Rudaw: Erbil, Kurdistan Region — As Iranian security forces went about killing tens of protesters on November 16 2019, they were preparing for a more sinister move. The clerical establishment did not want news of the murders – around 100, including children – to leak out of the country – authorities had not forgotten the nationwide protests that erupted 2009 following the disputed presidential elections.
Their solution was an information blackout – shutting down different internet service providers and throwing the country into almost total darkness. It was under this cover that security services killed between 500 to 1,500 protesters over the next five days.
The objective was to hide the killing of protesters by Iranian security forces from the world, something that the Iranian authorities have denied and refused to acknowledge for over a year.
The extent of the information blackout has been revealed in “A Web of Impunity, the Killings Iran’s internet shutdown hid”, an investigation conducted by Amnesty International and The Hertie School in partnership with the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) project.
While the United Nation Human Rights Committee has called on states not to “block or hinder internet connectivity”, many countries, including Iran, are doing exactly that
“In Iran, as elsewhere, not only did the shutdown restrict access to information for people inside the country, it also stopped them from being able to share information with the rest of the world,” the report said. “Thus obstructing research into the human rights violations and crimes committed, the identities of the perpetrators and the victims, and the real number of deaths.”
Protests first broke out over the government’s decision to triple the price of fuel in a country already struggling under an economic crisis and US sanctions.
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman said at least 200,000 people joined protests in 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces, though other estimates put the number much higher.
The majority of the protesters were peaceful, but they were met with a “violent response,” said Rehman.
While Iranian access to the World Wide Web was shut down by the end of November 16, domestic systems were operational, allowing limited banking sector and government services to continue.
Meanwhile, a catastrophe was unfolding for human rights organisations both inside and outside Iran, who wanted to document the crackdown and the heinous crimes committed against protesters, shot in the streets by snipers.
The next time the IODA registered signs of recovery was on November 21, when hundreds were already dead and wounded, with many more arrested and tortured.
Terror had spread across the country during the five-day blackout.
“An unknown amount of evidence of crimes and serious human rights violations was lost as a result of the shutdown,” the report said.
“Witnesses told Amnesty International that they had deleted evidence of crimes from their mobile phones, fearing that Iranian security forces would arrest, detain and prosecute them if they found such content.”
Amnesty has been able to record and verify the deaths of 304 people killed by security forces, with more than 220 of these deaths occurring within 48 hours of the blackout beginning.
While no Iranian official has been held accountable in Iran for the deaths, a number of human rights organisations have established an International People’s Tribunal in London to investigate the atrocities.
London-based rights group Justice for Iran has established the Aban Tribunal in partnership with Iran Human Rights and the world coalition Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM), or Together Against the Death Penalty. It is set to deliver its findings in April 2021.
“The tribunal provides a mandate to a group of renowned international lawyers on behalf of the victims’ community and the public to investigate human rights violations by Iran during a wave of national protests in November 2019, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters,” read a statement from the tribunal.
After hearing evidence and deliberation, the panel will determine whether crimes under international law have been committed by Iranian state forces and paramilitaries during the protests.
Amnesty, meanwhile, has called on Iranian authorities to stop using internet shutdowns to violate human rights.
“Governments must never shut down the internet in the way seen during Iran’s November 2019 protests to plunge people into darkness, to conceal crimes and other serious human rights violations and to perpetuate impunity..victims, survivors, their families and society as a whole deserve truth and justice now.”