Iran Refuses to Release Death Toll in Recent Wave of Nationwide Protests

By Azadeh Karimi

Human rights organizations and social activists in Iran have produced extensive reports in recent days of several dead bodies being discovered near dams and riverbanks all across the country. The dead bodies reportedly belong to people who went missing during the wave of violent unrest that overtook Iran after fuel prices were hiked in October.

Passersby found one dead body near the Karaj Dam, 63 kilometers northwest of Tehran last week. Residents in Ahvaz, the capital of the southern province of Khuzestan, discovered a dead body on the banks of the Karun River. Local authorities have recovered eight dead bodies near Gheshlagh and Vahdat dams east of Sanandaj, the capital of the western province of Kurdistan.

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No one knows the exact number of protesters who were killed by the Iranian security forces, anti-riot police, and Basij (volunteer) militias in October. Some human rights organizations put the number at a few thousand. Others give a more conservative figure of a few hundred.

While Iranian officials have acknowledged that many people died during the clashes between the protesters and anti-riot police, they have refused to release the exact number of deaths.

A front-page editorial in the December 13 issue of the Javan Online newspaper titled “Public Deserves an Explanation About the Recent Deaths” calls on Iranian officials to provide accurate information about the underlying causes and the number of people killed in the massive unrest over the fuel price hike in October.

“Official sources have yet to provide an accurate number of people who died in recent unrests,” the managing editor of the paper Dr. Abdollah Ganji said in the editorial. “Hostile governments, media and Western diplomats including President Donald Trump, who according to U.S. media lied 45 times in a single speech, have put the death toll in the thousands. The Monafeqin [the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MKO)] have given various unsubstantiated figures, citing human rights organizations.”

“More people probably died in the recent protests than in the 2017 or in the sinister 2009 unrest. We discover another layer to this complex incident every day,” Javan News online, which has close links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) added. “Official state institutions must speak directly to the public; otherwise lies, biased reporting, and hostile elements will create a false narrative about what has happened. Future generations may read a fake historical account, claiming that ‘for no clear reasons, the state security forces shot and killed ordinary people who had protested against a gasoline price hike.”

“If the number of deaths in the recent protests is higher than in previous episodes of unrest — which seems to be the case here — what is the reason for this escalation?” the paper asked. “If, as  has been claimed, the Islamic Republic kills its citizens to ensure its survival then why it did not resort to the same tactic during the 2017 and 2018 protests when 3,800 and 3,000 people, respectively, marched in the streets?”

Iranian authorities have been quick to describe some protesters as “violent agitators” and “agents of hostile powers.”

Khuzestan’s police chief Brigadier General Heidar Abbaszadeh said on December 13 that the law enforcement forces had arrested and charged 136 people with illegal possession of firearms, which they had allegedly used against the public and the police during the protests.

“A joint operation between the law enforcement forces and Khuzestan police in the past five days resulted in the arrest of several people,” commander Abbaszadeh was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as saying. “A police raid on the hideout of the suspects led to the discovery of 21 assault weapons, 190 hunting rifles, and 990 bullets.”

Speaking to reporters on November 30, Iran’s Attorney-General Mohammad Jaffar Montazeri dismissed reports by sources outside Iran on the number of dead protesters.

“Fortunately, those living abroad do not have access to accurate data, and that is why they release different figures, none of which is credible or correct,” Mr. Montazeri was quoted by the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) as saying. “Also, the number of those who have been detained and arrested keeps changing. Security forces, police, and the prosecutor’s office do their utmost to facilitate the speedy release of those who committed minor offenses or were arrested because they were near the protests.”

People on social media have been posting reports and footage about the discoveries of dead bodies in various parts of the country.

A tweet on December 13 by a social media user, @Tavana, asked: “What is happening in Sanandaj? The dead body of a young man has been found near Sanandaj. The dead body of Pooya Ahmadzadeh, a 28-year-old man, was found in the village of Ghar on the outskirt of Sanandaj. A reliable source in Sanandaj told Tavana that ‘the body of this young man was covered with bruises, and his front teeth were smashed to pieces.’”

A tweet by Kayhan London said: “The discovery of the dead body of a protester in the Karun River. The body of another person killed by the Islamic Republic security forces during the nationwide unrest in October was pulled out of the Karun Riven in Ahvaz on December 13.”

Accompanying footage showed two people pulling what appeared to be a dead body out of a river.

According to Ahvaz Human Rights Organization (AHRO), between 70 and 100 people were killed during the protests in Ahvaz in October, and another 1,200 arrested.

“There have been 24 confirmed deaths in Bandar Mahshahr so far, but the actual number could be much higher,” AHRO said. “Heightened security, the absence of information on the missing protesters, and a climate of fear make it difficult to determine the exact number of people killed in the marshlands of Mahshahr.”

“Relevant organizations have an accurate number of people who died. They are not, however, releasing the data until the cause and circumstances of each death has been determined,” Nour News website, which has close links to the IRGC, said on December 10. “The authorities are investigating every case diligently to discover the truth and safeguard the rights of all those who unfortunately lost their lives in recent events and their grieving families.”

The Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, recently traveled to several towns west of the capital Tehran to meet with the families of some of those who died in the unrest.

“More than 85 percent of those who lost their lives in October had not taken part in the protests,” Admiral Shamkhani was quoted by ISNA as saying on December 12. “They were killed by unregistered guns and various cold weapons under suspicious circumstances which suggest that hostile elements committed the murders.”

“Provincial governors across the country must follow the Supreme Leader’s [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] orders in this matter. They should also exercise the emergency power granted to them by the President [Hassan Rouhani] to provide care and support to the family of the martyrs who died during the recent incidents,” Mr. Shamkhani added. “They must also implement specific and comprehensive measures to compensate the grieving families.”

While Amnesty International put the number of deaths at 208, the website of the former Iranian Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi gave a higher figure of 366.

Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) published a report on December 3, listing the names of 227 people who lost their lives during the October protests. HRANA has independently verified the deaths of 88 people and is investigating others.

According to HRANA, the government and several unofficial sources put the number of dead at 430 people.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]