ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The United States has denounced as “appalling” reports that Iranian border guards tortured and drowned dozens of migrants from Afghanistan last week to prevent their entry into Iran.
“We encourage the Afghan authorities to undertake a full investigation and to seek to hold those perpetrators accountable,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday at a news conference.
Afghan officials and survivors say a group of about 60 men from their western Herat province was being smuggled into Iran before that country’s border guards detained and later forced all of them into the Harirud River this past Saturday.
The Kabul Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that Tehran has agreed to jointly investigate the incident to determine the “facts and identity of the perpetrators."
On Sunday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi in a statement refuted the charges, while expressing sympathy with the families of the victims.
“This incident has occurred on Afghan soil, and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Border Police has denied that any happening in relation to this has taken place on the soil of our country,” Iranian media quoted Mousavi as saying.
Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar, while condemning the incident as an “unforgivable crime,” told lawmakers Wednesday at least 16 bodes have been pulled from the river and 16 others have been rescued alive.
Local TOLO television channel quoted Atmar as saying that up to 20 victims were still missing, and he feared some of them might have been carried away by the river toward Turkmenistan.
Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan shared the Harirud River basin.
“They kept hitting us with pipes and saying, ‘Don’t come back to our country,’ and kept pushing us into the river,” one of the survivors told reporters.
Another said guards threw him on the ground and stomped on his head before tossing him into the river. He said he survived by clinging to a tree before being rescued.
Thousands of Afghans cross into Iran every week hoping to find work. They are mainly smuggled into Iran or hide in trucks.
Iran says fewer than 1 million Afghan refugees legally reside in the country, while the number of Afghan migrants, both legal and undocumented, stands at about 2.5 million.
U.N. officials say the coronavirus outbreak in Iran has prompted more than 150,000 Afghans, including deportees, to return home. Many of the returnees have tested positive for COVID-19.