Special Features

Aban Tribunal: Victims of Gunfire and Torture Denounce 'Criminals'

November 13, 2021
Hannah Somerville
12 min read
International law professor Robert Heinsch has told the Aban Tribunal in London that the authorities' actions in November 2019 could constitute a crime against humanity
International law professor Robert Heinsch has told the Aban Tribunal in London that the authorities' actions in November 2019 could constitute a crime against humanity
Activists hold up photos of the 1988 and November 2019 victims side by side at Church House, Westminster
Activists hold up photos of the 1988 and November 2019 victims side by side at Church House, Westminster
Soheil Abdi told the court how he was shot at close range in Shahriyar, Tehran province
Soheil Abdi told the court how he was shot at close range in Shahriyar, Tehran province
A protester who was tortured, named only as Witness 255, said he saw plainclothes officers carrying batons fitted with bolts
A protester who was tortured, named only as Witness 255, said he saw plainclothes officers carrying batons fitted with bolts
Fatemeh Khosrou, 32, was brutalized and sexually assaulted in Evin Prison after attending a protest in Lorestan
Fatemeh Khosrou, 32, was brutalized and sexually assaulted in Evin Prison after attending a protest in Lorestan
Witness 28 said the family were offered a stipend if they declared her brother a "martyr" on state TV
Witness 28 said the family were offered a stipend if they declared her brother a "martyr" on state TV

The bodies of some people killed in the November 2019 protests were taken away by the security forces in meat trucks, while detained Iranians were subjected to unspeakable torture and assault at the hands of the IRGC and intelligence agents, the Aban Tribunal has heard. Several audience members in Church House, London were in tears on Saturday as eyewitnesses from different parts of Iran talked about what they experienced.

At the start of proceedings, expert witness Robert Heinsch, a professor of international law at Leiden University, presented a report he and colleagues had compiled on behalf of Justice for Iran. He said the scope and widespread nature of the killings and arbitrary arrests indicated what happened could be considered a crime against humanity. The report will be submitted to the International Criminal Court to begin an investigation under Article 7 of the Rome Statute. Lawyer Mohammad Nayeri also described how Iran’s flawed judicial system enabled egregious human rights abuses against prisoners.

Some of the testimonies seemed to support those heard on previous days. A woman from Shiraz alleged that security forces had used exploding bullets, something also described in the previous hearing. A man named only as Witness 179 also suggested conscripted prisoners were behind the property damage seen in some cities, and publicly named the killer of Farzad Ansarifard from Behbahan, whose father had testified on Wednesday, as a Basij member named Mashhadinejad.

“You Don’t Give a Gun to a Child”

Soheil Abdi was shot at close range in Shahriyar, Tehran province, on November 16 while he was trying to film the officer accosting him. The incident was captured on camera. Abdi told the court on Saturday: “I didn’t at all want to get involved in any struggle. I’ve never been a political person in my life; I’ve never been in any kind of a fight. Just this [the three-fold hike in gas prices announced on November 15] made me protest. We were trying to escape.”

Abdi noted the gunman called him a “rioter” – but also monafeq, “hypocrite”, an infamous Khomeini-era term for members of the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK), who were massacred in Iran’s prisons in 1988.

A friend warned Abdi not to go to hospital as plainclothes officers were taking names to pass to the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization. As he was being treated by a private doctor at home, Abdi said, 30 to 40 other people called the medic asking for help. He also alleged that outside some hospitals, the bodies of patients who died were being taken away by security forces.

Quoting hospital staff, Abdi said the bodies of some people who died in hospitals were taken to Kahrizak in refrigerated meat trucks. “Nobody knew what was going on. These were refrigerated trucks. They were for carrying food. But they were filled up with people who had been arrested by the Basij and the IRGC.”

 “There are many who died, and there are many who left the country. We are somehow dead too,” he told the court. “The Islamic Republic is a criminal government. Everybody knows that; even the officials don’t agree with the government. When you look at the people shooting a 16-year-old in the face, individuals who don’t even know how to shoot, being forced to shoot others in the face, this is the definition of a criminal government. A gun was given to a Basiji 16-year-old. That’s a crime. You don’t give a gun to a child.”

Demonstrators Spattered With Paint to Identify Them

Witness 5 told the tribunal he was “ashamed” to be appearing in a mask and with his voice protected, apologising to the families of those killed. The reason, he said, was “If I take off my mask, I could be killed in 15 minutes.”

