Iran Human RightsPlight of Teenage Activists in Iran Is Worse Than...

Plight of Teenage Activists in Iran Is Worse Than Reported by Human Rights Groups

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On Thursday, Amnesty International issued a report on Iran’s ongoing protests, which indicated that at least 23 minors have been killed in the clerical regime’s crackdown on nationwide dissent. The report noted that this comprises 16 percent of the 144 fatalities the human rights organization has confirmed so far. But Amnesty also acknowledged that a lack of reliable access to information from Iran makes it all but certain that the real death toll, among both adults and children, is significantly higher.

Since the current uprising began roughly one month ago, Iranian authorities have made concerted efforts to limit civilian access to the internet and thus impede both organizing efforts and the dissemination of eyewitness accounts, photographs, and videos of the unrest and associated crackdowns. However, these efforts have been countered by dramatic increases in the use of virtual private networks and other technical workarounds for the government-imposed restrictions. Furthermore, information continues to be collected and shared by the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

The PMOI’s own reports on the present situation indicate that the death toll after one month of continuous unrest is approximately 400, more than twice the figures reported by Amnesty International and other human rights groups. The PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, noted that there are “dozens” of juveniles among the deceased. “Their pictures, with their innocent faces, circulate over social media, reflecting the pain the regime has inflicted on Iranians,” the coalition wrote on its website.

The NCRI also indicated that the death toll among minors had already reached double digits on September 30, a date remembered by growing numbers of Iranian citizens and activists as “Bloody Friday.” On that day, agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on a crowd of protesters in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, killing as many as 90. Authorities have publicly mischaracterized that incident as clashes between the IRGC and ethnic separatist groups, but videos and eyewitness accounts from the protests confirm that they were part of the same nationwide uprising as has now encompassed more than 170 cities and towns.

The mass shooting on Bloody Friday reflects a comparatively high death toll among the Baluch ethnic minority in other contexts. Amidst a spike in death sentences over the past year, that demographic has accounted for more than 20 percent of all executions despite being no more than five percent of the national population. At the same time, the apparently deliberate killing of juveniles in Zahedan is consistent with the Iranian regime’s status as one of the last countries on Earth to routinely carry out death sentences for persons under the age of 18, in direct defiance of international law.

The comparatively high proportion of deaths among juveniles on Bloody Friday is also indicative of the prominent youth presence in the current protests more generally. This feature has become especially apparent in the first two weeks of October, following the start of the Iranian school year. That milestone saw the expansion of preexisting uprising not only to all 45 major Iranian universities but also to girls’ high schools, where young women have recorded themselves removing their mandatory head coverings, defacing, or denouncing the images of the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that are on display in all classrooms, and even chanting the uprising’s slogans to drive away government officials and militants who had been dispatched to counter their activism.

However, it has been reported more recently that the authorities have taken stronger actions to silence student dissent, such as by dispatching security forces to raid schools. This would be alarming under any circumstances but is made more so by the fact that so many teenagers have already been killed by those same security forces, some of them in raids on private homes.

The NCRI highlighted the case of Nima Shafaghdoust, a 16-year-old boy who was wounded during protests in Urmia but escaped to his home, only to be attacked there by security forces and taken away to an undisclosed location where he died. His disappearance for several days was reminiscent of the cases of two 16-year-old girls whose names and faces have become galvanizing symbols of the regime’s abuses, alongside those of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose death at the hands of Tehran’s “morality police” sparked the uprising around the time of her funeral on September 17.

Images of Amini, Nika Shakarami, and Sarina Esmailzadeh all appeared on screen when a state media broadcast was interrupted by activists earlier in October to appeal for even greater participation in the nationwide protests. Shakarami and Esmailzadeh each informed loved ones that they were being chased by security forces before disappearing, and turned up dead days later.

Authorities have claimed that both deaths were caused by either accidental falls or suicide, and they have pressured both girls’ families to corroborate their stories, even in cases where they have already directly attributed the deaths to targeted blows to the girls’ heads, almost certainly delivered by security forces. In the case of Shakarami, authorities even reclaimed control over her body after returning it to the family to bury it secretly in hopes of avoiding public expressions of outrage at her funeral, as had occurred with Mahsa Amini.

Tehran presumably hopes to limit international awareness of such killings, but the international community has appeared more invested in the current uprising than others. Nevertheless, groups like the NCRI have still expressed frustration with a lack of concrete support or public statements affirming the rights of Iranians to revolt against the regime responsible for such abuses. “Anything less,” the coalition wrote, “would only enable the regime to continue with its killing spree of innocent people, and more importantly, children, who are yearning to change their future.”

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