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UN fact-finding mission on deadly Iran protest crackdown met with silence by Tehran

Iran's flag (Dreamstime/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

When the United Nations established a fact-finding mission on Iran in November, the intention was to investigate alleged human rights violations related to the country’s deadly crackdown against ongoing nationwide protests.

But as the anniversary of the beginning of those protests approaches, and the estimated number of protester deaths related to the crackdown exceeds 500, the mission is still struggling to get information from the Iranian authorities.

Shaheen Sardar Ali, a prominent British-Pakistani law professor who is one of three members of the fact-finding mission, spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda this week about the problems the team continues to encounter and explains how the failure to provide information works to Tehran’s detriment.

Ali described the mission’s exhaustive efforts to uncover and verify cases of abuse, including arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances as well as torture and other ill-treatment.

She also explained the laborious and often futile process of appealing to the Iranian government to provide information about specific cases regarding Iran’s crackdown against the protests, which broke out following Masha Amini’s death in police custody on September 16, 2022.

“We have received masses of information from a variety of sources, both within the country and from outside the country, about a range of allegations of human rights violations,” Ali explained.

“Primarily, we are looking and investigating the death in custody of Jina Mahsa Amini,” she added. “We know that really sparked and gave impetus to the protests last year. And we are conducting a very, very in-depth investigation into the death with a view to understand who [was responsible], and to try and hold someone accountable.”

Ali also said that the mission is working to look into claims of repression and the state’s use of excessive and lethal force against protesters.

This includes, she said, force that resulted not only in deaths and injuries to protesters but to bystanders and passersby “who just happened to be in the area when the protests were happening, including women and children.”

In July, in its most recent official statement on its investigations, the fact-finding mission called on Iran to “end its continuing crackdown on peaceful protesters and halt the wave of executions, mass arrests, and detentions” since the death of Amini, who died just days after her arrest by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s controversial hijab law.

The mission also highlighted several concerns, including the deterioration of the human rights of those involved in the protests, particularly the rights of women and girls.

Women and girls, often showing their solidarity with Amini and anger at Iran’s clerical leaders by removing their hijabs, played a prominent role in the nationwide protests.

The mission also decried that 22,000 people had been pardoned in connection with the protests — a number that Ali said can be read to mean that 22,000 people were arrested — and “were reportedly compelled to ‘express remorse’ for participating in the protests and to pledge not to commit ‘similar crimes’ in the future, in violation of their human rights.”

At the time, no official data had been made publicly available regarding those “arrested, detained, charged, or convicted in connection with the protests,” and arrests and detentions were continuing.

Ali said that since that time, the Iranian government has not responded to meticulously detailed letters requesting information on specific cases.

“The main concern that we have is that we are not being given access by the government of Iran, despite 14 letters,” Ali said, emphasizing that the letters are not just “a few lines” and are critical “to get the viewpoint of the government.”

Amini’s case was the topic of one of the letters. The mission also wrote requesting information about Javad Ruhi, a protester who died under suspicious circumstances in prison last month.

Other letters sought information about the imprisonment of two journalists who covered the protests, and an uncle of Amini’s who has repeatedly been taken into custody and questioned.

“It is unfortunate that the government of Iran does not want to share that information with us,” Ali said.

If it were more forthcoming, she added, “this would be a more holistic investigation.”

She also said that by not cooperating, the Iranian government is harming its ability to weigh in on its own claims of attacks made by protesters against security forces.

“And if the government has anything to offer to us to counter the rest of the information that we have received, this then would be a lost opportunity,” she said.

Nevertheless, Ali said, the investigation is continuing at “full throttle,” including the use of secure avenues of communication to collect sources’ testimonies and “triangulating” all information to ensure its veracity.

“The challenge for us is to sift [through] it, to evaluate it, and to assess it,” she said.

Referring to the mission’s deadline to deliver its final report to the UN Human Rights Council in March, she said the goal is to complete a “credible, professional, and sound” assessment of what has taken place in Iran over the past year.