PARIS, France (AFP) — Iranian security forces massacred dozens last week in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan when they opened fire on a protest in the city of Zahedan that erupted as Iran is convulsed by nationwide demonstrations, rights activists charge.
State media in Iran characterized the unrest that started on September 30 after Friday prayers as attacks by “extremists” on police stations that left five members of the Revolutionary Guards dead.
Activists, however, say the horrifying images of bloodied corpses with bullet wounds are emblematic of Tehran’s repressive polices toward a poor ethnic minority region.
Where did the killings take place?
Zahedan is the main city of Sistan-Baluchistan, Iran’s poorest region, on the border with Pakistan. Zahedan is one of Iran’s few Sunni-majority cities and the region is populated by the Baluch ethnic minority who adhere to Sunni Islam rather than the Shiism predominant in Iran.
Activists have long complained the region has been the victim of discrimination by Iran’s Shiite clerical leadership, with disproportionate numbers of Baluch killed in clashes every year and also hanged in executions.
The region has been the scene of attacks on the Iranian security forces that Tehran has blamed on Sunni extremist groups, while the border area is also seen as a hub for drug smuggling by armed gangs.
More than 170 protesting Baloch citizens were killed and injured in Zahedan According to local reports, the number of injured people in Zahedan exceeded 150 people and more than 20 Baloch youths were martyred in this shooting. #IranProtests2022 pic.twitter.com/LOpMGAoTLX
— Aajoibalochistan (@Aajoibaluchist1) September 30, 2022
Amnesty International said that in 2021 at least 19 percent of all executions were of members of the “Baluchi ethnic minority, whose share of Iran’s population overall is approximately five percent.”
“Killing Baluch does not cost much for the Iranian government,” said Abdollah Aref, director of the UK-based Baluch Activists Campaign (BAC) which advocates for the rights of the minority.
What sparked the protests?
The unrest erupted some two weeks into nationwide protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the notorious morality police.
However, the trigger for the protests were accusations that a regional police chief had raped a 15-year-old-girl in custody in the port city of Chabahar, also in Sistan-Baluchistan. It is not clear why she was detained.
In Iranian Baluchistan protesters have gathered, it seems after the rape of a teenager by an Iranian regime’s officer. Forces then opened fire on civilians. With so far 2 casualties confirmed and many injured. Baluchistan is suffering from some of the most severe police violence. pic.twitter.com/JYjlW44LMh
— Beri Shalmashi (@BeriShalmashi) September 30, 2022
The accusation had been made public last month by the Friday prayer leader in the town of Rask south of Zahedan, prompting protests that then spread to the main city of the region.
What was the chain of events
According to Aref, a protest was planned after Friday prayers in Zahedan on September 30. Protesters then headed to the police station to protest against the rape and also shouted slogans against supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Some people threw stones and the security forces responded by opening fire while snipers were also positioned above, Aref told AFP.
“A lot of people were killed by snipers, including people not involved in the protests,” he alleged. The protests then spread across the city targeting other police stations.
“The police sought to send a message,” to the Baluch, he said.
Disturbing images on social media said to be from the aftermath of the clashes showed rows of men laid out in traditional Baluch shalwar kameez robes splattered with blood from fatal shot wounds.
At the time, internet monitor Netblocks reported access disruptions in Zahedan.
The situation of #Zahedan, Balochistan.
Iranian regime is burning Balochistan. pic.twitter.com/Dsm0nmb8nv
— Fazila Baloch????☀️???? (@IFazilaBaloch) October 1, 2022
Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian claimed Wednesday that “foreign interventionists, organized agents and terrorists, especially in Zahedan and the west of Iran, pushed the path of peaceful gatherings of people towards violence, riots and killing of innocent people, the police and security forces.”
How many people were killed?
According to the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR), basing its figures on those of the BAC, 63 named people were killed in Friday’s violence and its aftermath, and four more people in a separate incident where a military helicopter fired on an open-roofed car.
The BAC said in its latest update on Telegram that it has now confirmed 88 people were killed.
The protest “was bloodily suppressed by security forces. It has since been named Zahedan’s ‘Bloody Friday,'” said IHR.
Aref said that the death toll was accentuated by a shortage of blood and bandages, meaning many of the wounded died from their injuries.
He added: “Many did not go to hospital for fear of being arrested. They preferred home treatment but then lost a lot of blood.”
What is the situation now?
Aref said that the situation in Zahedan has calmed, although new protests were possible after weekly prayers this Friday.
But he added many people had been arrested in a clampdown on participants in the protests, although the precise figures were not clear.
Security forces used aerial drones and facial recognition technology to identify protesters and arrest them, he said.
— Sima Sabet | سیما ثابت (@Sima_Sabet) October 5, 2022
In his Friday prayer sermon in Zahedan, influential Sunni cleric Shaikh Abdolhamid told worshipers the “demands of the people should not be unanswered” while there needed to be “serious measures taken” to investigate the reported rape.
Reports said that Taftan, the main border crossing east of Zahedan between Iran and Pakistan’s Balochistan province, had been closed in the wake of the unrest.
Meanwhile executions of Baluch have continued. Four of five people were hanged at the weekend in the prison in the city of Mashhad for drug related crimes were Baluch, IHR said.
Out of 251 people executed in Iran this year, 67 were Baluch, it said.