Crónica The Washington Post, 05.10.2022 Joyce Sohyun Lee, Stefanie Le, Atthar Mirza y Babak Dehghanpisheh
A visual forensics analysis shows authorities using indiscriminate force, making violent arrests and throttling internet service to crush demonstrations
Iran’s bold and bracing protests, stretching across an unsettled nation for more than two weeks, have been marked by defiant acts and daring slogans that challenge the country’s clerical leadership and its stifling restrictions on all aspects of social life.
The ongoing protests began in response to the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who fell into a coma after being detained by the country’s hated “morality police.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed Monday that the unrest had been instigated by foreign powers and blamed protesters for the violence: “The ones who attack the police are leaving Iranian citizens defenseless against thugs, robbers and extortionists,” he said.
Khamenei gave his full backing to the security forces, signaling a further wave of repression could be coming.
To understand the extent of the government’s crackdown against protesters, The Washington Post analyzed hundreds of videos and photographs of protests, spoke to human rights activists, interviewed protesters and reviewed data collected by internet monitoring groups. The Post geolocated videos of protests in at least 22 cities — from the Kurdistan region, where the protests began, to Bandar Abbas, a port city on the Persian Gulf, to Rasht on the Caspian coast.
The investigation focused on three key tactics used by the government to crush the protests — the apparent use of live ammunition by security forces, targeted arrests and the throttling of internet service.
The Post interviewed protesters in Marivan, Balo and Tehran, who corroborated the findings. All spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by security forces.
The protester in Marivan, a city of 50,000 people in the Kurdish west, described the scene on Saturday as akin to martial law. “All of the security forces were out. … I would say more than 1,000. They filled every square and intersection and major street.”
The Post geolocated videos from seven cities that appear to show security forces shooting at protesters. Though it was impossible to verify the type of rounds used from the videos alone, “it’s extremely likely [security forces] were using live rounds against protesters during the events of recent days and weeks,” said N.R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, who reviewed the videos for The Post.
Security forces have been firing indiscriminately at demonstrators since the start of the protests, 1500 Tasvir, an anti-government monitoring group, told The Post. Videos recorded Sept. 17, according to 1500 Tasvir, in the Kurdish city of Saqqez — Amini’s hometown — appear to corroborate the claim. They show protesters marching through the center of the city on the same day as Amini’s funeral. They are quickly dispersed by officers on motorcycles firing in the direction of the crowd.
Analysts with Janes, a defense intelligence provider, also reviewed videos for The Post and determined that at least two videos likely showed the use of live ammunition.
A video posted Sept. 23 in Tehran shows a man in army fatigues calmly taking aim and shooting a variant of an AK-47 assault rifle, according to Janes. While blank cartridges are made for the AK-47, Janes said, it has no record of any less-lethal or riot-control rounds being made for the gun. “On probability, [these] are assessed as being live rounds,” Galer concluded.
A leaked document from the general headquarters of Iran’s armed forces on Sept. 21 — obtained by Amnesty International and reviewed by The Post — ordered security forces to “severely confront” protesters. Another document, issued two days later by the commander of armed forces in Mazandaran province, went even further, ordering security forces to “confront mercilessly, and while going as far as causing deaths, any unrest by rioters and anti-Revolutionaries.”
The protesters interviewed by The Post in the western cities of Marivan and Balo told The Post they had witnessed security forces firing on demonstrators.
“Security forces fired directly at the people in Darai Square,” said the protester in Marivan, describing a crackdown on Oct. 1. “They had no intention to arrest or to calm the situation. They only wanted to shoot.”
The protester from Balo described a chilling “ambush” on Sept. 21 by the Basij, a paramilitary force under the command of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. “Members of the Basij were already on the roofs of nearby buildings,” the protester said. “They started shooting in the air, and the crowd scattered.” Other Basij fighters came out onto the streets, shooting into the air at first, and then directly at the fleeing protesters, he told The Post.
