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Iran: UN exposes 'crimes' committed against protesters

Shabnam von Hein
March 19, 2024

A UN fact-finding mission says Iran's brutal crackdown against women's rights protesters amounts to "crimes against humanity," the first time such language has been publicized in a report on the regime in Tehran.

A group of protesters at night shrouded in tear gas smoke in Iran's Mahabad city in West Azerbaijan, seen in 2022
Massive protests erupted across Iran in late 2022 after the death of a young woman in police custodyImage: Middle East Images/picture alliance

On March 18, the results of an independent, international UN fact-finding mission on Iran's response to a nationwide protest movement were introduced to the UN Human Rights Council during its regular session in Geneva.

In the over 300-page report, UN investigators spelled out how Iran's government carried out a brutal campaign of oppression against the protests, which chairperson Sara Hossain said in some cases amounted to crimes against humanity.

In November 2022, two months after the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini sparked an Iran-wide protest movement, the UN Human Rights Council established the fact-finding mission on the "deteriorating situation of human rights" in Iran to document any potential crimes against the Iranian people.

At that time, there were already suspicions that Iranian state authorities may have used disproportionate force in cracking down on the "Women, Life, Freedom" protests.

"Crimes were committed," Hossain told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday. She cited extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, enforced disappearances and gender-specific persecution as examples.

Iran has always denied being responsible for Amini's death and said she was not beaten in custody. The fact-finding mission assessed that Amini was beaten to death "while in the custody of morality police."

An Iranian woman holds up her arms in front of flaming tires blocking a road
Many women protesters defied authorities by not wearing headscarves in public Image: SalamPix/abaca/picture alliance

More than 100 witness statements

Hossain told DW that the UN Commission examined and evaluated numerous sources for its report.

"We analyzed government documents and public statements by government officials. We also reviewed a number of reports prepared by Iran's High Council for Human Rights."

Hossain, a barrister in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, added that the fact-finding mission evaluated 134 direct witness statements for the final report. Investigators also analyzed an enormous amount of open-source information, such as digital medical records and legal documents.

"All of this formed the basis of our material. This allowed us to draw on both direct and corroborated evidence from primary and secondary sources, giving us a solid foundation for our investigation and findings," Hossain said.

Many eyewitnesses who testified before the commission still show the traces of targeted shots fired by the security forces.

Kosar Eftekhari is one of them. The 24-year-old woman from Tehran was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet during the 2022 protests. She has been blind in that eye ever since.

As if that were not enough, she was brought before the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on charges of "assembly and conspiracy against the security of the country" and "propaganda against the regime."

"Due to enormous reprisals, I fled the country two months ago," she told DW.

Eftekhari now lives in Germany and testified before the commission in Geneva.

"I took part in a peaceful protest that was brutally crushed by the security forces. They deliberately shot me in the eye at close range. It is important for me, as an eyewitness, to tell the world what we experienced and how the protesters were repressed," she said.

'I will be living proof of the violent oppression in Iran'

'Systematic attack on the civilian population'

According to the fact-finding report, 551 people were killed by security forces, including at least 49 women and 68 children. Women, children and members of ethnic and religious minorities in particular were subjected to human rights violations.

These methods are part of a "systematic attack on the civilian population," Hossain told the session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The fact-finding body called on the Iranian government to stop the executions of protesters, release all those detained in connection with the protests, stop harassing the victims and their families, and provide them with reparations.

Iranian human rights lawyer Saeid Dehghan said that the fact-finding mission's work is of enormous importance for the civilian population in Iran.

"For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, crimes committed by those in power against the population have been documented. This is the first time that the term 'crimes against humanity' has been used in an official report on the situation in Iran. This has historical significance," she told DW.

Dehghan, who has lived in Canada since 2022, founded a worldwide network of Iranian lawyers. He runs a legal center called Parsi Law, which offers legal advice to people in Iran. The legal center he heads also supports international organizations such as the UN, which promote human rights in Iran.

Although Iran rejects the report's findings, Iranian officials living in Western countries, could be put on trial, have their assets frozen or be denied entry on the basis of the report.

In fact, Iran has presented itself as a victim by claiming that the work of the fact-finding mission is politically motivated.

Tehran strongly condemned the UN findings, saying they were based on "unfounded allegations" and "false and biased information, without any legal basis."

Iranian authorities refuse to cooperate with the UN fact-finding mission and want to prevent its work from being extended.

The mission's mandate is due to expire on April 5, 2024. Iranian and international human rights organizations have called for the mandate to be extended. The Human Rights Council will vote on the extension as well as on all pending resolutions at its next meeting at the beginning of April.

This article was translated from German

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum