In Ahwaz, ‘Shoot to Kill’ is the norm for Iran’s Thuggish Forces
by Rahim Hamid
No alcohol was found in the vehicle, and the stated reason for stopping him was pretextual.
In the span of a few days between the end of January and the start of February 2021, Iranian regime Basiji (plainclothes militias) killed four young Ahwazi men on motorcycles, all unarmed, all shot dead at close range. The first to be murdered was 25-year-old Mohammed Zarqani, who was shot in the head at close range while riding his motorbike in Al-Zarqan neighbourhood of Ahwaz City, the regional capital.
According to local people, Mohammed was returning from grocery shopping, with three bags containing okra, cucumber and other vegetables. As always, there was no punishment for the murder, with the Basiji, like Iran’s other forces, enjoying total impunity.
In January, the Basiji and other regime forces shot and killed three more young motorcyclists, named as Nabi Helfi, Sayed Rasoul Hosseini and Ebrahim Hazbawi, in Howeizeh and Falahiyeh under equally flimsy pretexts and justifications.
The regime’s deliberate impoverishment of the predominantly Arab Ahwaz region in the south and southwest Iran leaves most young Ahwazis wanting to drive and have some independence with few transport choices apart from motorcycles and scooters.
Young men especially are aware that police are likely to target them using any excuse and often to confiscate their bikes, which are essential to their everyday lives, both for work and recreation, resulting in demands for ‘fines’ or simply massive bribes to return it – money that Ahwazis simply don’t have. As a result, when they run into one of the regime’s many impromptu checkpoints or see police approaching them, they often automatically try to flee; police react to this by chasing them and savagely beating them before arrest if caught, more especially if they don’t have the bribe money demanded, or often simply opening fire, either wounding or killing them. Excuses for this wildly disproportionate violence include the charge that the motorbike didn’t have a number plate.
There is no punishment for these attacks on young Ahwazis, whose only ‘crime’ is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; indeed, the most vicious police and Basiji members are often promoted for their murderous brutality in the name of rewarding their diligence in the performance of their duties.
Such killings are a common occurrence; on 26 January of this year, two young men, Sayed Rasoul Hosseini and Ebrahim Hazbawi, from the town of Falahiyeh, were shot as they fled from a police checkpoint in the city, known as Shadegan in Farsi; as a result, Rasoul’s bike, which they were on, crashed into a wall, killing both youths instantly.
Similarly, Nabi Helfi, a 30-year-old shepherd from the city of Khafajiyeh (Susangered in Farsi) at the Iranian-Iraqi border, was shot dead by Iranian regime forces on 29 January of this year while on his way to negotiate a livestock sale.
With the brutality of this nature towards Ahwazis being standard policy for Iran’s regime, Basiji, troops, police and other state security personnel have carte blanche to shoot on sight; indeed, the regime’s promotion of the most brutal officers encourages such violence as a grotesque show of their loyalty to the regime. Ahwazis have no hope for turning to the law for punishment of their loved ones’ killers – when the killers are the ones administering the law for a legal system which automatically criminalises Ahwazis, and are more likely to take revenge on those complaining than to investigate their own crimes, such legal remedies no longer apply.
After decades of living under Tehran’s brutal occupation, Ahwazis know that Iran’s regime doesn’t operate according to internationally accepted norms, and views international law with contempt as so much irrelevant verbiage. In such a system, security personnel have carte blanche, most especially against Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities who the leadership in Tehran treats with openly racist contempt, with this attitude permeating all levels of the regime.
This totalitarian system unsurprisingly attracts psychopaths who take pleasure in abusing their power to further oppress and humiliate the powerless and subjugated, over whom they appoint themselves as judge and jury. In a system where brutality is awarded rather than penalised, regime personnel use any opportunity to persecute their targets, fabricating pretexts to demean and persecute Ahwazis at every turn as they go about their daily lives.
