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.
Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate who later served as president of Iran, played a key role in the regime’s crackdown on the demonstrators. Rouhani, who 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.
The government or its agents killed between roughly 80 and 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.
Mass demonstrations focused on the state of Iran’s 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 during the year.
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 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. According to the U.S. Department of State report on Human Rights Practices for 2020, the November 2019 protests resulted in the killing of at least 304 persons.
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.
As protests gripped Iran in November of 2019, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly said at a gathering of top regime officials—including then-President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate—“Do whatever it takes to end [the unrest]. You have my order.” He also told the officials that he would hold them accountable for any consequences if they did not stop the demonstrations. According to a Reuters report from December 23, 2019, about 1,500 people had been killed.
In the Khuzestan province’s 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.
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. The authorities—including police special forces, the IRGC’s Basij volunteer militia, and officers in plain clothes, fired on demonstrators with live ammunition, rubber bullets, and airgun-pointed pellets; deployed tear gas and pepper spray against them; and punched and kicked them, as well as beating them with batons. Amnesty International reported that they had received and verified videos of women lying on the ground, covered with blood from beatings or bullet wounds. Frequently, injured protesters did not go to hospitals because Iranian security forces were deployed to make arrests.
A man from the city of Shiraz reported that when he went to a solidarity vigil for the plane crash victims, he witnessed the heavy deployment of security forces, who established a “terrifying and intimidating atmosphere to frighten people away.” He added, “They were swearing at and beating everyone with batons all over their bodies, it didn’t matter if they were just passing by. It didn’t make any difference to them if they beat young or old, man or woman.”
In the spring of 2020, thousands of inmates across the country protested against their mistreatment, and particularly their exposure to COVID-19 due to the abjectly unhygienic state of Iranian prisons. The authorities retaliated by firing bullets and tear gas, killing about 35 and injuring hundreds.
In 2021, the regime cracked down repeatedly on widespread protests against water shortages caused by governmental mismanagement. In July, at least 11 people were killed during demonstrations in Khuzestan province, with the regime wielding “deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas,” according to Amnesty International. New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi then promised to help Khuzestan address water shortages and other challenges, but many protests continued and then intensified when the government failed to follow through on its pledge. In November, police arrested at least 214 during water-shortage protests in Isfahan province, using tear gas and wounding 30 by firing pellets into their eyes.
In May 2022, the Raisi administration’s decision to eliminate a subsidized exchange rate for food imports sparked protests in cities across Khuzestan province, which then spread to other provinces. Amnesty International reported that the authorities responded by deploying heavily-armed security forces “to create a climate of fear and intimidation and suppress the protests.” The report goes on to document the firing of live ammunition, tear gas, and other types of ammunition. The security forces indiscriminately fired birdshot into crowds of people, resulting in what Amnesty International called “sustained painful injuries amounting to torture.” Several people were killed, and countless others were injured, arrested, and detained.
At the end of May, the Metropol building in Abadan, Iran collapsed, killing dozens and exposing government corruption and mismanagement. This tragedy also resulted in protests, to which the authorities responded with lethal force. Hundreds of people gathered in Abadan were fired upon with live ammunition. Video evidence obtained by Amnesty International showed that shotguns were used to disperse the peaceful crowd.
In September 2022, the Iranian regime again resorted to brutality to suppress the largest uprising in Iran since the 2019 fuel price protests. Across every province in Iran, protesters took to the street to demonstrate against the killing of a 22-year-old girl, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the so-called “morality police” while she was in custody.
Those who were arrested alongside Mahsa Amini said that she was first beaten inside the van that was transporting them. After spending three days in the detention center, Amini was transported to the hospital, where doctors tried to resuscitate her. She went into cardiac arrest due to “brain death,” and was pronounced dead. Iranian authorities have blamed her death on health conditions, which her family denied that she had. United Nations (UN) experts said that some reports suggested that Amini’s death was the result of “alleged torture and ill-treatment.” She was reportedly beaten into a coma for wearing the mandatory hijab too loosely.
Amini’s brutal arrest is representative of thousands more that continue to this day amid the ongoing protests. A 51-year-old female protester described how the police treated her when they detained her. She said that “they [the police] put me on the ground, and an officer put his boot on my back. He kicked me in my stomach, tied my hands, picked me up from my arms, and then pushed me into a van.”
The spokeswomen for the UN Office for Human Rights said that the Iranian security forces had “responded [to the protests] with live ammunition,” corroborating social media accounts that have flowed from Iran despite the widespread internet shutdown. On the night of September 21st, Amnesty International reported that 19 people, including at least three children, were gunned down. Amnesty International reviewed photographic evidence of the killings, which showed “deceased victims with horrifying wounds in their heads, chests, and stomachs.” Eyewitnesses reported that the IRGC and the Basij paramilitary joined "plainclothes” security officials in perpetrating these attacks.
