Iran’s repression of anti-regime protests appears to have entered a dangerous new phase, with activists accusing state forces of deploying heavy weapons and helicopters and a UN official describing the situation as “critical”.
A nationwide uprising has convulsed the country since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly beaten into a coma by the Islamic Republic’s “morality police” after they arrested her for wearing a headscarf they deemed inappropriate.
Since then, hundreds of people have been killed in a bloody crackdown on a popular revolt calling for an end to the decades-long authoritarian rule of the country’s top clerics.
Government attacks on rallies escalated at the weekend in predominantly Kurdish areas of Iran, with videos showing scenes reminiscent of a war zone.
Hengaw, a Norway-based rights group that monitors abuses, posted footage on Monday of what it said were state forces traveling to the cities of Bukan and Mahabad. The armed convoy included pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.
In another video, people attempted to remove the lifeless body of a man who had fallen on the street as others ran for cover from the sound of gunfire. “The barrage’s intensity is so severe that people are unable to even move the victim’s body,” Hengaw said. “This is the Islamic Republic’s genocide against Kurdistan.”
On Tuesday, the rights group published footage it said was from the city of Javanrud in which armed men, believed to be security forces, shouted “God is great” as they fired assault rifles in deserted streets filled with debris and rubble. Another video showed helicopters flying over urban areas.
The Guardian is unable to confirm the authenticity of the videos due to reporting restrictions inside Iran. Hengaw also accused security forces of having “shelled” a vehicle carrying blood bags.
Facing one of the boldest challenges to its hardline rule since the 1979 revolution that overthrew the western-friendly Shah of Iran, Tehran has shut down internet access in many areas. It has repeatedly blamed foreign enemies and their agents for orchestrating the protests and accuses “terrorists” of killing several dozen security force members.
However, the UN office of the high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) said more than 300 people had been killed so far in Iran’s crackdown, including more than 40 children. These killings occurred across the country, with deaths reported in 25 of 31 provinces.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said on Tuesday that the rising number of deaths at protests in Iran, including those of two children at the weekend, “and the hardening of the response by security forces, underline the critical situation in the country”.
OHCHR spokesperson Jeremy Laurence said reports from mainly Kurdish cities were particularly distressing, with accounts of more than 40 people killed by security forces over the past week.
“Significant numbers of security forces have also been deployed in recent days,” he said.
“We urge the authorities to address people’s demands for equality, dignity and rights, instead of using unnecessary or disproportionate force to suppress the protests,” he added. “The lack of accountability for gross human rights violations in Iran remains persistent and is contributing to the growing grievances.”
Another Iranian rights group in exile, Iran Human Rights (IHR), said 72 people had died in the past week alone, including 56 in western Kurdish-populated areas.
Authorities have arrested thousands, with six people connected to the protests handed death sentences. In many cases, police refuse to release the bodies of those killed to their families, preventing them from holding a proper burial.
Later this week, the UN human rights council in Geneva will hold a debate on the protests. It is expected to be attended by diplomats as well as witnesses and victims.
Iran’s ayatollahs have never allowed space for anti-regime critics to voice their opinions and helped the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad quash a similar protest movement in his country a decade ago by using lethal forces on such a scale as to force an armed uprising.
The Iranian government claims that armed militants have fired on its forces, and on Tuesday, the semi-official Tasnim news agency said Iran’s revolutionary guards had targeted “separatist terrorists” in neighboring Iraq with missiles and drones.
Tehran accuses Iranian Kurdish groups of taking refuge in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan, but a recent uptick in its strikes threatens to turn its domestic unrest into an international crisis. “In today’s operation, the base of a separatist terrorist group near Kirkuk, known as the Free Kurdistan party, was targeted by missiles and kamikaze drones,” Tasnim said. A spokesperson for the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq, Lawk Ghafuri, confirmed the strikes.