Almost every Ahwazi has experience of being stopped and searched in the street or at the checkpoints which the regime erects everywhere, being subjected to a barrage of verbal and physical abuse during these operations, with anti-Arab racism permeating all such attacks. Any attempt to avoid these encounters is viewed as sufficient cause for the regime personnel to open fire.
Arrest, followed by torture and conviction on the most ludicrous pretexts, is an everyday event, with Ahwazis, more especially political dissidents, activists or anyone protesting against this grotesquely unjust, profoundly racist system, routinely sentenced to decades of imprisonment or to death on vague charges such as ‘enmity to God’ on the basis of ‘confessions’ extracted under torture following five-minute trials in the regime’s ‘revolutionary courts’ during which they have no access to lawyers. Sometimes, the international community and human rights groups will protest against the death penalty sentences upheld against Ahwazis, with these complaints occasionally delaying the execution and shedding light on the massively disproportionate rate of regime executions of Ahwazi political prisoners.
These are rare events, however, with the international community usually ‘diplomatically’ looking away from the regime’s daily abuses and extrajudicial killings of Ahwazi civilians, effectively green-lighting the regime’s abuses; this carte blanche further emboldens the regime security forces, who know that there will be no punishment for their murderous sadism, with the numbers of ‘shoot-to-kill’ murders of Ahwazi civilians rising dramatically in recent years.
DUSC spoke with Zahor Sari, aged 40, a grieving mother whose three-year-old daughter, Raghad was shot dead by police as she sat in her baby seat in the back seat of the family’s car when police opened fire indiscriminately on the vehicle after Zahor’s husband, Abbas Sari, drove through a regime checkpoint on 24 October 2017. Raghad, who was hit in the head and heart, died almost instantly, with her distraught parents in the front of the vehicle unable to help her. Abbas Sari was permanently disabled in the horrific attack after being hit in the spine by a bullet which left him paraplegic.
Adding insult to grotesque injury, Abbas Sari was subsequently arrested on fabricated charges. The officers responsible for killing three-year-old Raghad Sari gave no justification for the child’s murder or for leaving Abbas Sari disabled for life other than that the family’s car had passed a police checkpoint without stopping.
“Raghad was only three years old,” said Zohar. “They didn’t just kill her, they killed her father and me. They never let our lawsuit reach anywhere, and they defended the security forces who shot at us only because we passed through a checkpoint.”
Slamming the regime for its demonisation of Ahwazis and its efforts to depict the indigenous Arab people of the region as unwelcome immigrants, she said, “We are among hundreds of victims targeted by Iranian polices forces who dismiss Ahwazis as ‘dangerous and unwanted interlopers’, making Ahwazis seem like pariahs, murdering them with impunity. This is in addition to painting a picture of the Ahwazis as terrorists who are supposedly criminals.”
To show that the shoot to kill policy is systematic and carried out with sheer immunity as if an open season for murdering Ahwazis, DUSC has documented some of the available cases of related deaths that took place between 2017 and 2020.
On 8 July 2020, police shot Omid Eidani a 17-year-old Ahwaz boy in Amidiyeh (Omidiyeh in Farsi), south-east of the regional capital of Ahwaz, after attempting to forcibly confiscate his motorcycle, his only possession, in an apparent attempt to humiliate him.
When local people witnessed the officers brutally assaulting the boy for no apparent reason, they rushed to his aid and protected him from the attack, helping him to escape and being beaten themselves in the process. The teenager immediately returned to his family’s home in the impoverished Yaser neighbourhood of the city, most of whose Ahwazi residents live in desperate poverty, despite its location in an oil and gas hub whose resources account for over 95% of the mineral resources claimed by the Iranian regime.