The regime’s security forces have not only employed indiscriminate violence to disperse crowds of protesters, but also deliberately targeted individuals leading the opposition. Multiple sources revealed that Hadis Najafi, a 23-year-old woman whose support for the protests went viral on social media, was shot six times and killed in the city of Karaj. One of the reports noted that Najafi had sustained injuries to the abdomen, neck, heart, and hand.
On October 2, 2022, hundreds of Iranian students at the prestigious Sharif University of Technology in Tehran participated in a sit-in amid the anti-regime nationwide protests. They chanted popular slogans such as “women, life, freedom.” Eyewitness accounts held that security forces attacked the students with batons and attempted to disperse them by firing shotguns. 12 students were allegedly cornered and shot, and countless students and professors were arrested. Videos and images emerged on social media of police using teargas, paintballs, and weapons that shoot non-lethal pellets. As security forces moved in, “death to Khamenei” chants could reportedly be heard shouted from windows and rooftops. In response to the violence against peaceful student protesters, a teachers union called for nationwide strikes by teachers and students, and students across the country have reportedly stepped up their demonstrations against the regime. Classes at Sharif University of Technology were suspended on October 3 and moved online.
The regime is also attacking dissidents outside its borders. On several occasions since the start of the protests, the IRGC launched drone strikes and shelled Kurdish positions near Erbil, northern Iraq, on the pretense that they had fomented the protests in Iran. As of October 3, 2022, Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based organization, reported that at least 133 people, including children, are confirmed to have been killed in the Iran protests. This is more than the estimate from Iran’s government, which had estimated that at least 41 had been killed.
Senior Iranian regime officials and their associates have publicly threatened to retaliate against protesters:
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.
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.
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 took their own lives.
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 Iranian 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.
One of the two most prominent cases of detention and execution related to the protests was that of Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian activist and former journalist who lived in exile with refugee status in France and openly sought the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. He ran Telegram channels to disseminate logistical information for anti-regime protests and encourage viewers to join demonstrations. Zam’s channels—particularly AmadNews—disseminated times and places of upcoming rallies to its subscribers, who numbered more than a million. He also published controversial materials undermining the regime, including documents revealing government corruption and malfeasance. (For more information about Zam and his abduction, see the “Obstruction of Communications” section below.)
The other leading case of arrest and capital punishment was that of professional wrestler Navid Afkari, who was executed in September 2020, purportedly for murdering a law enforcement officer during protests in 2018. He was charged with and convicted of participating in illegal protests, insulting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and “waging war against God.” Afkari claimed that the authorities tortured him into confessing to the crime, including by beating him with a baton and choking him by covering his head with a plastic bag until he almost suffocated. Iranian state television aired his confession on September 5, one week before his execution. He was 26 or 27 years old when executed. His trials were held in secret. Afkari’s defenders, including the U.S. Department of State, argue that the regime executed him for simply participating in the protests.
Iran’s judiciary has given many indications that those who are detained in the September 2022 protests will also be treated harshly. The general prosecutor’s office issued a directive to the courts to provide harsh sentences to those arrested during the protests. The regime has also deprived individuals of a proper legal defense. Hossein Ronaghi, an activist, wanted by the police, presented himself to prosecutors with his two lawyers, and all three were arrested. Ronaghi told his family that his leg was broken in prison from being beaten.
In the province of Gilan alone, at least 739 people, including 60 women, had been detained as of September 27, 2022. There were about 1,430 people being detained at the notorious Evin prison, and 1,200 in Fashafouyeh. UANI’s sources reported that over 12,000 people have been detained in total.
Conditions at Evin prison are known to be deplorable. Last year, hackers accessed and seized surveillance footage from inside the prison, which they later shared with the Associated Press. The hacked videos showed prisoners and guards fighting amongst themselves, and guards beating prisoners. In one scene, an emaciated man was dragged through the prison. In another, a guard sucker-punched a prisoner in a holding cell. In other reports, footage showed extreme overcrowding, with prisoners lying wall to wall on floors. A lack of proper medical equipment and general neglect of the inmates contributed to COVID-19 contagion inside the prisons. The healthcare of inmates is frequently ignored. The U.N. Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman described Evin prison as a site of abuse of prisoners.
