Many of the Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary Basij recruits who suppressed Iran’s November 2019 protests were either forced or bribed into joining, a witness has told the Aban Tribunal.
Witness 458, who spoke with his face disguised and voice changed, is a member of the Imam Ali Battalion: an arm of the Basij trained under the supervision of provincial IRGC commanders with the primary mission of neutralizing popular protests. He told the panel in London he was “an ordinary citizen living my own life” until earlier in 2019, when he got a call from the Basij.
“I was told that since I was a trusted individual in the area, I was invited to join,” he said. “I respectfully told them I couldn’t, and they said if I didn't I would pay a heavy price. I went back home and a few days later, something terrible happened to me, which affected my life. I was called again and they told me, ‘If you’d accepted, this wouldn’t have happened to you.’”
When he began attending the sporadic training sessions, Witness 458 said he realized others had gone through the same; they had been sacked from their jobs, or faced legal problems, or their families had been threatened with harm. “These weren’t empty threats; they implemented them. They had found an excuse to hold me and others hostage. They said ‘You can cooperate to save yourself from your problems.’”
Other new Basijis, he said, were dangerous criminals: violent convicts and taxi drivers who had raped their female passengers, turned “thugs” for the regime. Still more were poor citizens who showed up in slippers, unable to afford their own shoes. “They were promised a sandwich, or warm clothes,” he said. “Sometimes they’d give them a ticket to the swimming pool or a football match.”
The Imam Ali Battalion was trained in “riot management” techniques that included dodging blows and burning tyres. The criminals, Witness 458 said, set about their tasks with relish where others were reluctant. “We were learning how to carry out partisan wars on the streets.”
“Shoot Anyone You Want”
On Saturday, November 16, Witness 458 said, he and others were summoned to the IRGC base. Among the Basijis were young people he identified as being “primary or secondary school age”: either under 11, or under 14, years old.
“They didn’t give us any explanation,” he told the panel. “They’d turned the internet off. They wouldn’t let us call home. They had their own SIM cards that they called ‘VIP’ SIM cards. It was like they’d prepared in advance.”
In cars on the way to the city square, he said, some officers were taking off their military gear and switching into civilian clothes. They were tasked with identifying the protest “leaders” in the crowds and killing or injuring them, then – under the guise of concerned fellow citizens trying to help them – arrange for them to be taken away.
“The moment we got there,” he said, “the [police] special unit left us. We were abandoned. The IRGC and Basij were firing bullets and tear gas at people; the tear gas was against the wind, so it came to us instead. We were stuck. We stood behind the IRGC to be able to breathe a bit.”
Some of the security forces had Colt handguns, he said, and others Kalashnikovs. He was also told that some of the vehicles in the square belonged to the Basij, who were covertly identifying people while pretending to be commercial van or taxi drivers. He also said he saw officials belonging to the seminary with Colts: “Seminarians, with real guns.”
Injured protesters were loaded, 14 or 15 at a time, into Nissan cars and taken to Basij bases where they were stripped of their belongings and viciously beaten. “I witnessed with my eyes five or six people dying because of the amount of blood they’d lost,” the witness said. “If they had received medical treatment, they would have survived.”
A veteran member of the Basij, Witness 458 said, urged the younger ones to go and face the protesters, but they scattered because the protesters were throwing stones. Then, he said, “the IRGC commander arrived. He said, ‘We received an order from above to put an end to this in any way possible. You can shoot anyone you want, and you can shoot above the hip as well.”
IRGC Prepared for Societal Breakdown
Long-serving and “extremist” Basijis, Witness 458 said, claimed to be justified in opening fire on and beating up the detained protesters. “They weren’t acting based on reason. We were told ‘It’s halal. It’s a fatwa. You can kill anyone who insults the Supreme Leader, he’s an infidel.”
In line with a large number of testimonies heard at the Aban Tribunal, the Basij member also said it was security forces, not civilians as Iranian officials later alleged, who had torched public property in November 2019 in a bid to make the protests look like “riots”.
He asked a colleague why they were breaking into one of the banks in order to set fire to it, when this could be achieved from the outside, and was reportedly told: “So we can make sure the whole thing is on fire”. He added: “They took away the CCTV cameras and smashed them. They knew exactly what they were doing.
“I followed the forces again to a petrol station and they set that on fire too. I again asked why. They said ‘So we can blame it on the protesters. When we set the petrol stations on fire, people won’t be able to use their cars. That’s good because we’ll have better control. And don’t worry, the in the IRGC we have our own petrol stations. We have our VIP SIM cards so we’ll have no problems. And if there’s a curfew, we’ll have whatever we want.’”
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