Iran: Bullets, detention and shutdowns: the authorities' response to protests in Khuzestan

In the wake of people’s protests in July against a worsening water crisis in the country, the Iranian authorities have responded with the unlawful use of force including by firing at protesters, arbitrary detentions and Internet shutdowns. ARTICLE 19 is calling on Iran to immediately end the use of unlawful force against the protesters and respect the right to protest, unconditionally release all those detained solely for exercising their right to protest, and end Internet disruptions and shutdowns during periods of protests.

The Iranian authorities have once again resorted to unlawful use of force, including by firing live ammunition and pellet rounds, in response to protests that started in the southern province of Khuzestan, Iran on 15 July 2021, killing at least eight protesters and bystanders and injuring scores of others between 16 and 21 July. The state’s deadly response to protestors has been taking place amid Internet disruptions and near total shutdowns in the province, an increasingly common method used by the Iranian authorities to further stifle freedom of expression during protests, hinder mobilisation and conceal their use of brutal violence.

“It is deeply disturbing that the Iranian authorities are increasingly resorting to deadly force at the first sign of protests emerging. Their reliance on lethal force against unarmed protesters, arbitrary arrests and detentions and Internet disruptions and shutdowns exhibit their utter disregard for human rights. That the authorities’ violent response has been to a people who have faced systematic discrimination and margilanisation including when it comes to their very vital right to water, makes it even more shocking,” said Saloua Ghazouani, Director of ARTICLE 19 Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“The UN Human Rights Council must take concrete action including by establishing an investigation and accountability mechanism to end the virtual impunity the Iranian authorities have enjoyed, including for the killings of protesters and bystanders in November 2019,” Ghazouani added.

According to official statements, one person was killed in Aligudarz, Lorestan province which has also been witnessing protests over the past few days, bringing the death toll to at least nine. Human rights organisations and activists have also reported the arrest and detention of hundreds of individuals in Khuzestan and in other provinces and cities, including Tabriz, where protests have emerged in solidarity with the people in Khuzestan. The exact number of individuals arrested in relation to the protests, including child detainees, remains unknown, however, on 25 July, state media announced that Mohseni Ejei, the Head of the Judiciary, had ordered the governor of Khuzestan “to do the groundwork for the release of those who had been solely detained for protesting” effectively admitting that the State had arbitrarily arrested people merely for exercising their right to protest. Given Iran’s track record of treatment of those arrested in relation to protests, detainees arrested in connection with the protests in Khuzestan and solidarity protests in other provinces are feared to be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment and enforced disappearances.

On 26 July, video footage started to emerge on social media platforms indicating that the protests had spread to other cities. Video footage showed protestors in Tehran and Karaj chanting slogans such as “death to the dictator” in solidarity with the people of Khuzestan, which is populated by Iran’s Ahwazi Arab minority.

Bullets instead of rights

On 15 July 2021, protests about a worsening water crisis and severe water shortages in the southern province of Khuzestan, which has a large Ahwazi Arab population, erupted. In response, as indicated by videos and eyewitness testimonies posted on social media platforms, Iran’s security forces resorted to unlawful force including by firing live ammunition and pellet rounds to crush the protests.

As a result of the use of deadly force by security forces, at least eight individuals, named as Mostafa Asakereh (Naimavi) in Shadegan, Ghassem Naseri (Khozeiri) in Kut-e Abdollah, Isa Baledi and Meysam Achrash in Taleghani, Hamzeh (Farzad) Fereisat in Ahvaz, Mehdi Chanani in Shoush, Hamid Mojadam (Jokari) in Chamran, and a teenage boy, Hadi Bahmani, in Izeh were killed. The death of a young man in Aligudarz, Lorestan Province, has also been officially acknowledged. Many more, including children, have sustained injuries, including from birdshot, small pellets of various materials including metal which leave a spray pattern of wounds on the body.

