Abdorrahman Boroumand Center

for Human Rights in Iran

With Independent Investigation Impossible in Iran,
UN Must Fill Vacuum of Accountability 
Countrywide protests in Iran, triggered by the death in custody on September 16, 2022, of 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini, continue unabated. The severe and violent state crackdown on protesters (with special intensity in Kurdistan and Baluchistan) as well as lawyers, doctors, and political and civil society activists has resulted in the death, injury and arrest of thousands, including children. At least six death sentences have already been issued against protesters. As in past protests, these human rights violations are carried out through a coordinated action of the security and intelligence forces and the judiciary, whose head is selected by the Supreme Leader, also Commander in Chief of the country’s armed forces. 

Decades of impunity for human rights violations and lack of significant progress in all bilateral and multilateral efforts have highlighted evident structural obstacles in Iran’s legal framework that prevent independent and impartial investigations and justice for victims of violence. Members of the United Nations’s Human Rights Council must take this into account in their vote on the creation of an effective international investigation mechanism.

Two months after the death of Amini, Iranians continue to take to the streets at great cost to register their opposition to a political system that denies them their fundamental rights. Despite difficult access to information resulting from the mass arrest of political and civil society activists and journalists and regular internet shutdowns, more than 1,000 small and large protests in more than 155 towns and cities have been reported

Uniformed and plainclothes security forces have been using shotguns and other firearms (disproportionately in minority-inhabited provinces such as Baluchistan and Kurdistan: 94 protesters were reportedly killed in a single day of intense repression in Zahedan.) Tear gas, beatings, mass arrests and violent interrogations have been used to stop the protests and silence and intimidate protestors and other stakeholders. Even opposition groups based in Iraqi Kurdistan have not been spared. According to the latest reports, at least 437 people, including tens of children, have been killed. 

Human rights groups estimate that up to 18,000 have been arrested across the country and though many have been conditionally released after interrogation, thousands remain in detention. According to ABC’s research, an unusually high number of women - more than 300 - were among the detainees in cities such as Orumieh and Mashad in the early days of the protests (unpublished testimony from prisoners, Kurdistan Human Rights Network, October 16, 2022.) Detainees, often wounded or badly beaten during arrest, are denied access to phones and medical care and are subjected to hasty and violent interrogations. Many are released while more protesters are taken into custody in a total lack of official transparency, aggravated by the intermittent shutting down of the Internet and filtering of social media applications. 

A source with knowledge of Kurdish-inhabited areas told ABC that arrests in those places are so widespread that detention facilities are full, and some detainees are held in uninhabitable basement spaces. Beatings at arrest seem to be the norm. There is also a medical supply crisis in this region, with a lack of surgical stitches and antibiotics necessary for procedures to remove bullets and dress wounds (ABC interview with source with knowledge of Kurdistan, November 16, 2022).
State agents fire at protesters in Dehdasht, November 22, 2022. From Telegram channel of HRANA.
Rather than investigating the use of deadly force by security forces, the Judiciary has supported the crackdown by blatantly violating detainees’ right to due process of law. Detainees are denied access to an attorney, and hundreds of protesters have been summarily indicted. Some have been prosecuted, including on trumped-up charges of murder. By November 22, the judiciary had announced tha criminal complaints had been issued for 1,118 people in connection with the protests, and initial verdicts - including convictions and rulings of innocence - had been issued for 2,432 people (Javan Online, November 22). 

On November 16, the judiciary announced that a Revolutionary Court in Tehran had sentenced three men to death for the vaguely-defined security offenses of “war against God” (one) and “corruption on earth” (two) (Mizan, official news agency of Iran’s judiciary, November 16, 2022). The defendants are not named. One was convicted of “corruption on earth” by way of “crimes against the bodily integrity of individuals, destruction, and actions against national security that resulted in the disturbance of public order and security in the country, and damaging people and public property.” One of those convicted of “war against God” was alleged to have used a cold weapon to attack a state agent with homicidal intent, “causing fear among citizens and insecurity in the area,” set fire to the local governor’s office in Pakdasht County and destroyed its property. The second individual convicted of “war against God” was alleged to have “closed a road, blocked traffic and transportation, created fear, and destroyed public property, while playing a guiding role in these activities.”

