Iran: Stop Attacks on Peaceful Demonstrators

Monday, February 14, 2011

(New York) - Iranian security forces should stop using teargas and batons to disperse peaceful crowds gathered in support of the popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities should also release opposition leaders and activists arbitrarily detained, and permit the free flow of communications channels, Human Rights Watch said. On February 14, 2011, demonstrations took place throughout Iran after authorities conducted a wave of arrests against opposition activists, placed the opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest, and clamped down telephone and satellite communications and the internet. Initial reports from Tehran and other cities indicate that police, anti-riot police, and plainclothes officers attacked demonstrators, including physical assaults and the use of teargas and batons, to break up crowds, silence people chanting anti-government slogans, and prevent protesters from taking photos.

Numerous demonstrators were injured, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. There are also reports of numerous arrests. "Just days ago the Iranian government claimed to support the popular aspirations of millions of Tunisians and Egyptians who peacefully demanded an end to dictatorship," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Now Iranian security forces are using batons and teargas to disperse Iranians peacefully demonstrating in support of their Arab neighbors."

Thousands of demonstrators gathered on February 14 throughout Tehran and several other large cities, including Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Kermanshah, and Rasht, following calls by Mousavi and Karroubi to march peacefully in support of the popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia.

On the morning of February 14, foreign Persian-language media outlets reported a heavy security presence on the streets of Tehran, with demonstration routes that had been designated as gathering sites blocked off to vehicular traffic. Despite this, thousands of demonstrators in Tehran used sidewalks to march toward the sites, including Azadi Square in Tehran. Security forces continually tried to break up huge crowds and force them onto side streets to make them veer away from demonstration paths, various media reports said.

A demonstrator who participated in demonstrations close to Tehran's Enghelab Square told Human Rights Watch: "Security forces had occupied the demonstration routes earlier in the morning. But after 3 p.m. their numbers increased dramatically... Around 3:30 we arrived close to Enghelab Square. There were about 500 of us. For about 10 minutes we chanted some light slogans. After that the riot police attacked us and we were forced to move toward Avesta Park. When we entered the park, they began lobbing teargas at us." The demonstrator told Human Rights Watch that he saw many people with injured arms and legs. He said this was mostly the result of blows from riot police and paramilitary basij forces carrying batons and sticks, and that they struck him with a baton at least once. He also said that he saw about 10 demonstrators who were separated from the main crowds and taken to unknown locations.

According to the semi-official Fars News Agency, a pro-government media outlet, at least one protester was killed. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify this information independently. It is not known how many people were arrested throughout the country.

A protester in Esfahan told Human Rights Watch that she went to Enghelab Square, and that security forces would not allow demonstrators to stand or congregate along the way. She arrived at the square just in time for sunset prayers and noticed a group of security forces and plainclothes agents praying. As soon as the prayers were over, demonstrators began to chant "Allah-o Akbar," or "God is Great," and the security forces immediately attacked them, she said. The riot police and plainclothes agents beat people with batons and fired teargas, she said. When one group sought refuge in a parking lot, the security forces followed them and began beating them with batons. She also said that security forces attacked cars decked with green ribbons for the Green Movement, the political opposition: "In Esfahan there were lots of cars, even in and around the square, that had green ribbons tied to them or had painted the windshields or the body of the car with the color green. Security forces would strike at the vehicles and take off the license plates," presumably so they could identify the owners. Opposition leaders had sought, but were refused, permits for the protests.

In a February 5 letter open letter, Mousavi and Karroubi asked the Interior Ministry for a permit under article 27 of the Iranian Constitution, which allows public gatherings and marches to "be freely held," provided "arms are not carried." The ministry announced that it would not issue a permit, its common response to previous opposition demonstrations since June 2009, after the country's disputed presidential election. Instead, authorities and pro-government media outlets like the newspaper Kayhan accused Mousavi and Karroubi, whom they call "heads of the coup," of scheming with foreign governments to topple the Islamic Republic. Security force commanders said they would crush any public gatherings.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force, and may use force "only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result." Opposition Figures Harassed, Detained The government's initial response to the February 5 call by Mousavi and Karroubi for a demonstration to support the popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia was rapid and harsh.

