CHRI – Iranian security forces used what appeared to be live ammunition and tear gas to repress protests in Tehran on January 12, 2019, over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) “unintentional” downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane, according to video footage sent to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) and later verified by the AP.
Protesters mainly in the capital and at least one other city (Amol in Mazandaran Province) who chanted slogans against the IRGC and called for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to relinquish power faced a heavy security presence, according to eyewitnesses.
The protests began a day earlier on January 11 at Amir Kabir and Sharif universities in Tehran to honor the memory of the 176 people—mostly Iranians and Iranian Canadians—who were killed after the IRGC accidentally shot down flight PS752.
“The only way out of our current crisis is a return to popular politics,” said a statement published by the Amir Kabir (Polytechnic) University students that first appeared on the Telegram messaging app that was translated by Naveed Mansoori, Golnar Nikpour, and Arash Davari.
“A politics that neither clings to the coattails of (imperial) arrogance [istikbar] from fear of oppression, nor legitimizes tyranny in the name of anti-imperialism and resistance,” said the students. “Indeed, the only way out of our current predicament is the simultaneous rejection of both domestic despotism and imperial arrogance.”
Students Tear-Gassed, Threatened with Arrest
A student activist in Tehran who asked not to be named for security reasons told CHRI that at the end of the day on January 11, several student activists who had participated in the protests were threatened with arrest, and in some cases, death.
“At the end of gatherings on Saturday night [January 11], all the activists received threatening phone calls,” said the activist. “The callers didn’t say where they were calling from and their phone numbers did not show up. They warned us not to participate in any protests.”
“They called one of the students who had been hospitalized for inhaling tear gas and told him that he was never going to leave the hospital bed,” added the activist. “They called the wife of another activist and warned her that they would soon summon her husband.”
“They were making a lot of threats that they were going to make arrests and turn our lives into hell,” the activist said. “In some cases, they even made death threats.”
Live Ammunition and Internet Disruptions
Despite a security presence at the protests in Tehran on January 11, protests resumed in Tehran the next day.
“The streets were full of security forces; they were everywhere,” an eyewitness told CHRI on January 12 on condition of anonymity to protect their security. “There were riot police and special forces’ vehicles in front of the University of Tehran. There were water cannons in Revolution Sq. while Ferdowsi Sq. was packed with special motorcycle units. There were significantly more plainclothes security agents on the streets, and they wouldn’t let anyone hang around.”
“We walked toward Azadi Sq. where we had planned to gather. But on the way, motorized units were maneuvering near Dr. Gharib St. brandishing guns with long barrels to scare off the people,” the activist added. “Sometimes they would stop people and confiscate their identity cards. At every crossing they would insult people and viciously confront them.”
Another eyewitness told CHRI: “There was a clash on Shademan Crossing. They attacked people in groups and beat them with batons to disperse them. People would escape into side streets and then come back.”
The activist continued: “We were going toward Azadi Sq. but the road was completely blocked in front of Sharif University. I couldn’t guess how many people or security forces were there. Every time people came together the security forces would attack. There was a lot of tear gas being used and people were being struck with batons but weren’t dispersing. They would run and come back again.”
Video clips sent to CHRI and later verified by the AP appeared to show blood on the pavement in Azadi St. at Ostad Moin crossing later that evening and two wounded people.
An eyewitness who said he saw one of his friends being shot by security forces told CHRI: “At the clinic they told him he had been shot with a pellet, but the wound was too deep, and he had to go to a hospital.”
Tehran police chief Hossein Rahimi said on January 13 that his forces “absolutely did not shoot” at protests because they had been “given orders to show restraint” while the state-funded Fars News Agency reported that police “shot tear gas in some areas.”
“Most of the protesters were young people,” a journalist on the ground who requested anonymity told CHRI.
Several sources in Tehran told CHRI that they were experiencing internet disruptions and outages in parts of Tehran on January 12 and that they could not use their phones for several hours.
The Iranian government blocked access to the global internet for one week in November 2019 after protests broke out in dozens of cities. At least 304 were killed between November and December of that year according to Amnesty International (other sources report significantly higher numbers) as state forces worked to repress those protests.
As protests were ongoing in Tehran in January, authorities temporarily closed the underground metro station at Azadi Sq. with people trapped inside.
Sources on the ground told CHRI that people on public buses near protest hotspots in the capital chanted slogans at security forces on the street.
“After successive national traumas in a short time period, people should be allowed to safely grieve and demand accountability,” said CHRI Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi in a press release. “Iranians shouldn’t have to risk their lives to exercise their constitutional right to peaceful assembly.”