From the very beginning of the November 2019 protests, senior Iranian regime members including then-President Hassan Rouhani denounced those who took part as “rioters”. The idea that civilians were acting violently, and also damaging public property, became a key justification for the lethal crackdown that was then enacted by security forces.
The claim that protesters were setting fire to banks has been echoed by countless officials at all levels of government. Two full years later on Sunday, November 14, deputy speaker of parliament Hassan Norouzi repeated it again in reaction to the ongoing Aban Tribunal in the UK. “Who wants to put us on trial?” Norouzi said, having seemingly not understood what the proceedings were for. “The other side set fire to the banks and we killed them. Who do you want to put on trial?”
Over five days of hearings in London, the Aban Tribunal has heard numerous accounts of plainclothes “thugs” being deployed by the Iranian regime to attack people and vandalize property. The point of the exercise, one informed witness affirmed, was to stir up anger in the crowds so as to give officers the justification they needed to open fire.
During Saturday’s evidence, a man named only as Witness 179 said that in his town on November 16, a 10,000-strong crowd had gathered in front of Bank Melli. Officers were firing at them indiscriminately, he said – and yet, a group of individuals were able to get into the bank and set it alight without any opposition from security forces. A man named Mohammad Hashemdar had saved a bank employee trapped inside, he said, and been shot by police minutes later. On the same afternoon, another witness told the tribunal that her nephew had been tortured until he gave a forced confession to arson.
On Sunday, the very same day as Norouzi’s remarks were circulating, five more separate eyewitnesses testified that it was security forces, not civilians, who were torching the banks that weekend.
Sanandaj Bank “Set Alight From the Inside”
The burning-down of a bank in Sanandaj, Kurdistan province could not have been done by ordinary citizens, a witness told the court.
Aram Mardoukhi was just 19 years old when he saw a mass crackdown and indiscriminate shooting by security forces in his city on November 16 and 17. On the Sunday, he said, a crowd gathered in Sohrevardi Square and were quickly surrounded by IRGC forces and anti-riot police. Snipers were posted on the roof of the bank with their faces covered.
Then, Mardoukhi said, “We saw the bank started burning from the inside.” He told the panel: “I’m sure nobody set fire to it. There was a heavy security presence there. No protester could have thrown something burning inside. The bank had very heavy doors. Nobody could have entered.”
Now living in Germany, Mardoukhi testified that at 10.30am on Saturday people had been protesting peacefully in Azadi Square: sitting in the road with their cars turned off, calling for police to support them.
Special units and the IRGC encircled them, and Mardoukhi said he recognized one of their commanders: Colonel Javanmardi of the IRGC. This known violent individual, he said, was the same man he had seen beating people in the December 2017 protests, kicking one woman between the legs and striking her in the face with a stone. Javanmardi, Mardoukhi said, had told his forces on Saturday, November 16: “Don’t show them any mercy.”
Mardoukhi also said he saw protesters being loaded into cages in the backs of Toyota vans. In addition, ambulances were driven into the square – but they turned out to be conveying IRGC officers to the sceen. “They were using the ambulances to transfer their forces and suppress people,” he said. This same phenomenon was also alleged on Saturday by a hospital doctor from a different town.
The young witness told the court that on Sunday, he was approaching a protest in Sharif Abad neighborhood when police intervened. They told him: “Today is not like yesterday. They have permission to shoot. They will kill you. Don’t stand here, please leave.” Then, he said, he saw special forces attacking shopkeepers who were stood passively watching from their doorways: “They hit them with heavy chains, as if they wanted to kill them.”
Basij Accused of Looting Shops
A woman identified only as Witness 216 also said she believed the burning of banks and other acts of sabotage in Tehran province were not done by “ordinary people”. When she arrived back in her hometown on the night of November 16, she said, “It was chaos. Everyone was on the street. Whatever bank I went to, I saw that it was being burned. There was smoke everywhere; we couldn’t breathe well.
“I know it wasn’t someone ordinary [who did it]. There was nothing important in there; the banks had already been vacated and there were just some useless papers and computers. There were no officers there.” The attacks had taken place outside working hours, she said, meaning any money or valuables would already have been taken away.
The next day she said, she saw officers opening fire on people as they marched towards the square. “I was told the municipal office was going to be burned down next. There was a Pride vehicle inside the yard, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown towards it. People started breaking windows – I’m not sure it was really ‘the people’ – and then the officers suddenly appeared, I don’t know where from, and started shooting. Some were pellets, some were military bullets.”
