Iran using unlawful force in crackdown on water protests, rights groups say

Amnesty International says at least 8 dead, including teenage boy, as authorities use live fire against demonstrators

Protests over water shortages in Khuzestan province, Iran, July 2021 (video screenshot)
Protests over water shortages in Khuzestan province, Iran, July 2021 (video screenshot)

PARIS, France — Iran is using unlawful and excessive force in a crackdown against protests over water shortages in its oil-rich but arid southwestern Khuzestan province, international rights groups said on Friday.

Amnesty International said it had confirmed the deaths of at least eight protesters and bystanders, including a teenage boy, as the authorities resorted to live ammunition to quell the protests.

Iranian media and officials have said at least three people have been killed, including a police officer and a protestor, accusing “opportunists” and “rioters” of shooting at protesters and security forces.

“Iran’s security forces have deployed unlawful force, including by firing live ammunition and birdshot, to crush mostly peaceful protests,” Amnesty International said.

Analysis of video footage from the protests and eyewitness accounts “indicate security forces used deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas,” it said.

Human Rights Watch meanwhile said in a separate statement that Iranian authorities appeared to have “used excessive force against demonstrators” and the government should “transparently investigate” the reported deaths.

“Iranian authorities have a very troubling record of responding with bullets to protesters frustrated with mounting economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions,” said HRW’s Iran researcher Tara Sepehri Far.

Rights groups have accused Iran of launching a ferocious crackdown against 2019 nationwide protests over fuel price rises that, according to Amnesty, left at least 304 people dead.

“Iran’s authorities have a harrowing track record of using unlawful lethal force. The events unfolding in Khuzestan have chilling echoes of November 2019,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty said the teenage boy, Hadi Bahmani, was killed in the town of Izeh.

Iranian authorities have blamed the unrest on rioters and Amnesty noted that the Fars news agency published interviews with relatives of two of the men killed distancing themselves from their actions.

But Amnesty cited a source as saying that one of the families had been visited by plainclothes agents and “coerced them into reciting a pre-prepared script on camera.”

Human Rights Watch said there had also been reports of internet shutdowns in the area, noting that “over the past three years, authorities have frequently restricted access to information during protests.”

Khuzestan is Iran’s main oil-producing region, but has been struggling with an intense drought since March.

The province is home to a large Arab minority, and its people regularly complain of being marginalized by the authorities.

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