Security forces initiated a wave of arrests against more than 30 opposition activists and journalists beginning on the evening of February 8. Persian-language media outlets outside Iran said that those arrested include Mohammad-Hossein Sharifzadegan, a former government official in former president Mohammad Khatami's administration and Mousavi's brother-in-law; Taghi Rahmani, a member of the reformist Nationalist-Religious Movement; Yadollah Eslami, a former reformist member of parliament; and Kourosh Zaim, a member of the pro-reform National Front. The latest high-profile arrest was on the evening of February 13, BBC Persian reported, when security forces arrested Abdollah Naseri, a close ally of Khatami and a well known member of the reformist Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution. Under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Interior Ministry's Article 10 Commission, which registers political parties, has brought a series of complaints against reformist parties in an effort to disband them.

On September 27, 2010, for example, the general prosecutor and judiciary spokesman announced a court order dissolving the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution. Although these parties resumed their activities, it is unclear whether they are technically operating unlawfully. The two parties had announced their support of the February 14 demonstrations, along with numerous other opposition parties, student organizations, and clerical groups, who publicly posted their intention to join the protests on their websites. Sahamnews.org, a website affiliated with Karroubi's Etemad-e Melli reformist party, said on February 11 that security forces had placed Karroubi under house arrest, preventing everyone except his wife from visiting him, and informed one of his sons that the house arrest would last through February 14. The website also announced that authorities had shut down landline and mobile phone connections for Karroubi and his family.

On February 13, a close aide to Mousavi told BBC Persian TV that communication lines to Mousavi had been severed, and that he believed security forces had placed Mousavi under house arrest. Kaleme, a website affiliated with Mousavi, said security forces had, in fact, surrounded Mousavi's home and were preventing him and his wife from joining protesters. Since the disputed presidential election of 2009, authorities have tightly monitored and controlled both Karroubi's and Mousavi's movements, and plainclothes security forces have, on several occasions, attacked Karroubi's residence and convoys and detained his son, according to posting on the opposition figures' websites.

During August 2010, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance directed the press not to publish items about Moussavi, Karroubi, and Khatami, the former president, the three most visible opposition members. Free Flow of Information Interrupted The crackdown on opposition figures leading up to the February 14 protests was accompanied by a massive clampdown on the free flow of information inside the country.

On the evening of February 10, the BBC reported that the government was jamming its Persian TV programming signals from inside Iran. On February 11, BBC Persian TV issued a statement indicating that viewers in Iran were again able to view its programming, and it seemed that its signals were no longer being jammed. International bodies, including the United Nations and the European Union, have condemned Iran's repeated jamming of satellite signals carrying Persian-language programming. For instance, in 2010, the French satellite operator, Eutelsat, suspended Persian-language programming on its popular Hotbird 8 satellite following repeated jamming by the Iranian government.

After Human Rights Watch contacted Eutelsat, it shifted programming to two other satellites, one of which continues to experience jamming, and lodged a formal complaint with the International Telecommunication Union. During the past several days, opposition websites and numerous media outlets have reported filtering and shutting down of opposition websites, interruption of radio broadcasting, and a noticeable reduction in internet speeds throughout the country.

On February 14, both sahamnews.org and kaleme.net, the websites affiliated with Mousavi and Karroubi respectively, experienced technical problems and were not accessible. Several witnesses who contacted Persian-language websites outside the country indicated that the government appears to have suspended SMS texting capabilities in parts of Tehran, coinciding with pre-designated demonstration paths. "The authorities should allow protesters to assemble peacefully in Tehran and other cities throughout the country to exercise their fundamental rights," Whitson said. "They also should release opposition activists arbitrarily detained, and not block the free flow of information through mobile phone communications and the internet."