The crowd scattered. Later that night when she went back outside, Witness 216 said she saw many people injured, including a young boy. In addition, she said, “A number of shops there belonged to the IRGC. I was told people were looting them, and none of them were ordinary people. There were no officers present at the time of the burning of the banks or the plundering of the shops. We asked ourselves, how could these just be broken into without any reaction?”
The stolen goods included food and electrical items. Later, Witness 216 said, a family contact in the Basij confirmed to her himself that the looters were Basijis. “He said they had taken a lot of things,” she added. “I became certain: the vandalism wasn’t done by ordinary people.”
“They Were Trying to Cause Violence”
Like others who testified on Sunday morning, Witness 245 was party to multiple scenes of horrific violence in his city. In a crowd of 800 people on November 17, 2019, he was forced to flee from a wall of Basijis clad in khaki who opened fire on protesters with Kalashnikovs, through a haze of tear gas. Those who were shot were dragged to one side and beaten with batons.
The 38-year-old father’s voice caught in his throat as he described the machine-gunning down of a group of young people who had taken refuge from the tear gas behind a makeshift shield. “They were throwing stones at the police, trying to force them inside so that they wouldn’t kill people,” he said. “They didn’t manage.
“One of them was hit in the head. I saw his brain come out. He was an 18- or 20-year-old guy. We didn’t even have a handkerchief to cover his wound.”
One of the young people was still breathing, he said, and protesters took them and the corpses away from the scene on motorbikes. After that, Witness 245 said, “I chanted slogans against the dictator from the bottom of my heart. With whatever power I had, I shouted. Then, truly, I couldn’t stand there any longer.”
That night from his window, he said, “I could hear people, women, shouting and crying out. I wanted to go but I thought ‘If I go out, I’ll get killed as well’.
The average age of the demonstrators, Witness 245 said, was about 20 or even younger. Asked by the panel’s Judge Yacoob if he felt like an old man or a young man himself, he replied: “I feel destroyed. Because if you live in the Islamic Republic for 30 to 40 years, you are destroyed. Since the incidents, I feel I’ve really become old.”
Like other protesters, Witness 245 also said he believed the security forces were the ones who set fire to banks. When he first went outside on Sunday, for a personal errand and before joining any protests, he came across an ATM machine that seemed to be on fire.
“All of a sudden smoke came out of it,” he said. “There was a special forces unit right there. I said, ‘Something’s happened, please call the firefighters so they can come and put it out.’ He said, ‘I have no permission to call them.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? Call them now so they can come quickly. He said, ‘We have no permission to do that.’ I realised then that they were trying to cause violence.
Group Burning Banks Looked “Organized”
Witness 119 also observed extreme violence in his town on Sunday, November 17, including the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old girl. He came across the local Basij base on fire, and nearby protesters being shot by Basij forces with assault weapons.
Some 50 to 60 people fled into an alleyway where, Witness 119 said, those present were pursued and “mercilessly” shot at by a different group: one that spoke Arabic and shouted “Allahu Akbar”. They pulled an elderly man and his daughter from a stationary car and shot them with pellets. The protesters took the injured pair to a local doctor’s home.
In his town, too, Witness 119 said people had set fire to banks and nothing was done to stop them. The burning of the banks and the Basij base was what caused the protests to turn violent. “The burning of the banks was carried out by the security forces,” he asserted. “The people were acting peacefully. If they’d wanted to burn anywhere, they would have burned the gas stations. After the burning of the banks, we saw they used real bullets.”
He added that the group who attacked the banks were carrying steel crowbars, and appeared to be older than most of the other protesters.
The witness also said he had heard in Kermanshah, some 50 people had been taken away by security forces and drowned. “Their corpses haven’t been extracted from the water yet. Unfortunately, Iran is different from the Gulf, Western countries or Europe; when we demonstrate it’s a different story. They don’t want people to demand anything but what the dictatorship wants.”
He added: “I’m grateful to you to have given this time to investigate these atrocities, so the world will see. On the evening of Aban 27 [November 18] I was walking in the streets after the bloody entanglements, you wouldn’t believe it: every step I took, there was so much blood on the ground. Every step I took, the security forces were there. Very quickly, the municipality came with their water cannons, and cleaned up the streets so nobody would see.”
A fifth witness on Sunday, an ex-employee of the IRGC’s commercial arm the Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters who was drafted in to combat protests in Tehran, also said he saw IRGC and plainclothes forces looting shops. You can read his testimony here.