Amnesty: At least 106 killed as Iran forces get ‘green light to crush’ protests

Rights group warns real death toll could be closer to 200 with video showing snipers firing into crowds; UN urges Tehran to stop using live ammunition against demonstrators

Iranian protesters gather around a burning motorcycle during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan, on November 16, 2019. (AFP)
Iranian protesters gather around a burning motorcycle during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan, on November 16, 2019. (AFP)

LONDON — More than 100 demonstrators are believed to have been killed across Iran since leaders ordered security forces to stamp out protests triggered by fuel price rises, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

“At least 106 protesters in 21 cities have been killed, according to credible reports,” the London-based rights group said.

It added that “the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed.”

The rights watchdog said the security forces had received a “green light to crush” the protests which broke out on Friday and had spread to more than 100 cities across Iran.

“Authorities must end this brutal and deadly crackdown immediately,” said Amnesty’s Philip Luther, whose organization based its report on “verified video footage, eyewitness testimony from people on the ground and information” from rights activists outside Iran.

Amnesty also urged Iranian authorities to “lift the near-total block on internet access designed to restrict the flow of information about the crackdown to the outside world.”

It said video footage showed that “snipers have also shot into crowds of people from rooftops and, in one case, a helicopter.”

Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019. (AFP)

While most demonstrations appeared to have been peaceful, it said, “a small number of protesters turned to stone-throwing and acts of arson and damage to banks and seminaries.”

Security forces had been seen taking away dead bodies and injured people from roads and hospitals, according to witnesses, and refused to hand over bodies of victims to their families, Amnesty said.

A hike in petrol price sparked the protests in which Iran has officially confirmed at least five dead, including three security personnel allegedly stabbed to death by “rioters.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations voiced alarm over reports of a mounting death toll.

Iran’s shock decision to impose petrol price hikes last Friday sparked the protests in which the official toll says five people were confirmed to have been killed, three of them security personnel who officials say were stabbed to death by “rioters.”

The UN rights office said it was alarmed by reports live ammunition was used against protesters and had caused a “significant number of deaths across the country.”

But its spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva that casualty details were hard to verify, in part because of the internet shutdown now in its third day.

“Iranian media and a number of other sources suggest dozens of people may have been killed and many people injured during protests in at least eight different provinces, with over 1,000 protesters arrested,” he said.

“We urge the Iranian authorities and security forces to avoid the use of force to disperse peaceful assemblies.”

Iranian protesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran, on November 16, 2019. (AFP)

Colville also called on protesters to demonstrate peacefully, “without resorting to physical violence or destruction of property.”

AFP journalists saw two petrol stations in Tehran gutted by fire and damage to infrastructure, including a police station.

They were prevented from filming as hundreds of riot police guarded squares with armoured vehicles and water cannon.

State television showed footage of rallies against “rioting” held in the northwestern city of Tariz and Shahr-e Qods, west of Tehran.

“Protesting is the people’s right, rioting is the work of enemies,” they chanted in Tabriz, according to Fars news agency.

Knives and machetes

When the demonstrations began on Friday, drivers stopped on major thoroughfares in Tehran to block traffic.

The protests soon turned violent and spread to more than 40 cities and towns, with banks, petrol stations and other public property set ablaze and shops looted.

The demonstrations erupted after it was announced the price of petrol would be raised by 50 percent for the first 60 liters purchased over a month and 200 percent for any extra fuel after that.

Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when the United States unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.

Iranians gather around a charred police station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan on November 17, 2019. (AFP)

Footage of masked young men clashing with security forces has been broadcast on state television, which rarely shows any signs of dissent.

In a video aired Monday night, a man can be seen firing what appears to be an assault rifle as others hurl stones apparently at security forces in the western city of Andimeshk.

In the latest bloodshed, assailants wielding knives and machetes ambushed and killed three security personnel west of Tehran, news agencies reported late Monday.

One was Morteza Ebrahimi, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards and father of a newborn child, according to Fars.

The others were Majid Sheikhi, 22, and Mostafa Rezaie, 33. Both served in the Basij militia, a volunteer force loyal to the establishment.

It is the worst violence since at least 25 lives were lost in protests over economic hardship that started in Iran’s second city Mashhad in December 2017 before spreading to other urban centers.

In response to the latest violence, the authorities say they have arrested hundreds of people.

Internet abuse

Iran said on Tuesday the internet will only be unblocked when authorities are sure it will not be misused.

“The internet will come back gradually in some provinces where there are assurances the internet will not be abused,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

The outage has stemmed the flow of videos shared on social media of protests or associated acts of violence.

Netblocks, a website that monitors global net shutdowns, said internet connectivity in Iran was at four percent on Tuesday compared with normal levels.

“Sixty-five hours after #Iran implemented a near-total internet shutdown, some of the last remaining networks are now being cut,” it tweeted.

An Iranian man checks a scorched gas station that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in Eslamshahr, near the Iranian capital of Tehran, November 17, 2019. (AFP)

Iran announced the decision to impose petrol price hikes and rationing at midnight Thursday-Friday, saying it was aimed at helping the needy.

The plan, agreed by the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief, comes at a sensitive time ahead of February parliamentary elections.

It has received the public support of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

President Hassan Rouhani has defended the price hike, saying the proceeds will go to 60 million Iranians.

Meanwhile, the US has condemned Iran for using “lethal force”.

Iran hit back, slamming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he tweeted “the United States is with you” in response to the demonstrations.

Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaili, warned the authorities would deal firmly with those who endanger security and carry out arson attacks.

He also called on citizens to inform on “seditionists” who have committed acts of violence.

Officials say some of those arrested have confessed to being trained inside and outside Iran and having “received money” to set fire to public buildings.

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