Local Ahwazi activists reported that, after brutally dispersing the crowd who had helped him flee, that police pursued him, trying to break down the door of his parents’ home and insisting they would confiscate his motorcycle. His family reported that Omid, fearing his beloved motorbike would be taken from him, rushed to the roof of the house where he gathered small pebbles and whatever he could find, throwing them at the police below. Rather than talking the unarmed teenager down or trying to reason with him, a police marksman shot him in the head, fatally injuring him. The police officers then departed, leaving his devastated family to rush him to hospital. Despite their frantic efforts, he died shortly after his arrival.
A month earlier on 10 June 2020, 25-year-old Majed Alboghobeish from the city of Ma’shour, died instantly when police shot him at close range without any warning from a passing car whilst he was driving on the road between Ma’shour and Khor Mousa.
A week later on 19 June 2020, Hassan Mohammed, from the town of Alsaluyeh, was shot at point-blank range whilst he was passing through a checkpoint, with sources reporting that he was on his way to visit his fiancée when he was killed. According to witnesses, the Iranian officers manning the checkpoint, who had not even instructed Hassan to stop, opened fire without warning when he walked through, killing him immediately.
Six days later, on 25 June 2020, 30-year-old Mohammed Sawari, a married father of two young daughters who lived in the city of Rofyea near the Iran-Iraq border, was shot dead by regime border forces whilst he was transporting sheep to sell to customers in Iraq. Like many other Ahwazi men denied the possibility of decent employment by the regime due to his Arab ethnicity, Mohammed had resorted to fishing in the nearby Hor Al-Azim wetlands or selling livestock such as sheep and cattle to Iraqi customers across the border to make a living.
Three days after Mohammed Sawari’s death, on 28 June 2020, another young Ahwazi man, identified as Reza Torfi, was killed by multiple gunshots fired by Iranian police officers at close range while driving his car near the Kianabad neighbourhood in Ahwaz city. He was reportedly heading towards a neighbouring district, Daghaghleh, with witnesses reporting that he had inadvertently driven through one of the numerous – and often poorly marked – police checkpoints throughout the city. The officers at the checkpoint immediately pursued him and shot him dead, with bullets hitting him in the heart, kidneys and one lung; although he lived for a short time after being shot, witnesses reported that police ignored him and conferred with one another around his vehicle whilst he was dying.
The police forces justified the murder by claiming that they suspected Reza of using his vehicle to transport alcoholic beverages. No alcohol was found in the vehicle, and the stated reason for stopping him was pretextual. While Reza Torfi’s family has reportedly filed a lawsuit against law enforcement officers, regime security personnel had pressured the family not to talk to media and human rights organisations, which is a thinly veiled death threat in Iran.
The previous year, on 11 August 2019, 19-year-old Abbas Amiri and his cousin were travelling from Ahwaz capital to Toster(Shushtar) city when their car was fired on by Basij forces, who later claimed that the vehicle was speeding, claim witnesses denied. Abbas died as a result of acute bleeding from the gunshot wound, whilst his cousin was severely injured. Two months earlier, on 22 June 2019, a motorcyclist identified as Hamza Saaduni was shot in the head by a police officer in Ahwaz city, dying instantly, after ignoring the officer’s order to stop, which he feared would mean a beating and extortion.
On 4 September 2019, 17-year-old Ali Rashedi was shot in the head and back for driving his moped through an alleged unmarked checkpoint, with no warning being issued to him. He died instantly. Similarly, 28-year-old Bassem Alboghobeish and Mohammad Sari were shot dead on 16 August 2019 by IRGC-linked and Basiji forces in Falahieyh (Shadegan) Farsi) and Ahwaz City, respectively, both while riding motorcycles.
In 2018, 19-year-old Mehdi Sawari was shot dead on 30 December, as he returned to his family’s home in the impoverished Seyed Karim neighbourhood of the regional capital Ahwaz from the city of Hamidieh. Although he was rushed to a hospital, he died soon afterwards. According to his family, Mehdi was shot at close range and killed by regime military personnel who followed his motorcycle in their vehicles as he was returning home.