The Islamic Republic’s immediate response to calls for an independent domestic investigation into Mahsa Amini’s death were emblematic. A publicly available report issued by the Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights drew from the coroner’s report, the Supreme Leader’s remarks, the president’s remarks, and an explanatory statement by the Intelligence Ministry to assert that Amini’s death “was not caused by blows to the head or any vital organs and parts of the body,” but rather by complications from a brain surgery she had undergone as a child, which left her without “necessary ability to cope” after she “she suddenly lost consciousness and subsequently fell to the ground” after her arrest. This despite the fact that Mahsa’s family stated she had been in good health before the incident. Furthermore, Kasra Hospital published on September 22 a post stating that Mahsa had been brought in in a brain-dead state; this post was later taken down. A journalist reporting from the hospital was also arrested. 

Iran’s judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights’ report also alleged sinister foreign involvement in countrywide protests: “The riots have nothing to do with the death of Mahsa Amini, hijab and women’s rights. The enemies of Iran used this pretext and sparked chaos and riots with their continuous plans.” The Council is a body tasked explicitly with among other duties “countering attacks leveled [against Iran]” and “theoretical development of human rights on the basis of Islamic thought.”
Mahsa Amini is neither the first nor the last individual to be killed in custody. Deaths in custody or resulting from state agents’ violence for which no meaningful accountability was provided have been far too common in Iran over the decades. ABC’s research has so far identified at least 376 cases of deaths in detention, though the real number is believed to be much higher:
  • Zahra Kazemi died in custody in July 2003, a few days after Iranian security forces detained her at Tehran’s Evin prison for photographing in a restricted area in front of the same prison. The judiciary delayed investigations into the role of its agents in her death. A parliamentary committee investigating her death determined that she had died from a severe blow to her head. In May 23, 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that: “The judiciary charged a low-ranking official from the Intelligence Ministry, Reza Ahmadi, of unintentionally killing her in the course of her interrogation. Despite strong protests from the Intelligence Ministry, in July the judiciary proceeded with a hastily organized trial. Stating that it lacked sufficient evidence, it cleared Ahmadi of the murder charges against him. On December 22, lawyers for the Kazemi family protested the failure of the court to convict anyone of wrongdoing and asked for a criminal investigation. The recent appeals court hearing was convened to address this request.”
  • Ebrahim Lotfollahi died in detention on January 15, 2008. Authorities claimed that he had committed suicide. Lotfallahis’ family’s lawyer, referring to the closure of their complaint file, stated that the prosecutor of the Third Branch of the Revolutionary Public Prosecution Office in Sanandaj had repeatedly rejected his requests for documentation of the suicide scene (i.e. film and photos regarding the scene of Mr. Lotfollahi’s alleged self-hanging) and that the forensic medical report mentioned his torture and recorded a broken nose and skull and signs of bruises on the body. According to a friend of Mr. Lotfollahi who cited his family, the authorities only gave the family a torn undershirt which had three or four blood stains on it, and initially claimed that Lotfollahi had used this to hang himself in the shower. However, on video recorded of his cell that later was shown to his father, an undershirt is visible hanging from the small window of the cell at a height of four meters – a height which some have noted would be out of reach without the use of some other means.
  • In November 2012, blogger Sattar Beheshti met such a fate after being detained for the "crime" of his critical blog writings. After filing a complaint to the court and following up the case, Sattar Beheshti’s family and lawyer received pressure and threats, while a number of witnesses who agreed to testify formally that his death had been caused by interrogators' actions were followed and subjected to judicial harassment.
  • 23-year-old Vahid Heidari was swept up in crackdowns on mass protests in the winter of 2017-18. He died in custody, with one eyewitness reporting deep fractures on his skull. His lawyer, Mohammad Najafi, was prosecuted for following up on the case, and ultimately sentenced to three years’ prison and 74 lashes.
Another key violation of the right to life for which Iranians are denied accountability, are state killings in protests.

Ezzatollah Ebrahimnejad was shot at close range in the July 1999 protests. When an image of him confronting security forces and the Ansar Al-Hezbollah was published on the front page of Iranian newspapers following his death, the court decided to prosecute and convict him postmortem. Shirin Ebadi, the lawyer representing Ebrahimnejad’s family after they filed a complaint, was arrested after collecting the testimony of a Basij militia member; this fact did not seem relevant to the court. The court concluded“Consequently, on the evening Friday of 9 July, during confrontations with the Security Forces, he was shot to death at close range with a Colt revolver. In fact, his murder cannot be considered outside of the context of confrontation, gunfire, stone throwing, tear gas, etc. That night, hundreds of bullets were fired by different weapons and it is impossible to determine which weapon was responsible for his death.”  

15-year old Mohammad Dastankhah was a high school student in Shiraz. According to his sister, he was shot in the heart on November 16, 2019. He was on his way back from school and wearing his school uniform. Soon after his death, his family filed two complaints: one at the Military court and the other against the school, which had claimed that Mohammad was absent that day, despite multiple witnesses’ affirming otherwise. About two years later, in November 2021, Mohammad’s mother, Narges Afshari told IranWire:
“In the first case, they told us that my son, knowing that the place was insecure, had been in front of the Basij building in the midst of riots and unrest and the police had been forced to fire shots to restore order. And for this complaint, a staying order was issued. That is to say, they had issued the verdict in such a way that the child was blamed for crossing the street. Interestingly, they also wrote about my husband. They said he had no criminal record nor a proven connection to political groups. But at the same time, they noted that he had recently given an interview to Iran International. This was a point against us in the eyes of the court. But the complaint against the school also went nowhere. On the day it happened, staff remained on the school premises until midnight, deleting the CCTV footage so as to pretend that Mohammad had not been there at all that day. But Mohammad's classmates testified that he was in school. We appealed against the verdict, and they charged us to reconsider the case. But in the end, they told us it was over. They said: “Your child is dead; what exactly are you looking for? It’s over, your child is dead.”
Such killings are but one symptom of a much deeper crisis of unaccountability and impunity, bound to the very structure of the Islamic Republic. The judiciary, the branch of government nominally tasked with guaranteeing rights, is presided over by a chief who is directly appointed by the country’s unelected Supreme Leader, who also has direct control over the armed forces and appoints the head of state media which routinely airs forced confessions and promotes prosecutors’ narratives. These structural issues are compounded by a lack of transparency and data regarding detainees and prisoners.

The process of selecting judges, who are not required to have studied law in university, results in a grave lack of independence. They were purged in the period following the revolution, and many installed for their ideological fervor rather than legal expertise. At present, too, candidates for judge positions are subject to arbitrary ideological criteria such as “being bound by faith” and commitment to the theocratic principle of “velayat-e faqih.” Women cannot serve as sentencing judges, and the profession is barred to all non-Muslims. 

In practice the judiciary, and Revolutionary Courts in particular, have acted to protect the state and its security apparatus by arresting activists, refusing to consider complaints, and intimidating families and lawyers who have pursued the cases of individuals who have died in detention and protests. 

ABC’s research indicates that more than 35 lawyers have been arrested in the context of the ongoing protests. More than half of them remain in prison, including Mostafa Neyli, arrested by agents of the Intelligence Division of the Revolutionary Guards the evening of November 7 at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran; his mother’s house was raided, and she herself arrested, hours after, according to his sister’s Twitter statement. Milad Panahipour and Said Jalalian, lawyers of dissident Hossein Ronaghi, were arrested along with their client upon reporting to the Evin Prosecutor's Office on September 24, 2022. Panahipour undertook a hunger strike in custody, and was reportedly released by October 17 (Vokala Press, October 17, 2022).
Available reports suggest dire violations of due process, among other rights, in these cases:
  • Soheil Khoshdel, a 17-year-old-high school student from Rasht, Gilan Province, has been charged with “corruption on earth” - a potentially capital crime - in connection with his participation in protests. Khoshdel was reportedly subject to torture to extract a forced confession. Youth defendants in Rasht are faced with prosecution at Branch 10 Public and Revolutionary Court of Rasht County, whose Investigative Judge, Mohsen Soltani, is known for his close relationship with security bodies and degrading treatment of defendants and their families (Telegram Channel of Melli Mazhabi.)
  • 22-year-old Mohammad Qobadlu was arrested around midnight after he drove his vehicle into motorcycle-mounted law enforcement on September 21st, 2022, and tried 38 days later on charge of "corruption on earth." The Public and Revolutionary Court of Tehran under Judge Salavati sentenced him to death in November. Qobadlu was denied legal representation in interrogation and his first trial session, according to his mother. The forensic medical authority ascertained Qobadlu's mental fitness only on the basis of his own statements, neglecting letters from prison authorities stating he was mentally "precarious.” Qobadlu’s mother, too, in a video message on social media, alluded to her son’s illness and mental disturbances. 

    Based on a report from his trial published in Iran’s media, the Prosecutors alleged Qobadlu injured five security officers and killed one. In the absence of recourse within the judiciary, his lawyer posted documents and his defense pointing to serious inconsistencies and his client’s innocence on Twitter. For example, preliminary police reporting mentioned bodily injuries to six officers and the hospital report specifies that the deceased officer died of a strike to the brain and skull fracture and had no bodily injuries. Further, the officer was hospitalized late on September 26, days after Qobadlu’s arrest, and died the next day. In a video of his funeral, the speaker states that the slain officer had been found isolated and beaten by protesters.

