Iran situation ‘critical’ as more than 300 killed, says UN rights office

Protesters take part in a demonstration in support of Iranian women in Zurich, Switzerland, November 19. (Keystone/Ennio Leanza)

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday condemned Iran’s increasingly harsh crackdown on anti-government protests, with hundreds of people killed and thousands detained by security forces in the past two months.

“The rising number of deaths from protests in Iran, including those of two children at the weekend, and the hardening of the response by security forces, underline the critical situation in the country,” said a spokesperson for UN human rights chief Volker Türk at a press briefing in Geneva.

More than 300 people had been killed since the nationwide protests began in mid-September, including more than 40 children, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said the figure included two 16-year-old boys who were among six others killed at the weekend.

Other rights organisations have put the estimated death toll much higher than the UN. According to the Human Rights Activists’ News Agency (HRANA), 434 protesters have been killed, including 60 children.

The organisation Iran Human Rights has put the estimated death toll at at least 378 people, while Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA) said on Sunday at least 58 children have been killed, including some reportedly as young as eight.

Those who died last week include ten-year-old Kian Pirfalak, who was one of seven people, including another child aged 13, killed in the western city of Izeh last Wednesday. Speaking at Kian’s funeral on Friday, his family said security forces had opened fire on the family car.

OHCHR said deaths had occurred across the country, with reports from 25 out of 31 provinces. Laurence also voiced concern about the situation in mainly Kurdish cities, where OHCHR has received reports of more than 40 people killed by security forces over the past week alone.

OHCHR has received reports of security forces “responding forcefully” to protests in several mainly Kurdish cities including Mahabad in West Azerbaijan, where Laurence cited reports of blackouts and vast numbers of security forces patrolling the streets over the weekend.

The anti-government protests, which were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on 16 September while in the custody of Iran’s “morality police”, have been most intense in the areas where the majority of Iran’s 10 million Kurds live.

Iranian authorities stepped up their response to protests in the country’s Kurdish region this weekend, with footage shared by human rights groups and on social media showing heavily armed troops and vehicles being deployed in cities including Mahabad.

“We urge the authorities to address the people's demand for equality, dignity and rights, instead of using unnecessary or disproportionate force to suppress the protests,” said Laurence. “The lack of accountability for gross human rights violations in Iran remains persistent and is contributing to the growing grievances.”

OHCHR said thousands of people have so far been detained throughout the country for joining the peaceful protests, including a growing number of celebrities, sports stars and well known figures who had publicly declared their support for the protests.

According to state media reports this week, authorities arrested two prominent actors – Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi – who expressed solidarity with the protests and removed their headscarves in public.

Laurence said at least six people connected with the protests have been sentenced to death on charges of “moharebeh” (enmity against God) and “efsad fil-arz” (corruption on Earth). Amnesty International said last week that at least 21 people have been charged with crimes that could result in the death penalty.

OHCHR also expressed concern at reports of Iranian authorities refusing to release the bodies of those killed to their families unless they agreed to stay silent or give false statements on the cause of death.

“The families have the right to have the bodies of their loved ones returned to them. It's cruel that they're not,” said Laurence.

Sources close to families of people killed by security forces have reported bodies being “stolen” to hide evidence of death by shooting, and families resorting to hiding bodies of loved ones in their homes so they were not taken away.

The news comes as the UN Human Rights Council prepares to meet for an urgent debate in Geneva on Thursday to address the situation in Iran. The meeting is expected to be attended by diplomats as well as witnesses and victims from the protests. A representative of Iran is due to address the meeting.

A proposal put forward by Germany and Iceland set to be discussed at the session seeks to establish a fact-finding mission on the crackdown in Iran. Any evidence of rights abuses found during such a probe could later be used before national and international courts.

“We remind the Iranian authorities that under international human rights law, they have the obligation to respect and ensure the rights to peaceful assembly and to freedom of expression,” said Laurence. “We call on the authorities to release all those detained in relation to the exercise of their rights, including the right to peaceful assembly, and to drop the charges against them.”