He had attended different protests in Malard, Shahriar and Robat Karim, all satellite towns of Tehran. There was “nothing non-peaceful” about any of them, he said, but he saw three people shot in one small town and 500 arrested. He later learned 200 people had been killed in Malard, he said, and most of them were from poorer backgrounds: “They had no mercy.”  

As well as live ammunition, the witness testified, the Basij had fired paintballs at people’s trousers so that they were marked out for arrest by IRGC intelligence later. He was hit by one himself and tailed by three plainclothes officers, but “thank God, thank God, thank God” managed to change his clothes.

Ambulances and Hospitals Co-opted to Kill Protesters

A hospital doctor from a small town, named as Witness 232, told the tribunal he was coming off a 24-hour shift on November 16 when he saw crowds moving up the street and heard the sound of gunfire so intense it sounded like an automatic weapon. He saw a man lying on the ground, his chest pierced and foaming at the mouth, as well as a dead woman and a child “next to a tree”. Officers began to fire tear gas and by midnight, the roads had been blocked off. Watching from the window, the witness said, “It was like a movie. People were shooting, people were being chased.”

There were ambulances everywhere, he said – but they were not operating as normal. “I saw people disembarking. Some plainclothes individuals got out of the ambulances. They were not medical personnel. Those who left the ambulances started attacking people.”

On his way to work the next morning, he said, a young man of no more than 18 or 19 was walking ahead of him carrying food. All of a sudden, he felt his clothes had “become wet” and looked down to see he was “covered in blood and parts of the brain of that child. I didn’t even hear the shooting; he just fell.”

The doctor described his own hospital as “a military fortress”: “When the ambulance came it was like prisoners were being passed from one place to the other. I was shocked by what was going on.” He also witnessed a girl who had previously been shot hiding in the toilet. Two plainclothes officers chased her into the yard and shot her. “You don’t do with an animal what they did with that young girl.”

The hospital morgue door was open, outside of the norm, and Witness 232 it was “filled with bodies”: about 30 in total. Based on his observations of the gunshot wounds, he said he believed many of them could have been saved. “I became very thoughtful,” he said – and ultimately decided to treat 30 to 40 people at his home instead of handing them over to the security forces in hospital. “We took the bullets out,” he said. “We tried to fix their broken bones as far as we could. We paid the price. Many people paid the price.”

Family Offered ‘Martyr’s Stipend’

Between 5.30 and 6pm, the woman identified as Witness 28 said goodbye to her brother for the last time. “He came home from work, had a snack and took a shower, had some fruit, then went out for a work matter. My mother insisted that he shouldn’t go out because it was cold and there were some protests, but he said, ‘I won’t go anywhere special.’”

About an hour later, he stopped answering his phone. It rang and rang, and eventually someone answered and told the family he had been shot. They visited several hospitals before he was located, after which it took three days for the body to be delivered to them. They also had to pay 100,000 tomans, officially for a “transfer”: the cost of the bullet.

Witness 28 said the family were blocked from hiring a lawyer to pursue the case and find the killers. Her brother’s death certificate said he had been hit “with a sharp object”, though contacts with military experience told the family the bullet was from a decommissioned war weapon. They were harassed and invited by state TV to go on camera and pronounce him a “martyr”, in exchange for a lifetime stipend from the Foundation for Martyrs and Veterans Affairs.

The family refused. “This foundation is supervised and controlled by the government,” said Witness 28. “It's a betrayal. Even those that died in the [Iran-Iraq] war wanted to defend the country, and the honour of their countrymen. Unfortunately they [the government] have betrayed those goals as well. They have trampled on the aims of the martyrs. Surely, we did not want to have a share of that betrayal.”

Security Forces “Wouldn’t Let People Leave Crowds”

A young man named only as Witness 255 told the tribunal about the 18 days of extreme torture he was subjected to after being arrested on November 18. He had attended a protest in Revolutionary Square, Isfahan the day before and, he said, had seen anti-riot forces dressed in black firing directly at the protesters. He also said plainclothes officers were carrying batons fitted with screws and bolts.

“I saw them hit one man with such force his glasses flew away,” he said. “They wouldn’t allow an ambulance to come in.” A mother and child, he said, had pleaded with officers surrounding them to be allowed out of the crowd. Both had been beaten in response. “It was a melee.” People also gathered on the dried-up Zayandeh Rud riverbed to protest, and were again encircled and shot at.

