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Iran's violent history of repressing protest movements

Iran's violent history of repressing protest movements
6 min read
04 October, 2022
In-depth: As protests continue across Iran following Mahsa Amini's death, an independent tribunal found that the regime committed crimes against humanity against demonstrators in 2019, and cautions that history should not be allowed to repeat itself.

Last Friday, as protests raged across Iran in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a panel of eminent legal professionals took their seats more than 2,000 miles away in a London convention centre. They delivered a damning deliberation on the conduct of the Iranian government during its people’s previous uprising.

After evaluating its use of force during the 2019 protests, the panel concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that the Iranian authorities designed and implemented a plan to commit crimes against humanity - murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence - to quell protests and hide their crimes. And it urged the international community to instigate accountability.

In November 2019, the Islamic Republic of Iran announced exponential fuel price hikes, provoking demonstrations across the country. While the protests, known as the Aban protests, were primarily peaceful, an intensive five-day crackdown ensued with the use of lethal and non-lethal force.

Human rights organisations recorded more than 300 deaths, which was considered a wild underestimation. In addition, thousands were injured, disappeared, imprisoned, tortured, raped and persecuted.

With little condemnation from the international community, the Aban Tribunal was set up by human rights groups outside the country as a people’s tribunal to document and evaluate written and video evidence and hear witness accounts, including from a commander of the Revolutionary Guard, to determine if human rights violations had been committed.

“There has been no domestic investigation, prosecution or other accountability efforts in Iran or internationally,” said Carla Ferstman, a member of the expert groups for the Convention against Torture Initiative and Aban Tribunal judge. “It was established in response to public calls for truth, justice and reparation.” 

Ferstman was joined by Elham Saudi, co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya; Colleen Rohan, who served on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and Wayne Jordash KC, an advisor to the Ukrainian government for prosecuting crimes committed by Russia, in reading the summary judgement.

The panel’s Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a prosecutor of the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, and Zak Yacoob, a former Justice and anti-apartheid activist, joined the reading.

The protests that were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini while in police custody have spread across the country. [Getty]

As well as pointing to state culpability, 160 individual officials came under the panel’s scrutiny. Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, former president Hassan Rouhani, and former head of the judiciary and current president Ebrahim Raisi were among those deemed to have a serious case to answer for individual criminal liability for crimes against humanity.

The summary judgement described how authorities sought to quash protests by any means necessary with tear gas, water cannons, batons and other equipment used to disperse people, as well as attacks on those already retreating from the scene.

“Protesters were beaten indiscriminately, reckless as to whether significant damage including death was the result… There are many reports of persons, including children, being shot with pellets in their eyes, resulting in permanent loss of vision,” read the judgement.

The audience heard how the order to use firearms against protesters came from the Ministry of Interior in consultation with Iran’s Security Council and was communicated to the provinces and governors on 17 November 2019, which Khomeini green-lit, effectively by calling the protesters “villains” and ordering security forces to end the protests.

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Among the recommendations were calls for Iran to conduct an independent, impartial and transparent investigation into the crimes and to start criminal proceedings. It also recommended reparations and compensation for victims and their families.

A message was sent to the international community to take all necessary steps to ensure Iran implements the recommendations, adding that it could also open investigations on the basis of universal jurisdiction, that the UN Security Council could refer the situation to the International Criminal Court and that international bodies with sanctions regimes could use them against individuals responsible for violations and crimes.

“This could not come at a more urgent time,” said Jordash, speaking about the judgement and referring to Amini’s senseless death.

Amini died in police custody on 16 September after being arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab, which is mandatory in Iran, too loosely. Protests throughout the country have ignited solidarity marches in cities worldwide as Iranian security forces have once more opted to come down on protesters in the harshest way. Recently, students clashed with forces at a prominent Iranian university, with the latter firing tear gas into a crowd.

Already, 133 people are believed to have been killed during protests against Amini’s death, distinguished from previous uprisings as an effort to topple the government rather than urging reforms, a great concern for the Islamic republic.

“Once again, the people of Iran are taking to the streets to demand accountability and justice for a government that has shown, time and time again, their willingness to violate human rights to quell the voice of the people,” said Jordash.

“The judgement of the Iran Atrocities [Aban] Committee is a vital step to establish an accurate record and to bring the perpetrators to justice through international law so that we do not see a repeat of 2019,” he added.

Baroness Sandy Verma, speaking after the summary judgement’s reading, echoed calls for sanctions, urging recommendations to be fulfilled to the maximum rather than a watered-down approach.

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“History tells us very clearly that if we continue to appease, the perpetrators continue to perpetrate atrocities… We shouldn’t be waiting for that next protest,” she said. “If we can’t do it today when the whole of the world’s focus is on the protests in Iran, then when will we do it?”

Among the audience, there was great support for the tribunal. In lieu of accountability mechanisms for violations throughout Iran’s post-revolution history, it was seen as an important step and foundation for further lobbying, although scepticism remained.

“I’m utterly disappointed that no matter how heavy the words we heard are, it’s falling on deaf ears. Iranian society is suffering,” said LilyMoo, who attended the tribunal to support who she called her brothers and sisters in Iran, lamenting the weak international efforts as a poor alternative to the revolution happening right now.

“It’s a women’s led revolution and our men are by our side.”

The full judgement is expected to be delivered in three weeks.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram