In the ongoing nationwide protests in Iran, the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan, home to a Sunni Baluch minority, has become a major thorn on the side of the Islamic Republic regime. The protesters have not retreated after a horrifying massacre in the provincial capital of Zahedan on September 30 in which dozens of people were killed. Amid intense pressure by the security forces, most prominent Sunni clerics in the province have stood by the protesters and denounced the atrocities committed by the government. In this report we look at the developments in Sistan and Baluchestan and the changing tactics of the government aimed at silencing critics and suppressing the protesters.
Zahedan’s Bloody Friday: Crimes against Humanity
The protests that started with the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police swiftly spread across Iran, including Sistan and Baluchestan, where the demonstrations reached their peak when the news broke that the police commander in the city of Chabahar had raped a 15-year-old girl.
The widespread protests in Zahedan after Friday prayers on September 30 were met with indiscriminate shooting by the security forces that left more than 100 people dead, surpassing any other massacre during the ongoing wave of protests. An examination of the dead showed that most of the victims were shot in the head and chest, indicating that the security agents were shooting to kill.
Article 7 of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court defines “crimes against humanity” as acts “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.” Based on this definition, the Zahedan massacre meets such specifications.
Pictures of the victims quickly became symbols of the protests and their stories, especially those of the many children who were killed or wounded, outraged the international community. Instead of putting down the protest movement, the massacre fanned its flames.
The 40th day since Zahedan’s so-called Bloody Friday witnessed some of the most widespread protests and strikes across the country and, to this day, residents of various cities in Sistan and Baluchestan take to the streets to protest after Friday prayers.
Immediately after the tragedy, the government as usual blamed “terrorist and secessionist groups” and conceal the extent of the tragedy.
On September 30, exactly the same day as the massacre, provincial Governor Hossein Modarres Khiabani claimed that “some rioters belonging to terrorist and separatist groups, and whose identities are known, attacked a police station in the guise of Friday prayers and threw stones and flammable materials and opened fire in order to seize the police station, and in the course of the shooting by these individuals people were shot as well.”
Khiabani put the death toll at 19 and said that police officers were among those killed. On September 24, the newspaper Hamshahri quoted the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) as reporting that 27 people had been killed during the nationwide protests and, of course, claimed that this number included some members of security forces.
Meanwhile, local human rights organizations published information and figures that were closer to the truth. According to them, the number of those killed in Zahedan was at least five times the death toll given by the governor. In his Friday sermon on October 7, a week after the massacre, Molavi Abdolhamid, Zahedan’s Friday Imam, told a story that was conspicuously different from what the governor had claimed.
From “Terrorist Attack” to “Sad Event”
Molavi Abdolhamid announced that police opened fire on members of the congregation who were leaving the mosque’s prayer hall, calling it a “crime.”
On October 27, around a month later and after weeks of widespread protests and speeches by Molavi Abdolhamid who unequivocally denied any role by “terrorist and separatist groups,” the provincial Security Council issued a statement that was very different from the governor’s claims. The statement referred to the Bloody Friday as a “sad event.” It made no mention of “terrorists” or “secessionists” at all. Instead, it tried to put the main blame on unidentified “armed individuals,” while also slightly blaming negligence by the head of the local police station and Zahedan’s police commander.
The statement said the “innocent victims and their families” would be compensated and that a legal investigation has been opened into the tragedy that may lead to further measures against those who provoked the violence, rioters and any officials suspected of wrongdoing. Following this statement, the two police officials were sacked.
But these cosmetic measures could not hide the horrifying scale of the massacre and it appears that the public opinion, including supporters of the regime, never believed the storyline about the “terrorist attack.” More importantly, the government repression was much more brutal in the border provinces of Iran that are home to religious and ethnic minorities. The number of those killed in Kurdish areas — more than 140 — published by the Kurdistan Human Rights Network on November 25 confirms this point.
As protests continued, the government became aware of its miscalculation regarding protests in Zahedan. Amid calls to protest in solidarity with the bereaved people of Sistan and Baluchestan 40 days after the massacre, the government tried to mollify the people by dismissing provincial police commander General Mohammad Ghanbari. However, government officials and media outlets affiliated with the regime continued their attacks on Molavi Abdolhamid, implicitly threatening him with assassination.
It took 40 days for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to send a representative to Sistan and Baluchestan, supposedly to placate the local populations but in fact to threaten and intimidate the province’s influential Sunni clergymen and other figures.
Threats instead of Mollifying
Mohammad Javad Haj Ali Akbari, the Supreme Leader’s representative and the chairman of the Friday Imams’ Policymaking Council, arrived in Zahedan to try to get the support of the Sunni clergy for the government and Khamenei and to close the case of the Zahedan massacre by promising to pay blood money for the victims and to put them on the list of the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs.
He scheduled a meeting with the province’s Sunni clergymen at the office of the representative of the supreme leader, perhaps hoping that the media outlets allied with the government would report it under a headline such as “Sunni clerics of the province visit Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative.” But the clergymen did not accept this invitation and instead demanded a meeting at Makki Grand Mosque, a Sunni place of worship.
This time it was Haj Ali Akbari who did not accept the invitation, showing that his visit was not aimed at bringing peace. What gives credence to this assumption is his threatening tone in the meeting with Zahedan’s clergy at a third location. In response to Molavi who had said that the extent of the massacre showed discrimination against the people of Sistan and Baluchestan and especially the Sunnis, Khamenei’s envoy said: “Saying these things are dangerous and you must not repeat them.”
Later, in a speech in the city of Zabol, he issued a threat, saying, "In the recent incidents in the province, those who threw water into the enemy's mill by tweeting and making inappropriate and provocative speeches should be held accountable."
In an interview with Khamenei’s official website, he later denied that he had been responding to Molavi Abdolhamid and other influential figures in the province. But a look at the past treatment of the Sunni clergy by the government clearly shows that threats and libels, arrests and torture, forced confessions and assassination of Sunni clerics have been a constant feature of the Islamic Republic’s treatment of critics in Sistan and Baluchestan.
Arrests, Torture, Forced Confessions and Assassinations
On September 26, Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naghshbandi, the interim Friday Imam of Rask and an influential clergyman in the province, confirmed the rape of a 15-year-old girl by the commander of the police in Chabahar.
A day later, security forces forced Molavi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi, Molavi Abdul Ghaffar’s father, to issue a statement rejecting his son’s statement and announcing that only the judiciary has the right to confirm or reject charges.
This was not the first time that security forces had pressured these two Baluchi Sunni clergymen to extract forced confessions from them. On April 8, 2012, Molavi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi was arrested and charged with masterminding the assassination of Mostafa Jangizehi, a clergyman close to the government. Around a month later, on May 14, 2012, Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naghshbandi was arrested when he returned to Rask from Zahedan, where he sought information about his father who was in prison at the time.
State TV later broadcast forced confessions by Abdul Ghaffar Naghshbandi in which he accused his father of having connections with extremist Sunni Muslims, receiving money from Persian Gulf Arab countries and being involved in the assassination of Mostafa Jangizehi.
Zahedan’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Molavi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi to 15 years in prison and to exile in the northwestern province of Ardebil for his alleged role in the killing. Two other defendants were sentenced to death.
In May 2015, after spending 1,130 days in detention, Molavi Fathi Mohammad Naghshbandi was released from prison. In January of that year, the Iranian Supreme Court had revoked the sentences issued against him and five other Sunni prisoners after admitting that there was “insufficient evidence” to uphold their convictions. Molavi Abdul Ghaffar was also released in the early autumn of that year.
In late 2015, the Baloch Activists Campaign published a leaked document that revealed part of the tortures that Molavi Abdul Ghaffar had been subjected to in order to extract forced confessions. This document, the minutes of the proceedings at Zahedan Revolutionary Court on May 16, 2012, two days after he was arrested, shows that he had received 480 “special electrical” lashes on that day. The document was signed by the guard officer of the day, his deputy, the person administering the verdict and “anonymous soldiers,” in reference to agents of the Intelligence Ministry.
The document states that the verdict was handed down against Abdul Ghaffar Naghshbandi because of his “role played in the assassination of Marty Jangizehi.” This verdict was issued only two days after his arrest without holding a trial to prove his guilt.
This document clearly illustrates how security forces use the judiciary to give a legal façade to torture and forced confessions.
It now appears that the security agencies once again plan to use similar methods to silence influential figures in Sistan and Baluchestan.
The verbal summons of Molavi Abdul Ghaffar to the Special Clergy Court and pressures on his family by security agencies, coinciding with the suspicious murder of Molavi Abdolvahed Rigi, another cleric close to the government, shows that the same scenario is unfolding -- a scenario that includes torture, forced confessions, assassinations and sowing divisions within the Baluchi ethnic minority by murdering influential figures.
In the past 40 years, the Islamic Republic has been using such methods to suppress the people of Sistan and Baluchistan and to silence critics in this province.
The suspicious death of Dr. Omran Dehvari and the assassinations of Molavi Habibollah Hossein, a cleric from Saravan, Molavi Abdolmalek Mollazadeh, Molavi Abdol Nasser Jamshidzehi and Molavi Mohammad Ebrahim Safizadeh are part of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to systematically wipe out prominent Sunni figures in Sistan and Baluchistan.
News of meetings hosted by Khamenei and other senior officials show that they have been terrified by the intensity of the protests in Sistan and Baluchestan, the full support of the province’s clerics and the strong solidarity between protesters across Iran with those in this province.
Information leaked from classified bulletins and audio recordings show that the government has failed to portray protesters in the province as “anti-Iranians” and that its efforts to do so have actually strengthened solidarity among the protesters across the country.
Khamenei’s order to “discredit Molavi Abdolhamid,” his favorite policy to silence and marginalize undesirable influential clerics, has backfired. Now it seems that the regime is falling back on an older scenario, the one that we described above, so that it can perhaps silence the voice of independent clerics and political figures in Sistan and Baluchestan.