ARTICLE 19 is deeply shocked that the Iranian authorities, once again in flagrant violation of international law, have used live ammunition against protestors who posed no imminent threat to life. Authorities must strictly act under the principle of respect, protection and preservation of human life. Deaths resulting from the use of firearms and other lethal and potentially lethal weapons in contravention of the strict standards set under international law constitute arbitrary deprivation of life and may amount to extrajudicial killings, a crime under international law.

ARTICLE 19 also recalls that under international law and standards, firearms should not be used in policing of assemblies as they are inherently lethal. Similarly, weapons using less lethal munitions such as shotguns firing kinetic impact projectiles (for example, rubber or plastic bullets, and buckshots and birdshots) must not be used in demonstrations as they are indiscriminate and can cause severe injuries and permanent disabilities, such as serious eye trauma and permanent loss of vision as well as blunt injuries to the brain, spine and chest. They can also cause death if fired at close range and when targeted at individuals’ upper body including their head, face, neck and chest. Under international law and standards, metal pellets, such as those fired from shotguns, should never be used.

Concerns about the use of pellet rounds against protestors and bystanders in Iran are heightened in light of the fact that many injured protestors and bystanders do not seek medical care at hospitals as they fear arrest and detention. The lack of adequate and timely medical care for injuries sustained by kinetic impact projectiles including birdshots and buckshots places individuals at heightened risk of developing long term medical complications and disabilities.

Internet shutdowns and disruptions

Authorities have been disrupting access to the Internet in Khuzestan since the early days of protests in the region, notably documented by Internet users starting on 15 July 2021. While full-scale Internet shutdowns were not occurring, users were reporting difficulty accessing international Internet services on mobile carriers in areas where protests were taking place, while services on Iran’s National Information Network remained in place, much like the experiences of the November 2019 Internet shutdowns. Between 22 July and 26 July 2021, users were reporting Khuzestan was shut off from the majority of international connections and the majority of broadband connections. It is deeply worrying that the authorities have subjected Khuzestan to four days of a near total Internet shutdown which consequently has meant the number of videos documenting the protests and potential human rights violations by the state have plummeted. Esmail Bakhshi, the leader of the Haft Tappeh workers union with operations in Khuzestan reported on 24 July, two days into Khuzestan’s near-total Internet shutdown, that the situation in Khuzestan has been completely securitised, as authorities continue to arrest protesters under the darkness and lack of accountability that an Internet and media blackout provides.

Additionally, users all over Iran have reported massive disruptions to WhatsApp since 23 July. WhatsApp is the most used messaging application amongst Iranians, and the last uncensored secure messenger not insecurely operated on the National Information Network. Users are reporting slow to impossible experiences sending videos, voice notes or calls across the platform. This is a tactic many believe the authorities are implementing to disrupt the flow of content documenting the protests.

As of 25 July, protests had spread to areas of Tabriz, Tehran, Karaj and the City of Ardabil, with ensuing disruptions. ARTICLE 19 has seen messages from protesters on the ground on Jomhoori Street in Tehran on 26 July where a protest rally was taking place. They communicated that while mobile connections remained, they were seriously throttled, and content beyond texts would hardly go through. Other reports from Internet users inside Tehran indicated on and off mobile phone connections. Reports seen from users in Tabriz indicated that the large mobile carrier Hamrah Aval, and other mobile networks were heavily disrupted throughout 26 July alongside intermittent electricity outages. Users have indicated broadband connections have been severely disrupted if not fully disconnected in the province of Mazandaran, as well as individual mobile carriers reportedly disconnecting their mobile users in multiple cities, including both cities with protest eruptions and those without. Overwhelmingly, reporting throughout the country on 26 July indicated a very troubling picture for access to the Internet.

Disrupting the Internet or implementing Internet shutdowns have become a commonplace tactic by the Iranian authorities during the course of protests. Most recently, in February 2021, the authorities imposed a near total Internet shutdown in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, a measure they appeared to be using as a tool to conceal gross human rights violations and possible international crimes, including extrajudicial killings.

