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Source: IranWire

Mar 27, 2024

Killings, Blindings and Discrimination: UN Mission Accuses Iranian Govt of Crimes Against Humanity

When the United Nations Human Rights Council voted 25-6 to establish the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran in November 2022, it was history in the making.

Two months earlier, Mahsa Amini's death in custody had sparked nationwide street protests and presented the starkest challenge yet to the Iranian government's 43-year grip on power. Crowds were on the streets every night, chanting "Woman, Life, Freedom," and countless Iranian women were appearing in public without the government-mandated hijab head covering.

Iranians felt on the cusp of change. The authorities felt it too – so they turned to violence. Readers of IranWire’s coverage of the protests will not be surprised by this news. But what is common knowledge for Iranians has now been confirmed by UN-mandated human rights experts.

Iran's government has been the subject of human rights concerns since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic. But its actions after Mahsa's death struck the international community as so excessive that it reached for an instrument it had never yet used for Iran; the fact-finding mission, an independent panel to investigate the response to the protests.

Last week, at the 55th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the mission delivered its 20-page report along with detailed findings and voluminous documentation.

A litany of human rights violations was exposed in the UN mission's report; in particular, against women. The findings were so grievous that the three-person expert panel was forced to conclude that "the crime against humanity of persecution on the grounds of gender has been committed" by the Islamic Republic authorities against its own people.

Reaching such a conclusion was based on a rigorous methodology, the fact-finding mission said, which documented "widespread" violations of rights across the country. The Islamic Republic also provided no explanations or counter-narratives to the mission.

Sara Hossain, a Bangladeshi legal academic and chair of the fact-finding mission, spoke with IranWire's Aida Ghajar in Geneva on the release of their report.

"There were no effective investigations in [Iran] itself," Hossain told IranWire, when explaining why the mission was established. And the international community was "concerned" that "serious allegations of violations had been made, and they needed to be looked into."

"The first thing we did was contact the government of Iran," Hossain said, "to be able to go into Iran, to meet with people there, to speak with the government and also to speak with the people. Unfortunately, that request was denied."

The mission sent 21 letters to Iranian authorities with requests for cooperation – to no avail.

Despite the reticence of the Iranian authorities themselves, the fact-finding mission received 295 submissions from Iranians and human rights groups and interviewed 134 direct victims or witnesses.  

The mission also looked at reports by the Iranian government's High Council for Human Rights, a body overseen by officials such as the minister for intelligence and head of the judiciary, as well as laws, decrees, policies, medical records, verified photographs and videos, and satellite imagery.

The combined body of material presented the fact-finding mission with an overwhelming picture of extrajudicial killings, targeted and systemic use of life-altering violence to suppress and terrorize protests, torture of detained protesters and sexual violence against detainees, arbitrary arrests, and the suppression of the freedoms of expression and assembly as well as regular internet cut-offs or slow-downs during protests.

Hossain told IranWire that some of the most horrifying findings concerned the immediate response to the protests, which saw the use of "very heavy weaponry, including AK-47s, to fire on protesters" who were "civilians" in a "law and order" situation rather than in an active combat zone.

"It was very shocking to see that kind of weaponry being used," Hossain said.

The fact-finding mission reported that at least 551 people had been killed by lethal force used to suppress the protests, including 49 women and 68 children, with deaths recorded in 26 of Iran's 31 provinces. The security forces comprised the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Basij paramilitary, and the Law Enforcement Command.

Rifles and shotguns were among the firearms used by these forces during the crackdowns.

Lethal means were also used in repeated instances where there was no imminent threat to life by protesters or even risk of serious injury, the mission said.

One document alone, based on an official communiqué and seen by the fact-finding mission, noted that on a single evening, security forces used over 300 live ammunition cartridges, nearly 300 cartridges loaded with multiple rubber pellets, and 40 rubber bullets, as well as smoke grenades and chemical irritants.

The report added that such lethal actions amounted to extrajudicial executions of unarmed civilians by the Iranian government.

But "perhaps the most shocking" finding, Hossain added, were "cases of blinding of protesters being shot at very short range, directly targeted into the eye, and that's resulted in hundreds of people, including women and young people, who are now permanently blinded, permanently marked for nothing more than going out in the streets of their own country to speak about grievances they have with the people who rule over them."

