WASHINGTON - One year after Iranians began anti -government protests that drew the deadliest crackdown by security forces in decades, families of some slain protesters have lost hope for justice from an Islamist theocracy that has offered them little but broken promises and threats.
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. 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 a series of interviews with Iran-based sources in late October, VOA Persian learned that families of five slain protesters have suffered similar kinds of disappointments in their pursuit of accountability for the killings of their loved ones. VOA cannot independently confirm the details of the families’ interactions with Iranian authorities as it is barred from reporting from inside Iran.
Pouya Bakhtiari, 27, became one of the highest-profile casualties of the protests after his killing on November 16, 2019 by a gunshot to the head in the northern city of Karaj. The incident drove his father Manouchehr to become an outspoken government critic whom authorities have arrested twice.
Pouya’s uncle and Manouchehr’s brother Mehrdad Bakhtiari told VOA that the prosecutor’s office in Karaj initially called the family and said it opened a case to find the young man’s killer. But he said authorities later asserted that those responsible for killing Pouya and other young protesters were antigovernment agents who came from outside Iran rather than its security forces.
“They have been lying for 41 years,” Mehdrad Bakhtiari said, referring to the length of time Shiite clerics have been leading Iran since seizing power in its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Four days after Mehdrad’s October 29 interview with VOA, his mother Zahra Bakhtiari appeared in a Twitter video, saying security forces had detained Mehdrad and taken him to an unknown location.
مادر بزرگ #پویا_بختیاری میگه:— شیما بابایی (@shimababaeii) November 2, 2020
پویای منو کشتن
منوچهرم رو چهارماهه بازداشت کردن
مهردادم رفته نون بخره برنگشته، تا صبح چشمم به در بود و گریه کردم.
مهردادم رو دزدیدن.
جمهوری اسلامی چه دشمنی با ما داری؟
این سوال همه ماست
-جمهوری اسلامی چه پدر کشتگی با مردم ایران داری؟#مهرداد_بختیاری pic.twitter.com/YuCJQbU8W9
In the clip posted on November 2 by an Iranian rights activist, Zahra lamented that Mehrdad’s detention a day earlier day came almost four months after her other son Manouchehr’s re-arrest on July 13. VOA tried to recontact Mehrdad after his mother’s announcement of his detention but could not reach him.
Another case examined by VOA is that of 15-year-old Mohammad Dastankhah, killed by a bullet to the heart on November 16, 2019 while he was returning home from school in the village of Shahrak-e Sadara near the south-central city of Shiraz.
His father Abdolreza Dastankhah told VOA that he had filed two lawsuits after his son’s killing, one against the alleged killer and the other against the school for not coordinating with parents on the day of the shooting as it sent students home while protests were engulfing the area.
Dastankhah said the lawsuits went nowhere and he heard from a judge that his only recourse was to ask for blood money.
Relatives of 34-year-old mother of three Ameneh Shahbazi, fatally shot in the neck in the Marlik district of Tehran province on November 17, 2019, have made similarly fruitless efforts to seek justice, according to a source close to the family.
The source told VOA that relatives had spent the past year pursuing the case of Shahbazi’s killing with various authorities including the provincial governor and prosecutor and the intelligence department of Malard district. Not only did the relatives receive no response, but they also were threatened with arrest, the source said.
“Early on, Shahbazi’s relatives were offered blood money and the status of a ‘martyr’s family’, but everything turned out to be a lie,” the source said.
VOA also spoke to family members of Nasser Rezaei, a 35-year-old car salesman killed by a bullet to his eye in the town of Fardis in Alborz province on November 17, 2019, and Arsham Ebrahimi, a 21-year-old man fatally shot in the back in the central city of Isfahan a day earlier.
The relatives said the two families decided not to pursue legal action because they believed the judiciary would shield those responsible for the killings from prosecution. The killings also left both families with enduring psychological trauma, they said.
Iranian authorities had repeatedly warned Nasser Rezaei’s family not to speak about his case with foreign media, his brother Mansour told VOA in open defiance of the purported warning.
Speaking separately to VOA, Arsham Ebrahimi’s uncle Behzad said the only consolations for the family have been a visit to their home by government officials who apologized for the killing and a government offer to deposit around $71,000 in blood money to the family’s bank account.
Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, speaking to VOA Persian from exile in London on October 30, said the perpetrators of Iran’s November 2019 killings should be exposed and prosecuted through international institutions. One institution she cited is the Geneva-based Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Global justice has taken on a broader meaning in the last ten years,” Ebadi said. “If a person commits a crime against humanity, he or she can be prosecuted in many countries, provided there is sufficient evidence.”
In a statement issued Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington will continue to promote accountability for Iran’s November 2019 crackdown, which he said killed “as many as 1,500 Iranians, including at least 23 children.”
In Iran’s only acknowledgement of the scale of the killings to date, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli told state television in May that the death toll was around 200.
International rights group Amnesty International has said it documented the killings of at least 304 people.
Pompeo said the Trump administration will announce “further actions against (Iran’s) agents of repression” later this week, in order to bring “a measure of justice” to the Iranian people.