolchildren as young as 12 in Sanandaj and Saqqez and hundreds in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan.
In the city of Likak in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province, Bahreini said, “Plainclothes agents arrested some children from their homes while others were taken from their classrooms, in some cases, while beating them and using stun guns. They were interrogated without a guardian or lawyer present and beaten, then taken to either a juvenile correction facility in Yasuj or a prison in Dehdasht. Many were traumatized after their release. Some emerged with broken arms and teeth, and cuts all over their bodies.”
Bahreini also described some of the accounts of torture and ill-treatment both children and adults were subjected to in detention. Victims recalled being blindfolded and hit with batons, cables and hosepipes, being suspended from the ceiling, deprived of food or drink, and placed in prolonged solitary confinement for weeks or even months at a time. Others were sprayed with freezing cold water, subjected to electric shocks, extreme temperatures or prolonged loud noises, pepper-sprayed, waterboarded, and made to take unknown drugs. Many of the men were subjected to sexual abuse.
Amnesty sends regular reports to the Islamic Republic raising concerns about human rights violations in Iran. Even though its reports on other countries like Saudi Arabia and the US are regularly trumpeted on Iranian state TV, Bahreini said, Tehran rarely replies. “To date,” she said, “no individual in Iran has been investigated, let alone held accountable, for the grave human rights violations and crimes under international law committed during and after the month of November 2019. The authorities have celebrated it as a crushing victory, and a heroic achievement by security forces.”
IRGC Turned Machine Guns on Villagers
Just one of these violations was captured on camera by Witness 128, who appeared in person at Church House, Westminster on Thursday. The former resident of Baluchistan said on both the Saturday and Sunday, he had seen the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps firing machine guns at village residents who were trying to get to the city of Rask.
Locals set fire to tires in the road in a bid to stop the IRGC chasing them in vehicles. Shots were fired at them from a distance of 100m to 200m, even though, he said, those who intended to join a protest in the city were all unarmed. Two people were shot before Witness 128’s eyes. “They had nothing,” he told the panel. “They had come with empty hands.”
The final witness to speak on Day 2 of the Aban Tribunal was a former police officer who was in command of a team of 60 units during the protests. You can read about his testimony here.