Iran: Stop increasingly ruthless crackdown and investigate deaths of protesters

Iranian authorities must ensure the right to peaceful protest, investigate reports that security forces have unlawfully used firearms against unarmed protesters and protect hundreds of detainees from torture and other ill-treatment, Amnesty International said today amid concerns that the crackdown against demonstrations that have spread across Iran in the past week is intensifying.

Official statements have confirmed that at least 22 people, including two security officers, have been killed since 28 December, when thousands of Iranians began flocking to the streets to speak out against poverty, corruption, political repression and authoritarianism.

“Law enforcement officials have the right to defend themselves, and a duty to protect the safety of the public. However, reports of the use of firearms against unarmed protesters by security forces are deeply troubling and would contravene Iran’s human rights obligations under international law,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Iranian government must promptly launch an effective and independent investigation into the killings and other reports of excessive or unnecessary force, and bring all those responsible for human rights violations to justice.”

Videos and eyewitness testimonies have emerged on social media and media outlets showing or describing riot police and other security forces using excessive and unnecessary force, including firing ammunition at unarmed protesters, beating protesters with truncheons and using tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrations. Amnesty International has not been able to verify the videos or witness accounts.

Hundreds at risk of torture
More than a thousand people have been arrested and detained in jails notorious for torture and other ill-treatment over the past seven days, with many being denied access to their families and lawyers.

The Human Rights Activist News Agency has reported that in Tehran’s Evin prison alone, the authorities registered at least 423 detainees between 31 December 2017 and 1 January 2018.

Many of the hundreds of detainees are believed to be held in overcrowded conditions in the “quarantine section” of Evin prison, which only has capacity for around 180 people.

Peaceful protest is a right, and many people in Iran want to exercise that right.
Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa

The “quarantine section” is where detainees are often held shortly after arrest and subjected to checks to see if they are carrying drugs or infections before transfer to a general ward. Some have been transferred to sections of the prison that are run by the Revolutionary Guards or Ministry of Intelligence.

“The Iranian authorities have an appalling track record of carrying out mass arbitrary arrests of peaceful demonstrators. Given the alarming scale of the current wave of arrests, it is highly likely that many of those held are peaceful protesters who have been detained arbitrarily and now find themselves in prisons where conditions are dire and torture is a common tool to extract confessions and punish dissidents,” said Philip Luther.

“The Iranian authorities must ensure that anyone held solely for peacefully taking part in demonstrations, expressing support for them or criticizing the authorities is released immediately and unconditionally. All detainees should be protected from torture and other ill-treatment.”

Most of the demonstrations appear to have been peaceful, but in some cases violence by protesters has erupted, including stone-throwing, acts of arson and other damage to buildings, vehicles and other property.

“Those suspected of criminal conduct should be promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offence and tried in proceedings which meet international standards for fair trial or released. Their legal status and exact whereabouts should also be immediately disclosed to their families,” said Philip Luther.

Aggressive rhetoric
Despite President Hassan Rouhani’s assurance on Sunday 30 December 2017 that protesters have the right to criticize the government, the authorities’ subsequent rhetoric has suggested they intend to respond to the unrest in an increasingly ruthless manner.

On 1 January, Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani demanded a “strong approach” from “all prosecutors”.

On 2 January, the Head of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Mousa Ghanzafar Abadi, warned that the Ministry of Interior had declared the protests illegal and that those who continued to engage in protests would face severe penalties. He threatened that the protest leaders and organizers could be charged with “enmity against God” (moharebeh), which is punishable by the death penalty, “as they are connected with foreign intelligence services and are implementing their agendas.”

The same day, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Sayed Ali Khamenei, accused the country’s “enemies” of stirring the protests.

On 3 January, Iran’s Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, stated that the popular social messaging application Telegram would remain blocked unless it agreed to remove “terrorist content”.

The CEO of Telegram has said that it has refused the authorities’ request to shut down channels that peacefully promote and support the protests. The social media application Instagram also remains blocked. On 31 December Minister Jahromi had said that the blocking of access to Telegram and Instagram, which began that day, would be temporary.

The authorities’ aggressive rhetoric has been accompanied by state-sanctioned media outlets publishing a wanted list of protesters with their faces showing, and calling on members of the public to identify and report them to the authorities.

“The escalation in the intimidation of protesters and the grossly disproportionate restrictions imposed on the right to freedom of expression online over recent days heightens fears that the Iranian authorities may resort to increasingly heavy-handed tactics to crush dissenting voices,” said Philip Luther.

“Peaceful protest is a right, and many people in Iran want to exercise that right. Instead of opting for repression and absurdly accusing protesters of collusion in foreign-orchestrated plots, the Iranian authorities should address their own record of failure to respect a range of civil, political, economic and social rights.”

Background
Since 28 December 2017, protests that started in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, have spread to as many as 40 cities across Iran.

Slogans chanted at the demonstrations have expressed a mix of economic and political grievances - ranging from complaints over poverty, high unemployment, corruption and inequality - to demands for the release of political prisoners and outright rejection of the ruling political system, which protesters have denounced as a “clerical dictatorship”, and of its so-called Reformist and Principalist factions.

Iran has not seen protests on this scale since those which followed the disputed presidential election of 2009. On that occasion, more than a hundred protesters were killed and thousands suffered arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment as the authorities cracked down on the unrest in a heavy-handed fashion.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party, upholds the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.