Iran Wire published an audio file in which a detained journalist could be heard saying that “our conditions are very bad [in prison]. There are fights and beatings every day. We have no safety. A crowd of more than a hundred people was thrown into a sports hall without facilities and without ventilation…” On a separate occasion, prison guards threatened to rape detainees, who were complaining because they had not been given food, unless they kept quiet. Nilufar Hamedi, the Shargh newspaper reporter who helped draw public attention to Mahsa Amini’s hospitalization, is in solitary confinement, unaware of the charges against her.
In addition to Hamedi, at least 18 other journalists are believed to have been detained since the protests began, including seven female journalists. The regime’s campaign against journalists stifles reporting on the atrocities the security forces have committed against the Iranian people.
The IRGC is reported to have carried out night raids on the homes of activists, journalists, and lawyers. Female public figures and students are among those who have been arrested. Fazeh Hashemi, the outspoken daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was arrested in Tehran on unknown charges days after expressing support for the protests. The IRGC-affiliated news network Tasnim news reported that she was arrested for “inciting riots.”
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.
Authorities closed the Iranian newspaper “Salaam” and parliament passed new laws limiting freedom of the press.
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.
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 them 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 Iran’s national security council ordered the shutdown. 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.
In late 2019, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced that it had arrested exiled journalist Ruhollah Zam, whose Telegram channel was used to disseminate information about ongoing protests, after he was “guided into the country” via a “complicated intelligence operation.” The IRGC posted news of Zam’s arrest on his Telegram channel, as well as a photo of Zam in captivity, with the caption “This is just the beginning.”
The IRGC claimed Zam was being guided and safeguarded by American, Israeli, and French intelligence agencies, and called him “one of the main people of the enemy’s media network and psychological warfare.” On October 23, 2019, an IRGC spokesperson claimed that the Guards had “already captured many of [Zam’s] contacts inside the country.” Media and others tied to the IRGC have said that finding Zam’s network of sources is more important than capturing the activist himself. The regime forced Zam to “confess” on Iranian television to engaging in “counter-revolutionary” actions at the direction of France.
Zam was tried in February 2020 in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court. Judge Abolqassem Salavati—who is nicknamed “the Hanging Judge” or “the Judge of Death” for imposing harsh sentences, including capital punishment, in political cases—presided over the trial. Zam was reportedly charged with either 15 or 17 counts, including “sowing corruption on earth” insulting “the sanctity of Islam,” and “conspiring with the US Government against the Islamic Republic of Iran”—all of which carry the death penalty—as well as having “committed offences against the country's internal and external security,” “complicity in provoking and luring people into war and slaughter,” “espionage for the French intelligence service,” “spying for Israeli intelligence services via the intelligence services of one of the countries in the region,” “establishment and administration of the Amad News channel and the Voice of People,” and “insulting Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.”
An Iranian judiciary spokesman announced on June 30, 2020, that Zam had been convicted and sentenced to death for 13 counts, which were grouped together and treated as cases of “sowing corruption on earth.” He was also sentenced to life in prison for “several other charges,” which were unnamed. The regime executed Zam on December 12, 2020.
Under President Raisi’s administration, the Islamic Republic of Iran has accelerated its efforts to curtail internet access in Iran. The new conservative government has sought to obstruct the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which allow Iranian users to circumvent internet restrictions. (Some 80 percent of Iranians use tools such as these to access blocked content). The government has also attempted to impede encryption on messaging apps, and limited Google searches to content appropriate for 13-year-olds. A pending internet bill aims to block access to the remaining social media apps, namely WhatsApp and Instagram. Indeed, Instagram played a pivotal role in galvanizing the protests in September 2022. Within a day of news breaking that Mahsa Amini had died in police custody, a quarter-million Instagram users had joined a group posting about her. The New York Times reported that the hashtag bearing her name had been “tweeted, retweeted, or liked more than nine million times.”
In line with its previous efforts to hinder the flow of information, Iranian authorities again blocked nearly all internet access in the country in response to the September 2022 protests. Additionally, mobile networks were shut down, along with access to popular social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Instagram. NetBlocks, an organization that monitors internet connectivity in Iran since the beginning of the protests, determined that Iranians cannot easily circumvent the current network disruptions with the use of software or VPNs.
Under these restrictions, it is more difficult for activists to coordinate their activities and convey information to the outside world. In response, the U.S. government has taken some measures to restore communications, including by issuing a general license that expands the range of internet services available to Iranians, notwithstanding U.S. sanctions. The U.S. also approved Elon Musk’s satellite internet provider, Starlink, for operation inside Iran, but terminals are still needed on the ground to receive its signals. Biden administration officials have reportedly mulled over programs to get these terminals into the hands of Iranian protesters.