Prior to that, a one-week long near-total Internet shutdown across the country was imposed during the nationwide protests in November 2019, enabling the unlawful killing of hundreds of protesters and bystanders to be committed in the darkness of an Internet shutdown. Between November 2019 and February 2021, when the shutdown in Sistan and Baluchestan took place, a number of smaller-scale shutdowns and disruptions were recorded with the emergence of protests. The lack of accountability and transparency continue to mark Iran’s Internet governance and to this date, there has been no recognition by the Iranian authorities that the 2019 and subsequent Internet shutdowns have constituted violations of human rights.

As ARTICLE 19 stated in its investigation of the November 2019 Internet shutdown, state’s measures to cut people off from the global Internet do not only facilitate the commission of human rights violations by the state while making documentation of the abuses difficult, but allow for the state to manipulate and push its own narrative of the events. In November 2019, the authorities smeared protestors by labelling them as ‘rioters’ and ‘evil-doers’ and attempting to evade responsibility by attributing the killing to ‘unknown actors’. Instead of respecting people’s right to freedom of expression and assembly and listening to their legitimate grievances, state-affiliated media have made similar statements about the protests in the context of the recent protests in Khuzestan.

Internet shutdowns are incompatible with international human rights law. Human Rights Council Resolution 44/12 on freedom of opinion and expression (2020) strongly condemns Internet shutdowns and calls on states to refrain from such practices. More specifically, Resolution 44/20 on peaceful protests calls on states to refrain from ordering blanket Internet shutdowns and from blocking websites and platforms during protests or key political moments. This call has been repeated by the UN Special rapporteur on freedom of expression on numerous occasions and confirmed again in the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which clearly states, “Blanket Internet shutdowns and generic blocking and filtering of services are considered by United Nations human rights mechanisms to be in violation of international human rights law.” The Iranian government must immediately cease this pattern of Internet shutdowns and disruptions in the country.

Online censorship by social media companies

Since the emergence of protests in Khuzestan in mid-July, people have posted content on social media platforms, including video footage showing demonstrations and the use of live ammunition, as well as less lethal munitions such as birdshots, by state forces. Soon after the escalation of violence, reports emerged that social media companies had removed protest-related content. ARTICLE 19 along with four other digital rights organisations, Access Now, Mnemonic, Kandoo, and Smex, asked users to fill out a form to help them report removals or other restrictions on their content. As of 26 July, nearly 300 reports had been received, including 204 instances of posts and stories about the protests being removed from the Facebook-owned Instagram, one of the most used social media platforms inside Iran that is still free from government control. We have been working with our partners and engaging with Facebook to ensure that this content is restored and that the context in Iran is properly taken into account.

“Protestors and bystanders who courageously document abuses of human rights by Iran’s security forces and share them on social media platforms do so at great risk to their lives and liberty. These images and footage, which are posted in a context of an all-out state-imposed siege on freedom of expression, constitute important evidence of human rights violations. Social media companies must ensure that they assess the context adequately and implement their policies in a manner that allows for the documentation of human rights abuses in Iran.” Ghazouani said of the content removals.

In response to our concerns, Facebook explained that they had implemented their “Violence and Incitement” policy when removing content containing chants against high level officials. However, upon review of the Iranian context, they had decided to restore them temporarily under their newsworthiness exception and keep the situation under review. In the context of anti-establishment protests in Iran, slogans are sometimes directed against named high-ranking officials but in practice they merely express people’s deep dissatisfaction with the entirety of the political system and their grievances against those in power.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes Facebook’s review of the implementation of its policy on this occasion, but we remain concerned that this is only an ad hoc response rather than a more systemic solution to the company’s approach to protests, as well as the long-standing issues related to local language content and users in Iran. There is a consistent lack of proper redress for content moderation mistakes and policies that do not take local context into account. Users in Iran continue to experience problems sharing protest content on the platform, save for those drawn to the company’s attention by ARTICLE 19 and other digital rights groups.

It is vital that social media companies, including Facebook, allow footage documenting protests and the human rights violations that take place during protests. These are part of the historical record and could also be relied on as evidence of human rights violations and international crimes to bring those responsible to justice. As such, they should not only be allowed but preserved in line with international data protection principles. At the same time, social media companies should keep potentially volatile situations under review at regular intervals and take steps to remove content only if there is a credible threat of violence against specific individuals or the content amounts to incitement to violence under international human rights standards. They should also consider other mitigating measures, such as minimising the amplification or virality of content where appropriate.

