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Iran: security forces used 'militarised' response to peaceful food protests

New report shows how live ammunition and birdshot were fired at largely peaceful protesters 

At least three confirmed dead, with numerous injured

‘Iran’s security forces will continue to feel emboldened to kill and injure protesters if they are not held accountable’ - Diana Eltahawy

The international community must hold the Iranian authorities to account for a torrent of violence unleashed by the security forces against food price and other protesters in the south-west of Iran in May, Amnesty International said today. 

In a 25-page report - “They are shooting brazenly”: Iran’s militarised response to May 2022 protests - Amnesty documents how the security forces unlawfully fired live ammunition and birdshot to crush largely peaceful protests over soaring food prices that erupted in Khuzestan province in early May and then spread to Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, both in south-west Iran, between 12 and 17 May. 

The Iranian authorities’ unlawful use of force during the May crackdown reflects an increasing militarisation of the policing of protests in Iran in recent years, a violent response which has left hundreds of protesters and bystanders - including children - dead and thousands injured. 

Audiovisual evidence examined by Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab indicates that the security forces fired weapons loaded with live ammunition and birdshot on multiple occasions during the protests. The authorities imposed internet shutdowns and mobile network disruption to help conceal their crimes.

At least three people - Behrouz Eslami, Jamshid Mokhtari and Sa’adat Hadipour - were killed in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province in connection with the protests between 14 and 17 May, and another person - Hamid Ghasempour - was critically injured on 13 May, and a local resident reported that he died shortly afterwards.

Amnesty reviewed and analysed extensive video footage, official statements and state media reports, and spoke to human rights defenders and journalists in contact with affected individuals and communities.

While a minority of protesters engaged in stone-throwing and acts of arson and vandalism, the security forces responded with unnecessary or excessive force, preventing the vast majority of protesters who remained peaceful in exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. In all the video footage reviewed by Amnesty, protesters posed no imminent threat of death or serious injury to security forces or others, which is the threshold required for the use of lethal force under international standards. 

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said:

“The authorities’ militarised response laid bare once again their utter disregard for the sanctity of human life and international legal standards on the use of force and firearms.

“Rightful outrage among people in Iran about state corruption, inflation, unemployment, low or unpaid wages, food insecurity as well as political repression is likely to lead to more protests, and Iran’s security forces will continue to feel emboldened to kill and injure protesters if they are not held accountable.”

Birdshot use amounts to torture

In separate widespread protests between 23 and 31 May in the city of Abadan, Khuzestan province following the deadly collapse of an unfinished building that killed dozens of people, the authorities again unleashed unlawful force against peaceful protesters. The security forces fired shotguns at crowds of grieving protesters. In at least one video examined by Amnesty, audible shots were likely from discharging live ammunition.

The security forces unlawfully fired birdshot in both sets of protests, injuring protesters and bystanders. Videos reviewed by Amnesty show classic spray patterns of birdshot wounds to the backs, buttocks, legs and/or heads of those injured. Birdshot is inherently indiscriminate and designed to cause a level of widespread harm that is always unnecessary and excessive for the achievement of legitimate objectives and its use violates the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.  

Reviewed footage also shows the security forces beating a woman and a restrained man, and misused tear gas and water cannon to disperse peaceful protesters.

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