Two young men were killed in the barrage of bullets, he said — one was shot in the stomach, another in the throat. Their deaths were corroborated by Hengaw, a Kurdish rights group, and videos from their funerals were shared with The Post.
The Post verified and geolocated five videos showing security forces violently arresting protesters in five cities across Iran over the past two weeks. The videos show security forces often detaining protesters away from the crowds, on side streets. Some arresting officers traveled on motorbikes, allowing them to quickly descend on demonstrators and whisk them away.
The protester in Balo recounted members of the Basij making arrests in the middle of the night on Sept. 21 and using tear gas to force civilians out of their homes.
“They [the Basij] come with civilian clothes and cover their faces. It creates fear,” the protester said.
As of Sept. 30, security forces had arrested at least 50 people in Balo, and the majority are still in custody, according to the protester. “There are no more protests in Balo because of the fear they created,” the protester said. “After 10 p.m., you don’t see anybody out.”
Prisoners in Iran are routinely subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment, rights groups have found, and families often struggle to get information about loved ones who have been detained. “The documented acts of torture and other ill-treatment raise concerns that hundreds of people arrested since the start of the protests risk similar treatment in custody,” Amnesty said.
Videos shared by anti-government monitoring group 1500 Tasvir and verified by The Post show violent arrests of protesters in cities across Iran. (Video: 1500 Tasvir)
In a video from Gorgan, the capital of Golestan province in the northeast, officers on motorcycles surround and beat a protester in front of a closed storefront at night before arresting him.
In Tehran, a video shows officers walking a man in a black shirt, his hands behind his back, to a busy downtown street. They then force him onto the back of a motorcycle driven by an officer.
In another video from Kermanshah, in the west, a protester surrounded by officers on motorcycles is placed into a police vehicle and driven away.
Iran has frequently employed internet disruptions during times of unrest, making it more difficult for protesters to communicate with one another and with the outside world. But the cuts over the past two weeks have been more targeted and appear to show a greater level of sophistication.
Network traffic data from Iran to Google’s web search product shows significant disruptions in the evenings beginning Sept. 21, the bloodiest night of protests so far and a crucial turning point in the government’s response, according to Raha Bahreini, Amnesty’s Iran researcher. The majority of the deaths recorded by Amnesty took place Sept. 21.
According to The Post’s analysis of internet data, traffic patterns show a cyclical nature to the disruptions, beginning every afternoon around 4 p.m. local time — the end of the Iranian workday, when most protests begin — and returning to normal levels after midnight.
Instagram and WhatsApp, major platforms for sharing video, were also shut down Sept. 21, according to NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors global internet access. These restrictions have coincided with sudden decreases in visual evidence coming out of Iran.
The Post tracked the number of protest videos coming from a Telegram account that regularly posts and circulates clips. The count revealed the direct impact of the throttling of internet connectivity, with the number dropping from around 80 new clips on Sept. 21 to just 40 the day after.
1500 Tasvir told The Post that in the first few days of the protests, the group received more than 3,000 videos per day. After the increase in internet disruptions, that number dropped dramatically, to about 100 to 200 videos per day.
The protesters who spoke to The Post confirmed the internet restrictions observed in the data.
“Most of the people don’t have internet at home,” said the protester in Balo. “They only have internet on their sim card, and it’s cut between 4 and 10 p.m. And even when it comes back, it’s still very bad.”
That account was echoed by the protester in Marivan: “The internet gets cut every day at 3 or 4 p.m. and doesn’t come back until around midnight or 1 a.m.,” the protester said. “None of the big apps like Instagram or WhatsApp or Telegram work.”
Despite the violence by security forces — and the daily blackouts — protesters are still in the streets. To some, the crackdown has only made them more determined. The protester in Tehran recalled a scene from a recent protest, where he and his compatriots dragged trash cans into the street and set them on fire. As security forces approached on motorcycles, they began to chant: “We didn’t have our people killed in order to compromise.”