IranWire has also documented dozens of cases of blinding by Iranian security agents as a weapon of war against unarmed civilians during the protests.

"Even in armed conflict situations, if you're shooting someone point blank, targeted into the eye, that would be a violation," Hossain told IranWire. "But here you are at a largely peaceful protest, as far as we found, in a non-armed conflict situation, and yet you are seeing hundreds of people being blinded.”

Targeting eyes in a systemic and repeated manner exposed a pattern used by Iranian authorities to deter civilians from protesting and to brand those caught on the streets both for later harassment by security forces and to mark them for life.

Shaheen Sardar Ali, a British-Pakistani law professor and member of the fact-finding mission, told IranWire thatw she was stunned "that a human being could become so cruel as to take such an important [body part] … that's something that really disables you for the rest of your life and it makes you so vulnerable.

And the women and the girls that came forward, and these young men who came forward, all of them were seeing how unrepentant those people who were shooting at [them] were. It wasn't by mistake."

A lack of access to emergency healthcare compounded the effects of the injuries, the fact-finding report said, and some security services even used ambulances for transport.

The Islamic Republic also perpetrated arbitrary arrests and detentions on a massive scale, with some human rights organizations estimating that as many as 60,000 people, men, women and children were scooped up during the protests.

Detainees were subjected to interrogations, physical and gender-based violence, verbal abuse, coercion to sign false confessions, and other forms of torture and degradation. Authorities even used such violent tactics against detained minors.

Viviana Krsticevic, an Argentinian international lawyer and the third member of the mission, told IranWire that the reports of sexual violence against women and men were "shocking" and "horrifying". She said that, for victims, "psychologically, this is difficult to overcome, that pain and that lasting harm, the tortured lives and people."

The Islamic Republic’s judicial system then picked up where the security forces left off.

Judicial harassment was a key part of the response to the protests, the fact-finding mission said, with both criminal and revolutionary courts convicting and sentencing protestors through vague charges on a systematic basis.

Confessions obtained under torture were used. Legal due process was absent, the report said, entrenching a climate of fear even more.

"Aspects of intersectional discrimination" were also found to be a factor in the crackdowns, with women or men who were members of ethnic or religious minorities suffering even more egregious violations by the authorities, the mission said.

Internet slow-downs and cuts, as well as restrictions on social media platforms, were also used by the authorities to suppress the ability of protesters to organize gatherings and rallies or to share information on human rights abuses. The UN mission said that these measures, as well as ongoing state surveillance, were violations of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy.

Hossain also said that the hijab laws, which led to Mahsa Amini's death and was one of the driving issues for the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, were themselves a shock to her during the mission's investigations.

"What we saw in Iran is more than just a cultural or religious practice," Hossain told IranWire. "There's an entire set of laws in Iran … where not following this mandatory hijab rule results in a woman or girl being denied the most basic fundamental rights and being denied access to the most basic fundamental services.”

“If a woman does not cover her head, she can't work in a private office or a government office. She can't access health services, she can't access justice services ... It seems extraordinary that it should happen and the effort and resources that are put into implementing these laws and the way in which they're done through brute force, that is quite shocking,” she added.

The UN mission recommended, at the close of its report, that the Islamic Republic cease all executions and release anyone arbitrarily detained during the protests.

The Islamic Republic was also urged to "provide justice, truth and reparations to victims of human rights violations" during the protest crackdowns.

"Fact-finding missions can have an important role in transitional justice," Krsticevic told IranWire, adding that such investigations "can bring elements of truth to their community, to the Iranian society and the international community, to establish the facts of what happened and [understand] the multi-layered, institutionalized system of discrimination that is supported by violence, that we found in Iran, and the consequences that has for Iranian society as a whole, but also for women in Iran, in their protection of their rights."

The mission also noted that, with more time, it could "strengthen its documentation of the structural and institutionalized discrimination underlying the protests that it has uncovered and ensure the effective preservation of evidence for use in legal proceedings."

"I hope against hope that the international community will take this seriously," Hossain said. "It was [established by] the Human Rights Council, which is represented by countries from all over the world, which thought it was important to have this investigation."

"I don't think any country should be able to stand on the global stage, and demand international justice, without ensuring justice at home for its own people,” Hossain added. “And I hope [the international community] will respond to the call of the victims that we have tried to amplify.”

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