Surge in torture and abuse of activists as authorities fear renewed protests

On Wednesday, Amnesty International released a lengthy report chronicling the fate of thousands arrested in protests last year who have been subject to electrical shocks, waterboarding, and sexual violence while in detention or in prison after trials that sometimes lasted less than an hour. Teenagers have been among the targets of the abuse, and at least four young men face possible death penalties on charges of “enmity against God” for their alleged role in protests against the government.

Mounting fear of another wave of anti-government protests over Iran’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic calamity have prompted authorities to step up repression of dissidents and civil society to alarming levels.

In recent weeks, the regime has menaced dissidents involved in peaceful protests with the death penalty, increased mass arrests, stepped up disappearances and allegedly ramped up torture inside detention centres, according to human rights monitors.

One of them is Navid Afkari Sangari, a 27-year-old former wrestling champion who has been sentenced to death on what human rights activists say are trumped-up charges of killing a security official during protests in the central city of Shiraz in 2018. Afkari says he was tortured into confessing.

“There is not one shred of evidence in this damned case that shows I’m guilty,” Afkari is heard saying in a 30 August audio file cited by human rights groups. “But they don’t want to listen to us. I realised they are looking for a neck for their rope.”

The goal of the repression, say activists and scholars, is to terrorise dissenting Iranians.

“The main background is the renewed fears by all regime factions about new street protests because of Covid-19 and the exacerbated economic and socio-economic situation,” says Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a scholar specialising in Iran at the University of Tubingen.

Nationwide protests prompted by corruption allegations erupted in the closing days of 2017, continuing sporadically throughout the following year. Again, last November, Iranians who were initially angered by a rise in fuel prices took to the streets, with protesters eventually taking up an anti-regime tone before being gunned down or arrested.

Hundreds were allegedly shot dead by security forces in Iran’s mostly ethnic Arab southwest, according to witnesses cited by human rights organisations and video footage posted to the internet.

Smaller groups of Iranians also took to the streets in January this year after a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying Iranians was shot down by Revolutionary Guards who had mistaken it for an incoming American missile.

Just weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic struck Iran, which became the epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East. According to an investigation by the BBC’s Persian-language service, the country’s Covid-19 death toll is three times that of the official figure, with almost 42,000 dead and 451,000 infected. A lockdown aimed at slowing the outbreak stifled most protests, but Iran’s botched handling of the crisis and the ensuing economic calamity has frayed tempers and prompted renewed anger.

While protests in recent months have waned, Iran’s parliamentary research centre and a group of 50 economists have both warned of potential destabilising protests. Leaders across the political spectrum have also sounded the alarm over imminent social unrest. Former reformist president Mohammed Khatami cautioned that people were “unsatisfied and without hope”, while hardline lawmaker Ahmad Naderi predicted that the declining economy would prompt the largest protests in the country in decades.

Experts say concerns that even small protests could quickly escalate and ignite a wider rebellion are prompting Iran’s security apparatus to crack down.

“The Iranian authorities see these mass protests as a threat to their power,” says Mansoureh Mills, a researcher at Amnesty. “We can see that the Iranian authorities are getting more and more aggressive with protesters and dissidents. With the economic climate the way it is, Iranian people are becoming more and more fearless. They live in poverty; they really have not much more to lose. So Iranians are not scared to go out to protest even in the face of brutal oppression and live ammunition.”

Iran has a wide array of security tools at its disposal, from the police that operate under the Ministry of the Interior, to the domestic surveillance departments at the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Perhaps most feared are the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence and counter-intelligence divisions, as well as the Basij and other shadowy pro-regime enforcers who roam the streets with impunity.

According to Amnesty, which interviewed scores of detainees and their families over months, prisoners were frequently hooded, blindfolded, punched, kicked, flogged, and beaten with sticks, rubber hoses, knives, batons and cables. In jail, they were suspended from ceilings or placed in painful stress positions, deprived of food, water and medical treatment, and placed in solitary confinement for months at a time.

One protester arrested in the eastern city of Mashhad was warned that his family would be punished for his participation in protests. “They tortured me and hurt me in any way they could,” he told Amnesty. “I told them I did nothing wrong; I took to the streets peacefully to claim our rights and protest against people’s poor living conditions. I see my family and friends drowning in poverty – this is the reason I attended the protests.”

We can see that the Iranian authorities are getting more and more aggressive with protesters and dissidents. With the economic climate the way it is, Iranian people are becoming more and more fearless

Mansoureh Mills, Amnesty

The aim of the abuse is often to obtain confessions of complicity with foreign agents in an attempt to justify national security charges and depict protests as international plots against the Islamic Republic and the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is considered God’s representative on earth under Iran’s political system.

In its 77-page report, Amnesty calls upon governments and international forums to pressure Iran over its human rights abuses, suggesting a United Nations inquiry to hold authorities accountable.

“The Iranian political system is a context where the authorities believe they can do whatever they want and they think they will get away with it,” says Mills. “Our main call is to step up and hold the Iranian authorities accountable. The perpetrators are public officials.”

US extra-territorial sanctions already block most business transactions with Iran and stifle the oil- and gas-rich country’s energy exports. With Russia and China serving as Tehran’s patrons at the UN Security Council, it remains unclear what measures other countries could impose on Tehran.

Iranian leaders have a deep fear of street protests as a threat rooted in the country’s recent history. Demonstrations backed by the CIA and MI6 felled the democratic government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Months of street protests ended the monarchy of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979. A wave of mass demonstrations threatened the authorities following the allegedly rigged re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Analysts have already cited Iran as one of the countries most at risk of social unrest as a result of the impact of the pandemic. The crisis has already negatively impacted at least 7 million jobs in the country, where youth unemployment is high, and inflation caused by US sanctions, low oil prices and economic mismanagement has eaten away at the savings of the middle class.

“There was a realisation early on during the coronavirus pandemic that this new crisis will lead to protests,” says Fathollah-Nejad. “The main message is that we don’t want to see renewed street protests, and this renewed and quite stark wave of repression is very much a signal to deter people from taking to the streets again.”

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