The importance of digital open source information

The Internet and digital open source information, such as video footage and images shared on social media platforms, play an important role in documenting human rights violations and crimes under international law and in seeking justice and accountability. Such information has increasingly been used as evidence in criminal proceedings against those accused of committing international crimes. In the context of human rights violations in Iran, video footage and other information shared online by protestors, human rights defenders, journalists and others have been key for the investigations conducted by human rights organisations. For example, digital open source information has been relied on for research and investigations into the killings and other abuses in November 2019 and the unlawful use of lethal force against fuel porters in Sistan and Baluchestan in February 2021. The authorities’ measures to shutdown the Internet, partly in order to stop the stream of this footage, is testament to their importance.

Moreover, video footage and other information collated by people who document human rights violations on the ground can be easily destroyed. Those possessing such information may remove it from their devices to protect their security where they may face the risk of arrest or confiscation of their phones or other devices. It is therefore vital for social media companies not to delete but to preserve this type of content – in line with international data protection principles – so that it may be used to bring those accused of committing crimes to justice.

No right to water without the right to protest

Iran is struggling with a water crisis with Khuzestan province which is among the regions worst affected by severe water shortages. According to environmental experts, factors such as inefficient agricultural sector, aggressive dam building and groundwater pumping as well as poor management by the authorities have been some of the main drives of Iran’s water problem. As a result, people in Iran and in particular those living in worse affected areas such as Khuzestan have been deprived of their right to their human right to have adequate access to clean and safe water.

Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and is obligated to ensure that all people have access to water. The right to water, as a right guaranteed under the ICESCR, is interconnected and interdependent with political and civil rights including the right to political participation and democracy, the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, the right to access information and the right to justice. Iran’s water policy and its failure to guarantee the right to water in line with international law must therefore be analysed and discussed within the broader context of political repression and denial of various civil and political rights.

Violations of political and civil rights in Iran mean that human rights defenders including environmentalists who are instrumental in advocating for greater enjoyment of the right to water and a clean environment face persecution, while people who take to the streets to peacefully demand their rights, including their economic, social and cultural rights face repression and crackdown. Moreover, corruption, the lack of transparency and denial of the right of access to information severely hinder the ability of people and the civil society groups to access information including with regards to construction projects, budget allocation and expenditure and to hold state and private actors engaged in activities such as construction of dams into account.

While pervasive human rights violations impact the enire population of Iran, individuals and groups belonging to national and ethnic minorites such as Ahwazi Arabs, who constitute a large population of Khuzestan province and who face entrenched and systematic discrimination, face highetened levels of violations of their rights. They are denied, among others, equal access to education, employment, and political office. Although Khuzestan is a wealthy province in terms of natural resources, it suffers from severe socioeconomic deprivation and poverty. According to minority rights activists, the state’s discriminatory policies in the region and its failure to allocate sufficient resources to the province have played a key role in the current crisis. The July 2021 protests are not the first time the Iranian authorities have responded to protesters in Khuzestan demanding their right to water with force. Three years ago, in July 2018, security forces similarly used unlawful force to repress protests in the province.

Instead of cracking down on protestors, the Iranian government should ensure the right of everyone to safe and clean water, in line with international law and without any discrimination including on the grounds of ethnicity.

Recommendations

To the Iranian authorities

To the UN Human Rights Council

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned that the ongoing crisis of impunity in Iran continues to embolden the officials and security forces who are confident they will not face any consequences to commit further gross human rights violations and international crimes. Despite persistent calls by UN bodies and experts and human rights organisations, the Iranian authorities have consistently refused to conduct international law compliant investigations into gross violations of human rights and international crimes including those committed in the context of November 2019 nationwide protests. We therefore reiterate our call, which has been endorsed by multiple human rights organisations, for urgent international action by the UN Human Rights Council to:

To social media companies

In order to respect human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, social media companies, and in particular Facebook, should: