Iran is facing renewed scrutiny for its deadly suppression of nationwide protests in 2019, as a London tribunal organized by rights groups began hearing testimony Wednesday from relatives of those killed and others regarding alleged crimes committed in the crackdown.
The event known as an international people’s tribunal opened in London’s Church House conference center. Its goal is to investigate alleged Iranian atrocities, including the alleged killing by security forces of hundreds of protesters and wounding of thousands more during the November 2019 protests.
A panel of human rights law and international relations experts from Britain, Indonesia, Libya, South Africa and the United States led the first day of the tribunal, scheduled to last until Sunday. The hearings are organized by three rights groups including London-based Justice for Iran, Oslo-based Iran Human Rights and Paris-based Together against the Death Penalty.
In a TV interview with VOA Persian from the venue, the tribunal’s co-counsel Hamid Sabi said the panelists will hear statements from about 160 witnesses vetted by him and fellow co-counsel Regina Paulose during the five-day event.
The counsels’ role is to gather evidence from the witnesses and provide it to tribunal panelists.
“We gave priority [to getting statements from] families whose loved ones were killed, wounded or imprisoned,” Sabi said. “We also prioritized testimony from eyewitnesses to the crackdown,” he added.
Iran’s government sparked the nationwide demonstrations on November 15, 2019, by ordering a 50% increase in the subsidized price of gasoline, further straining the finances of Iranians facing high unemployment and inflation in a shrinking economy under heavy U.S. sanctions. Rights activists have said Iranian security forces killed hundreds of people and arrested thousands more while crushing the mostly peaceful protests, in which some people also damaged public buildings and businesses.
In Iran’s only acknowledgement of the scale of the killings to date, then-Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told state television in May 2020 that the death toll was around 200.
Nahid Shirpisheh, whose 27-year-old son, Pouya Bakhtiari, was killed by a gunshot to the head while protesting in the northern city of Karaj, spoke to the panel by video from Iran. Shirpisheh said she and members of her family have been repeatedly intimidated and detained by Iranian authorities in retaliation for publicly campaigning for justice for Pouya. She said her ex-husband and Pouya’s father, Manouchehr Bakhtiari, is currently in prison for his activism.
Iranian rights activist Masih Alinejad, host of VOA Persian’s Tablet TV program, testified in person at the tribunal. She said she also heard from sources in Iran that authorities have been harassing relatives of slain protesters, including by making them bury their loved ones in remote places.
At the start of Monday’s hearing, the panelists said they had sent letters to 133 Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accusing them of grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity in suppressing the 2019 protests. The letters invited the officials to present evidence in their defense but no responses were received, the panelists said.
A VOA reporter in London visited the Iranian consulate in the city’s Kensington district Tuesday, seeking comment about the tribunal. The reporter identified himself as affiliated with VOA and asked for a comment after an Iranian consulate staffer opened the door. A male staff member would not respond and escorted the reporter out.
Holly Dagres, a London-based Iran analyst for the Atlantic Council, told VOA it was notable that Iranians provided live video testimony to the tribunal from inside Iran at the risk of angering the Iranian government.
“It demonstrates just how desperate the families of the victims are to have their voices heard, as they seek accountability and justice, that they are willing to risk their own safety, especially with the Islamic Republic actively trying to silence them,” she said.
Amnesty International, which is based in London, was to present its latest findings about Iran’s crackdown on the November 2019 protests to the tribunal Thursday. The group’s Middle East and North Africa director, Heba Morayef, said in a statement provided to VOA Wednesday that the tribunal is a crucial step toward ending impunity for the Iranian perpetrators of the alleged atrocities.
“Crucially, the tribunal must spur U.N. member states into action, both at the current session of the U.N. General Assembly and the next session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, to pave the way for the accountability that is so desperately needed,” Morayef said.
Jason Brodsky, policy director for U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, said in a VOA interview that the international community has not taken action on the issue because it is too focused on trying to revive restraints on Iran’s nuclear program under a 2015 deal between Tehran and world powers. The United States and Iran have said they are seeking a mutual return to compliance with the deal after Washington withdrew from it in 2018 under the administration of former President Donald Trump and Iran retaliated by openly violating constraints on its nuclear activities a year later.
“The international community spends most of its time chasing after Iranian diplomats on the nuclear deal, but it does not spend a lot of time on the stories that we heard today and that we’ll be hearing in the coming days. And that has to change,” Brodsky said, noting that Iran’s deputy foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani was scheduled to be in London on Thursday for talks with British officials.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has said it is willing to ease some U.S. sanctions on Iran in return for Tehran restoring full compliance with measures designed to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied seeking nuclear arms under cover of a civilian energy program.
Brodsky said U.S. offers to ease sanctions on Iran, whose leaders have been accused by the tribunal of committing crimes against humanity, send a “mixed and concerning message” about Biden’s pledge to also prioritize human rights in his foreign policy.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a VOA request for comment about whether the tribunal will influence the U.S. to tighten human rights-related sanctions on Iran.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Click here for the original Persian version of the story. Ramin Haghjoo reported from London. Some of the information for this story came from Reuters.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ali Bagheri Kani's name. VOA regrets the error.