Iran's War on Protesters: Death, Detention, and Darkness

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This resource examines Tehran’s methods at suppressing protests—particularly violence, detentions, executions, and obstruction of communications. It focuses on (1) demonstrations in 2017–20 against regime mismanagement, economic problems, and the government’s downing of a civilian airliner, (2) protests in 2009 against the outcome of the disputed presidential election that year, and (3) protests by Iranian university students in 1999. Consistently, the regime has killed and injured protesters; detained, imprisoned, and tortured them; and impeded Iranians’ access to the internet and social media.

Violence

  • 2017–20

    Mass demonstrations focused on the state of the economy and regime mismanagement took place in Iran in late December of 2017 and January of 2018, and protests have continued across Iran on a smaller scale since then. In August 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported at least 30 persons had been killed in protests since January.

    In November of 2019, large numbers of Iranians throughout the country again took to the streets to protest the government’s steep increase in the price of gasoline, as well as rationing thereof. And in January of 2020, widespread protests broke out again after the government accidentally shot down a civilian airliner—killing all 176 onboard, including over 60 Iranians—and initially denied responsibility, ascribing the crash to a mechanical error.

    Iranian security forces—especially the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary organization subordinate to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—have been accused of “committing numerous human rights abuses, including acts of violence against protesters and participants in public demonstrations,” according to the State Department.

    Police in Tehran reportedly used water cannons and tear gas to disperse demonstrators in the winter of 2017–18, while plainclothes officers beat women and men. State television said that “security forces” had used “strong resistance” to prevent purportedly armed protesters from taking control of police and military bases, but provided no details. 

    On December 31, 2018, Iranian security forces badly beat and arrested a group of protesters, including women who were so “beaten up that one of them [could not] stand on her feet, and another [who] lost her balance because of a head injury.” In November 2019, Radio Farda reported that videos showed IRGC members firing machine guns at demonstrators and Basij snipers picking off protesters from the rooftops of government buildings. Amnesty International stated then that videos showed security forces firing weapons, water cannons, and tear gas, and beating protesters with batons. In January 2020, the authorities fired on demonstrators with live ammunition and rubber bullets, deployed tear gas against them, and beat them. 

    As protests gripped Iran in November of 2019, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly said at a gathering of top regime officials—including President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate—“Do whatever it takes to end [the unrest]. You have my order.” He also told the officials that if they did not stop the demonstrations, he would hold them accountable for any consequences. According to a Reuters report from December 23, 2019, about 1,500 people had been killed.

    In Mahshahr county in late 2019, for example, the IRGC allegedly shot at protesters without prior warning. When demonstrators ran away, the IRGC followed them to marshlands nearby, encircled them, and machine-gunned them, killing at least 100.

    Senior Iranian regime officials and their associates have publicly threatened to retaliate against protesters: 

    • Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in mid-November of 2019 that the protesters were “thugs,” and “The officials responsible for maintaining security should carry out their responsibilities.”
    • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate, threatened in January of 2018 that “The nation will themselves respond to the rioters and lawbreakers… Our nation will deal with this minority who chant slogans against the law and people’s wishes, and insult the sanctities and values of the revolution.” Rouhani earlier warned that “The government will show no tolerance for those who damage public property, violate public order and create unrest in society.” On November 17, 2019, Rouhani warned Iranians that security forces were watching and identifying them everywhere via closed-circuit cameras, and that films showed “only a few” protesters.
    • The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) warned in a statement during the winter 2017–18 protests, “The Iranian nation...will not allow the country to be hurt.” The IRGC said in November 2019 that “Iran’s sworn and evil enemies" had once again attempted to "sow discord” through the protests, and “if necessary we will take decisive and revolutionary action against any continued moves to disturb the people's peace and security."
    • The IRGC’s deputy chief of security in Tehran, General Esmail Kowsari, warned in late December of 2017 that protesters would face Iran’s “iron fist”—or, alternatively translated, “a hard punch in their faces”—if they persisted. He later added that the regime will not allow the “insecure situation to continue in Tehran. If this situation continues, the officials will definitely make some decisions and at that point this business will be finished.”
    • The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, warned during the winter 2017–18 protests that protesters could be charged with waging war against God, an offense punishable by death in Iran. The Associated Press reported that the judge added that trials of protesters will start soon, “on charges of acting against national security and damaging public properties.” Ghazanfarabadi also noted that going to unsanctioned rallies is illegal.
    • Senior Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami, who leads Friday prayers in Tehran, in December of 2017 called for the death penalty for protesters “chanting slogans against the values of the Islamic Republic.”
    • Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli said in December of 2017, “Those who damage public property, violate law and order, and create unrest are responsible for their actions and should pay the price." On November 17, 2019, he warned that “Until now we have shown tolerance toward these individuals… but today a really small number engaged in activities in some cities that we decided if this issue continues, despite self-control, police and security forces will discharge their duty.”
    • Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaghari cautioned on January 1, 2018, that “From tonight the unrest will be controlled more seriously.
  • 2009