His grieving parents revealed that he was killed in retaliation for fleeing his compulsory military service with the regime army at a garrison in Hamidieh. He had told his parents previously that he had complained about abuse and mistreatment by superior officers after they repeatedly rejected his requests for time off to visit his family and refused to allow him to attend a Quran recitation contest in which he was scheduled to participate, despite his giving them advance notice.
The simmering tensions and resentment at this and other abuses apparently later came to a head during an argument with senior officers at the garrison, with the young man then phoning his family to tell them about this altercation, as well as telling them that he had been beaten by the officers. His parents said that he was angry and upset at this humiliation and abuse and that he told them he was going to abandon his post and return home by renting a motorbike.
Yet another typical example of extrajudicial killing is that of 20-year-old Sajad Zergani, who was shot dead by Iranian regime security forces at a checkpoint in the Zawiya neighbourhood of Ahwaz city on 16 August 2018. Initial reports suggest that officers opened fire at Sajad and his friend without any warning, with the young man dying shortly afterwards. While there are no details to date verifying these accounts or even confirming whether or not the checkpoint was marked or if the two unarmed young men were given any warning, such random shootings of young Ahwazis by regime officers are routine.
In another such extrajudicial killing the previous year, 2017, regime security forces fatally shot another innocent young Ahwazi man and injured several other people when they opened fire at random at Ahwazi citizens peaceably going about their business in the town of Falahiyeh on 9 February. The dead youth was named as Hassan Alboghobesh, while the two injured men were identified as Syed Ali Moussawi and Syed Reza Moussawi, aged 31 and 18 years respectively.
Mobile phone camera footage of the last moments of Hassan Alboghobesh’s life after the shooting as he laid on the ground covered in blood quickly spread via social media, with young Ahwazis taking to the streets of the town to voice their anger at the brutal, unprovoked murder, and protesters attacking the local headquarters of the IRGC and regime security force.
On 14 April 2016, the regime security forces also killed a young man identified as Faisal Abidawi, a 27-year-old whose wedding had taken place mere days prior, and wounded two passengers when regime forces ambushed the victim, opening fire on the car he was riding.
Attorney and analyst Aaron Eitan Meyer, who is currently working on a short paper showing how the fate of Ahwaz exemplifies the failure of international law, agrees. Speaking to DUSC, he said, “setting aside the utter immorality of the regime’s crimes against its citizens, and even the mind-boggling extent to which its overtly systemic racism includes outright murder in the streets, this underscores the abject failure of the Westphalian system of international law when the rulers of a nation have no regard for law of any real sort, and there is no real legal consequence from their crimes. They shoot toddlers, openly violate at least some aspect of every international treaty one can name, and at most, the world shrugs.”
Meyer hinted at a further legal challenge to the regime’s supposed sovereignty over Ahwaz. “Section 8 of the second Treaty of Erzurum, by which the Ottoman Empire – entirely for its own purposes – surrendered Ahwaz and some other territory, specifically recognised that border tribes would be addressed by means of the Suzerainty over them, whether known or unknown. Let us not forget that we are speaking of Turks on the one hand and Persians on the other, referencing other tribes and thereby at least tacitly acknowledging that their rights are at least to some degree separate.
“Suzerainty, very generally speaking, is a form of semi-sovereignty. Applying the principles of international law rather than their abhorrently selective application, one could argue that when Arabistan’s semi-autonomy was destroyed in 1925, the Ahwazis’ status ceased to be any sort of suzerain relationship to Persia/Iran, and therefore the regime’s actions constitute further violations of international law between a state and territory/people over whom it cannot wield absolute power as sovereign.”
Meyer acknowledged, however, that the current state of international law as applied “bears virtually no resemblance to actual legal procedure, precisely as these indefensible attacks on young Ahwazis is utterly at odds with any logical definition of law itself. That they are only the bloody tip of a vicious iceberg of Iranian depravity against the Ahwazi people underscores the need for concrete action, not merely calling for legal solutions that do not practically exist.”
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Semireza42.