  • Saman Yasin, an ethnically Kurdish rapper whose work is critical of poverty and inequality, has been charged with “war against God,” a capital offense, after appearing in court without being allowed a lawyer, prior to which he was severely tortured, according to human rights sources in Kurdistan. Official Iranian media reported on October 29 that he had appeared in court; video of a forced confession made by him was aired the same day. 
  • Lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghassi reported on November 10 that a court had outright rejected the request of his client, charged in connection with the protests, for a lawyer at trial, and sessions were conducted without legal representation. Aghassi himself had reported to the court several times prior, only for judiciary officials to evade his request for representation. 
On November 22nd Iran announced the creation of a committee of inquiry by Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who is wanted by Interpol’s for his involvement in the bombing of a Jewish cooperative in Buenos Aires Argentina in 1994. The committee is mandated “to seriously follow up on asserting the rights of those who have been harmed by recent events and riots.” This is Iran’s last minute attempt to undermine the resolve of the members of the Human Rights Council, who will vote on the creation of a fact finding mission to investigate the current protests in a Special Session held in Geneva on November 24th. 

In a handful of cases where public opinion and international pressure has led to investigation and prosecution of officials, punishments have been insignificant, and the status of their implementation unclear. 

For example, in the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, three detainees arrested for their role in protests – Amir JavadifarMohammad Kamrani, and Mohsen Ruholamini – died at Kahrizak detention center, outside Tehran, which was operated by Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces. In 2010, the victims’ families and rights activists reported that two other detainees, Ramin Aghazadeh Ghahremani and Abbas Nejati-Kargar, died after their release from the facility, allegedly due to injuries suffered there. Authorities have refused to link their deaths to injuries at Kahrizak. On January 10, 2010, a parliamentary panel investigating detentions after the disputed 2009 presidential election determined that Saeed Mortazavi, the former Tehran prosecutor general, was directly responsible for the ill-treatment of detainees in Kahrizak Prison. On November 26, 2017, the Appeals Court of Tehran sentenced Mortazavi to two years in prison for complicity in Ruholamini’s murder. 
“The Special Rapporteur finds it unfathomable that the Government has not fulfilled its obligation under international law to conduct prompt, transparent and independent investigations into instances of excessive force and continues to prosecute individuals for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly. He urges the international community to call for accountability.”

Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman, report of August 2021
The failure of domestic remedies has been noted by the office of the Secretary General, who noted in their latest, August 2021 report on the human rights situation in Iran that “measures taken by State authorities to... provide effective remedies are largely non-existent or, at best, insufficient” and that “the competent Iranian authorities have neither conducted prompt and impartial investigations [into the repression of the 2019 protests and the 2020 downing of the Ukrainian flight] nor ensured accountability in line with international human rights law and standards, despite repeated domestic calls and calls by the international community." 

Iranians themselves have demanded an international forum for their calls to accountability, notably in the wake of the state’s brutal crackdown on November 2019 protests, in which at least 300 were killed. Abdolreza Dastankhah, father of aformentioned Mohammad Dastankhah, said “My demand of the international community, of people who can really address this, is that they look into what it is we can do, what should the people of Iran do?” A group of grieving mothers who lost children in the November 2019 crackdown demanded: “It ought to be made clear who killed our children, for what crime they were killed, and why no one will answer for it,” while demanding the killers be brought to justice in an international court.   

Iranians, including, also recognize that existing mechanisms are not enough. As Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler put to death in September 2020 over widespread international protest, announced in a audio file smuggled from prison:
We’ve put together all the evidence: we’ve done this so that if I am executed, everyone will know that, in the 21st century, despite all the mechanisms and costs in terms of human rights, the United Nations, the Security Council, and so on, an innocent person was executed despite the fact he fought as hard as he could….
Today, as thousands of citizens calling for basic human rights, including children, are killed, arrested, tortured, sentenced to death and disappeared in a context of systematic impunity, Iranians have nowhere to turn but the international community. The crescendo in repression since 2017 especially has left little doubt about the need for an independent investigative and accountability mechanism. UN authorities have recognized such a need clearly. 

“The Members of the Human Rights Council must fulfill their responsibility by voting overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution to establish a fact finding mission on the protests triggered by Mahsa’s death. By doing so, they will be on the right side of history and restore Iranians’ trust in the UN human rights mission. They will also send a clear message to human rights abusers: no culture or religion condones the killing of women and girls for a few strands of hair, this must stop, and you will be held accountable”
 said ABC Executive Director Roya Boroumand.