    The government or its agents killed at least around 80 and as many as several hundred Iranians during the 2009 protests. The most prominent victim was 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death after being shot by Iranian security forces was captured on video that went viral. Riot police and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—particularly the IRGC’s paramilitary wing, the Basij—shot protesters with live ammunition and rubber bullets, fired tear gas and pepper spray at them, and hit them with clubs, batons, and baseball bats.

  • 1999

    At least three students were killed and more than 200 injured by Iranian forces in response to the 1999 demonstrations. Most infamously, plainclothes police and paramilitaries stormed a University of Tehran dormitory, throwing students out of windows and beating students with batons and sticks.

    Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, played a key role in the regime’s crackdown on the demonstrators. Rouhani, who then served as secretary of the Supreme National Security Committee, spoke at a huge counter-demonstration to praise the security forces’ suppression of the protests. He warned that detained protesters would be tried for the crimes of being ''enemies of the state'' and ''corrupt of the earth,'' both of which carry the death penalty. Rouhani added that the Iranian system would not permit any challenges to the constitutional authority of the supreme leader.

Detention, Imprisonment, and Executions

  • 2017–20

    Economy and Regime Protests

    Iranian authorities reportedly arrested almost 5,000 protesters in December 2017 and January 2018. These men and women were demonstrating against the Iranian regime’s mismanagement of the country. Detainees claimed their captors beat and tortured them, including via sleep deprivation and denial of food. At least five detained protesters died in custody, with the regime claiming three of them died by suicide.

    According to the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, “Human rights organizations reported at least 30 deaths of protestors [in Iran] during the year, thousands of arrests, and suspicious deaths in custody.” 

    In June 2018, the IRGC’s paramilitary force, the Basij, suppressed protests by the long-persecuted Iran Sufis against the recent arrest of one of their own. The Basij killed at least one Sufi, and 300 others were arrested.

    Human Rights Watch reported that the Iranian authorities arrested more than 50 protesters during widespread demonstrations over the sagging Iranian economy in August 2018, and Iran’s judiciary convicted at least 24 of them “on vaguely defined national security charges,” imposing sentences ranging from six months to six years. A different report claimed that another five female protesters were also sentenced to prison.

    In November 2018, the Iranian authorities reportedly arrested several dozen labor union protesters and brought others in for questioning. One labor activist, Esmail Bakhshi, claimed that he was beaten and tortured in prison.

    In December 2018, the regime reportedly detained an undetermined number of protesting steel mill employees.

    The government claimed, as of November 18, 2019, that it had arrested about 1,000 “rioters” in the November 2019 protests. Amnesty International reported, however, that the regime arrested over 7,000 people, including children, in mere days during the protests. Some were arrested at their homes or workplaces—or their schools, in the case of children. Others were arrested while in hospitals as they sought treatment for their wounds. In some cases, the authorities also arrested or harassed family members of Iranians hiding to avoid arrest.

    Three or more protesters or bystanders were condemned to death as of August 26, 2020. Many others were condemned to lengthy prison terms, and over 12 of those were whipped as well. Many were convicted by kangaroo courts during secret trials lasting as short as a few hours. Some of these individuals were required to hire lawyers preapproved by the regime, and sometimes were able to meet with their lawyers only shortly before or during the start of trials.

    The regime also tortured many detained Iranians. Methods of torture included beatings and floggings, extended placement into “painful stress positions,” weeks or months in solitary confinement, waterboarding, pepper-spraying or electric shocks–including to detainees’ testicles—threats of arresting and torturing family members of those arrested, and denial of health care.

    White Wednesdays in Iran

    Since December 2017, the regime has arrested more than 35 women for removing their head-scarves to protest legally mandated head-covering. The activists have faced charges that include “inciting prostitution and corruption.” One of the activists, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, was sentenced to two years in prison and an 18-year suspended sentence after a prolonged detention in which she was reportedly tortured and beaten and put in solitary confinement. Shajarizadeh, who fled Iran after her sentencing, claims she was told that she would serve her entire 20-year sentence if she engaged in further activism.