Witness 255 was attacked, lost consciousness and came to handcuffed in the back of a car, but the crowd intervened and saved him. The next day, he was arrested by a police special unit because of the wound on his face. “Without even saying what I had done, they took me to a detention center. There were minors there, less than 18 years old, who were in solitary confinement. It was an awful place.”

For 18 days, the witness said, he was kept in a solitary cell without adequate food or medical treatment for his injuries. He was accused of spying for Israel. Guards subjected him to sleep deprivation and whipped him all over his body, leaving scars and causing damage to his eye. They threatened him with rape and said they would target his family if he failed to confess.

Witness 255 also said that officers cuffed him to a chair and put water-soaked clothes on his knees before applying an electric rod to them. Speaking with difficulty, he said, “They would tell me, ‘This is an opportunity to say whatever you’re going to’. I was very scared; when they turned it on the clothes would get hot and started to burn your skin.” He was only released in the end, he said, due to the influence of a friend.

Man Framed for Arson ‘Didn’t Speak for a Week’

The woman listed as Witness 26 been to previous anti-government demonstrations in Iran with her nephew. This time, November 2019, she had begged him not to go. He was arrested and when they next saw him, she said, “His teeth and head were broken. He had been under great psychological pressure.”

“He was kept in an industrial building. There was no carpet on the floor, no heating, no facilities for them to use. There was just one toilet for a large number of people, and no washbasin either. They had to sleep on the floor; it wasn’t [even] a cell.”

Her nephew was then transferred to Fashafuyeh Prison. He was tried at the Revolutionary Court, where even his judiciary-approved lawyer was not allowed into the courtroom, and was sentenced to prison, lashes and internal exile. He is now in a different prison, miles away from home and with no right to visitors or phone calls.

Witness 26 said when her nephew was first released on bail, he didn’t speak for seven days. “He went to his room. He didn’t talk, he didn’t eat. He didn’t want to see anyone.” Later, he admitted that he had been tortured with electric shocks until he confessed to taking part in “riots” and arson.

Evin Prison Guards Used Rape Threat to Extract a Confession

Fatemeh Khoshrou, 32, had come back to Iran from Turkey to visit her family in Lorestan and attend a medical appointment in November 2019. On Saturday, November 16 she went to Khorramabad’s Imam Square at 10am after hearing the noise of protests, and ended up leading a march after suggesting they move to the office of the Supreme Leader’s representative.

At that point, Khosrou said, she and people around her sincerely thought they could convince the government to reverse the gas price hike by midday. But they were approached by IRGC members who first questioned, then violently arrested 67 people. Khosrou was taken to at an IRGC base, then to a security police detention center, then to Khorramabad Women’s Prison for 18 days. Finally she was transferred by plane to Tehran and placed on Ward 2A of Evin Prison for “specialist” interrogation.

Khosrou was accused of collaborating with the US and Israel to incite protests in Iran. “Every day they took me to the interrogation room. First, they would beat me up. It continued without stopping.” Even prison staff began to remark at her injuries, she said. Officers also played recordings of her parents pleading for information on her case, telling her she was “torturing” them.

Ten days after arriving Evin Prison, Khosrou was told she could go home. She was taken into a small room without a camera and told to take off her prison clothes. Five men then entered the room and began touching her body. The witness broke down in tears as she told the court: “I couldn’t move. I was so scared. The interrogator told me, ‘If you had confessed, this would not have happened to you.’ He told two of them, ‘Put her on the floor. I said ‘Please, I’ll do whatever you ask for. What must I do?’”

After signing a forced confession, Khosrou was released on bail in mid-January. In November 2020, she was sentenced in absentia for “leading riots” and contact with foreign dissidents. “It was as if they killed me with what they did,” she said. “What was my sin? I didn’t want the price of petrol to go up. I didn’t want Khamenei as my leader. They call this kind of tribunal a ‘terrorist tribunal’ whereas from the beginning of the Islamic Republic, they have been committing crimes.”

Related coverage:

Aban Tribunal: Troops Stalked Hospitals, Cemeteries After November 2019 Killings

Aban Tribunal: Security Forces' Hired Thugs Executed After Missions

A Tale of Two Irans, Two Londons

Aban Tribunal: Shock Day 2 Testimonies Reveal Scope of State Violence

Aban Tribunal: Police Major 'Prosecuted for Refusing to Shoot'

Aban Tribunal: Detainees 'Drugged and Made to Simulate Their Funerals'

Aban Tribunal: Iranians Testify on November 2019 Atrocities in London

The Names of All 133 Officials Accused of November 2019 Crimes

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