Amnesty for the Islamic Republic?

Shervan Fashandi

Amnesty for the Islamic Republic?

Here is a thought experiment: Just imagine that you are a totalitarian regime that have chosen to, or have no choice but to, shoot and kill hundreds/thousands of your own citizens in the streets to suppress nationwide protests. How would you withstand the international outrage? One must admit that in this day and age, when most people carry smartphones, this would not be an easy task.

Internet Shut-down
The first thing that you would probably do is to shut off the Internet access, not just locally, but for the entire nation. And yes, it is technically possible to do so, especially in totalitarian regimes where the telecommunication infrastructure is mostly state-run or private but tightly-controlled by the state. Yet shutting off the Internet would be a solution limited in extent. The video footages of street shootings would eventually get out, sooner than you could imagine. All it takes is very a users with satellite or unblocked Internet connection to send a few gigabytes of sensitive videos to the “free world”. Or, some people may travel abroad and physically take the files with them. It would be no time before the facts and evidence leak out. Hence, you need additional layers of protection.

Free Press Embargo
If you were a crafty and forethoughtful oppressive regime (and all long-lasting totalitarian ones are by definition), you would be prepared for such massive massacres in advance, which would be banning independent foreign journalists from entering your country in the first place. You might, however, sparingly allow a handful of journalists from the international media to be based in your country as tokens of free press, but only after you thoroughly probe their background and ideology to ensure that they have sympathetic views and sentiments towards your regime. For instance, it was not a coincidence that most Western journalists who were allowed to visit and report on the Soviet Union were either communists, communist-sympathizers, or had at least some Left-leaning tendencies. If one of the handpicked vetted journalists dared to publish a report that would reflect negatively on your regime, you could expel them immediately or at least refuse to renew their visas. After a while, the other journalists would get the message to keep their mouths shut and the implicit tit-for-tat scheme would kick in.

Human Rights Business
But the aforementioned schemes may not be enough. Afterall, you need to cover up the massacre of hundreds/thousands of unarmed protesters who were shot in the streets in front of cameras in the 21st century. You need more protection, especially from those pesky human rights organizations in the West.

If you are a totalitarian anti-imperialist, anti-American, anti-West regime, then you are in luck. The good news is that most of the human rights activists lean to the Left already, and in their minds and social bubble, they collect more brownie points by (sometimes rightfully) criticizing the flaws in the Western society or the West’s diplomacy and foreign policy than by picking on the third-world totalitarian regimes. Heck, they are often so politically correct that they avoid the term “third-world” altogether; instead, they use more fashionable euphemisms such as “emerging markets”, even when certain markets have not “emerged” for decades and don’t seem likely to “emerge” anytime soon. And if you are a “brown” dictator, you are doubly lucky. Afterall, the last thing that a noble politically correct human rights activist would want is to be accused of racism or being “culturally insensitive”. With this mindset, under “normal” circumstances (normal according to the standards of totalitarian regimes), guilt-trapping them into not criticizing you too harshly and overlooking your violations of basic human rights is as easy as taking candy from a baby. But it won’t be as easy when you need to sweep a massacre under the rug.

Most human rights activists may lean Left but are honorable people; they are not likely to knowingly collude with you in covering up heinous crimes against your own people. Thus, you may need to infiltrate them with apologists for your regime/ideology and confuse them with disinformation. For instance, your apologists can downplay the magnitude of the bloodshed or understate the number of victims under the guise of objectivity and neutrality. It is not too hard to do so when the families of the victims are intimidated into silence and you have also banned most independent journalists from the land altogether. So nobody dares to speak up and there is nobody on the ground to report the facts.

Another tactic is to delay the spread of information to the extent possible. Why do such delay tactics matter? Because every journalist knows that the “shock factor” plays a huge role in how the news headlines are made. One can do a lot of “damage control” by controlling the way that the facts are leaked and covered by the media. For instance, “1000 dead in the street protests” is a catchy headline that gains the attention of millions. Whereas, declaring the death toll to be less than 100 initially, then gradually ramping it up by a few dozen each time, over the course of weeks/months, would ensure that the shock factor or element of surprise is lost. By the time that the reported death toll reaches 1000, the audience is desensitized to the bloodshed and it won’t make a catchy deadline; mission accomplished!
Circumstances Leading to Iran Protest Massacre
At midnight on November 15th, 2019, the Islamic Republic government announced that they would increase the price of fuels by 200% overnight [1]. The state-television in Iran claimed that such a sharp and sudden hike on fuel prices was necessary to fund the cash subsidies to approximately 60 million Iranians. However, the people of Iran, particularly the lower class, lower middle class, and the shrinking middle class had learned through experience that sharp increase in fuel prices would exacerbate the already rampant inflation problem. They never trusted the regime to pay the cash subsidies as promised or believed that the regime would pay the nominal amounts only after significant currency devaluation, rendering them meaningless. The nationwide protests erupted within a day in dozens of cities and towns, from the suburbs of the capital city of Tehran to small towns in border provinces [2]. The response from the regime was both swift and ruthless. They crushed the protests with an iron fist. They ordered their repressive forces - a deadly combination of the Police Special Units, IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps), and the Basij (IRGC-affiliated militia) - to shoot down the protesters in the streets point-blank. Testimonies by the families of the victims and coroner reports revealed that a disproportionate percentage of victims were shot in the head (as in the famous cases of Pouya Bakhtiari [3] and Nikta Esfandani [4]), suggesting that the bullets were not shot in defense; the snipers targeted the protesters with the intention to kill.
Iran Massacre Death Toll
For the first few days, there was no credible report on the number of victims or the level of violence, except for scattered video footage shared on the Internet from different cities and towns. The first credible report on the number of victims was published by Amnesty International (AI) on November 19th [5]. According to AI, the report was based on “verified video footage, eyewitness testimony from people on the ground and information gathered from human rights activists outside Iran” and claimed that “At least 106 protesters in 21 cities have been killed”. AI published an updated report in less than a week on November 25th, increasing its estimate of the death toll to “at least 143” [6]. Within a week, AI increased its estimate to “at least 208 killed” [7]. It is not clear what methodology was adopted by AI to estimate the death toll of Iran Protests victims. Did they count only the victims whom they could verify by name/picture/video or contact their families? Or did they use statistical methods for estimation? Either way, their estimate was way below that of the US State Department. On December 5th, Brian Hook, the US Special Representative on Iran, declared that the Islamic Republic “could have murdered over a thousand" citizens during Iran Protests [8]. Eventually on Dec 16th, AI published another report, declaring that “at least 304” Iranians were killed during the November 2019 protests [9], still fewer than the State Department’s tally by a factor of three. To this date, AI has not increased its estimation, even after a special report by Reuters [10] declared the death toll to be around 1500 and the US State Department confirmed it to be credible [11]. According to Reuters, “at least 17 teenagers and about 400 women” may have been killed in Iran in the latter half of November 2019.

The media and human rights organizations need to be aware of the inherent biases and limitations on reporting the atrocities committed by totalitarian regimes. In the absence of free Internet and the free media’s first-hand reports, “assuming the worst” may be the most prudent approach. Human rights activists provide an invaluable service to humankind by exposing the crimes of oppressive regimes. It is crucial and of utmost significance that human rights activists adopt a “first-responder mentality” in the face of an ongoing massacre as their swift response can save lives. Despite many positive efforts and noble intentions, Amnesty International failed the victims of Iran Protests and their families by being overly conservative in reporting the magnitude of the massacre that was committed by the Islamic Republic regime in November and December 2019.

[1] “Hikes in the cost of petrol are fuelling unrest in Iran”, The Economist, 17 November 2019

[2], Radio Farda, 15 November 2019

[3] “Killed In Karaj: Peace-Loving, Vegetarian Engineer A Face For Those Slain In Iranian Protests”, RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, 5 December 2019

[4] “The Killing Of Eighteen Adolescents In Iran Protests Confirmed”, Radio Farda English, 5 December 2019

[5] “Iran: More than 100 protesters believed to be killed as top officials give green light to crush protests”, Amnesty International, 19 November 2019

[6] “Iran: World must strongly condemn use of lethal force against protesters as death toll rises to 143”, Amnesty International, 25 November 2019

[7] “Iran: Death toll from bloody crackdown on protests rises to 208”, Amnesty International, 2 December 2019

[8] “U.S. says Iran "could have murdered over a thousand" citizens during protests”, CBS News, 5 December 2019

[9] “Iran: Thousands arbitrarily detained and at risk of torture in chilling post-protest crackdown”, Amnesty International, 16 December 2019

[10] “Special Report: Iran’s leader ordered crackdown on unrest - 'Do whatever it takes to end it'”, Reuters, 23 December 2019

[11] “US Confirms Report Citing Iran Officials as Saying 1,500 Killed in Protests”, VOA News, 23 December 2019