  • 2009

    The Iranian regime admitted to detaining 4,000 protesters during the 2009 demonstrations. The actual number of detentions remains unknown. Those detained included dissident politicians and clerics, journalists, bloggers, lawyers, students, and other activists. Iran’s chief of police admitted that detainees were tortured, with reports alleging rape, beatings, sleep deprivation, and other atrocities. Several detainees died in custody.

    At least 100 protesters and dissidents were subjected to show trials and sentenced to lengthy prison terms or, in several cases, death. The rate of executions by the Iranian regime surged after the crackdown. Some demonstrators were executed for unrelated, trumped-up charges. For example, a Dutch-Iranian protester was executed for drug smuggling.

  • 1999

    The regime detained at least 1,200–1,400 students during the 1999 protests. Some of those detained were beaten and tortured and forced to sign confessions. Several detainees were sentenced to prison and at least one of them died there under suspicious circumstances. Several detained individuals, such as student Sa’id Zeinali, remain missing.

Obstruction of Communications

  • 2017–20

    Iran has officially banned Facebook and Twitter since 2009. Iran has a Basij “Cyber Council,” Cyber Police, and a Cyber Army—all presumed to be controlled by the IRGC—tasked with monitoring, identifying, and countering citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking sites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. 

    One of the key government agencies used to monitor, suppress and identify ordinary Iranians is the IRGC’s Center for Investigating Organized Crime (CIOC, a.k.a. Gerdab [“whirlpool”] a.k.a. Cyber Crime Office). CIOC is sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The regime deploys CIOC is deployed by the regime as a tool of chilling propaganda, to explicitly warn the Iranian people that they are under constant, aggressive surveillance. CIOC also scrutinizes forwarded emails to identify elements critical of the regime.

    CIOC’s website, gerdab.ir, is the only website officially acknowledged as belonging to the IRGC. Gerdab.ir runs a “hotline” where Iranians are encouraged to report on fellow citizens for activities the regime considers as subversive. During 2018, gerdab.ir launched a campaign to track down protesters in various cities and called for the public to help identify these individuals.

    According to Reporters Without Borders, the regime arrested an estimated 40 journalists during 2018, many for reporting on the protests that began in late December 2017. Authorities reportedly attempted to censor national and international media outlets from covering the protests and to intimidate Iranian citizens from disseminating information about the protests and the regime’s response. During the winter 2017–18 demonstrations, the regime also suspended access to social-media platforms like Telegram, which Iranians were using to share information about the protests. Some reports indicated that Tehran sent Iranians text messages warning against participating in demonstrations. 

    The Iranian government went further and virtually shut down internet access in the country during the late-2019 and early-2020 demonstrations, impeding reporting about the authorities’ violence against demonstrators. Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi stated on November 18 that the shutdown was ordered by Iran’s national security council. As of November 19, 2019, Iranians’ internet connectivity to the outside world had fallen to four percent of normal levels, and Iran’s largest mobile network operators had gone offline, according to the NGO NetBlocks. The organization reported that the service disruption was “the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.”

    The regime also blocked access to the social-media applications WhatsApp and Instagram, which protesters have used to disseminate the times and locations of demonstrations. The exceptions to this internet shutdown included regime officials like Iran’s supreme leader, who continued to tweet while the internet was effectively shut down for the rest of the country. 

  • 2009

    The Iranian regime severely curtailed access to mobile communications and the internet in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. Tehran first shut down internet access entirely and then restored it with diminished bandwidth. Iran also operated filters that blocked access to social media like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and blocked proxy servers that Iranians used to evade internet controls.

    The regime also impeded journalists’ reporting on the protests, including by preventing those foreign correspondents from covering rallies, denying visas to foreign journalists, jamming satellite transmissions by the BBC’s Farsi-language network, closing Arabic TV network Al Arabiya’s Iran office, and censoring some Iranian newspapers.

    As with the 2017–18 demonstrations, Tehran reportedly sent Iranians text messages to warn against joining the protests. Also, During the 2009 presidential election, CIOC “helped the Iranian Government censor websites and identify opposition activists.” On June 17, 2009, CIOC demanded that website managers block any ‘inciting” content to quell “threats and rumors.” Like in 2018, the CIOC website, gerdab.ir, started a campaign to track protesters throughout Iran and called on the public to help identify these individuals.

  • 1999

    Authorities closed the Iranian newspaper “Salaam” and parliament passed new laws limiting freedom of the press.