A WEB OF IMPUNITY

The killings Iran’s internet shutdown hid

A joint investigation by Amnesty International and The Hertie School in partnership with the Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) project.

INTRODUCTION

In November 2019, security forces in Iran killed at least 304 men, women and children during five days of protests which swept across the country.

Security forces used lethal force unlawfully against the vast majority of protesters and bystanders killed, shooting most to the head or torso, indicating intent to kill. To this day, no official has been held accountable for the unlawful killings.

The deadly crackdown was accompanied by the authorities shutting down access to the internet for most of the population.

An internet shutdown is not a new tactic to limit access to information. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared that “states … must not block or hinder internet connectivity in relation to peaceful assemblies.” However, states are increasingly doing just this; in the past two years, states such as Myanmar, Sudan, Venezuela, Belarus, and Ethiopia have limited or barred access to the internet. 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, 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.

Amnesty International has painstakingly uncovered the details of 304 people who were killed in Iran in November 2019. We share some of their stories below. We believe the real number of deaths is higher but the web of impunity spun by the Iranian authorities means we may never learn the names and stories of all those whose lives were brutally cut short.

Men, women and children documented by Amnesty International as killed by Iran’s security forces over four days in November 2019. Source: Amnesty International

On the anniversary of the shutdown and the deadly crackdown, we have created this website to explain what an internet shutdown is, to show why it is a serious violation of human rights, to remember those killed in the protests, and to ask for your help in seeking justice and accountability.

PART 1: INTO THE DARK

On 15 November 2019, protests erupted across Iran following the government’s overnight announcement of a significant increase in the price of fuel. Demonstrators voiced anger that the measure would crush poor people already struggling amid an economic crisis engulfing the country. Many also chanted slogans calling for a radical overhaul of the political system, including constitutional reforms and an end to the Islamic Republic system, and burned posters of Iran’s current and former Supreme Leaders.

Scores of videos of the protests and state violence against the protesters appeared online, which Amnesty International’s Digital Verification Corps subsequently authenticated and analyzed.

Speaking on state television on 16 November, Iran’s Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said that Iranian security forces would “fulfil their duty to restore calm if attacks on public and individuals’ properties continue.” Amnesty International’s research shows that 16 November was the bloodiest known day of the protests, with at least 100 unarmed protesters and bystanders, including children, killed.

Under international human rights law, security forces may only resort to the use of lethal force when strictly unavoidable to protect against imminent threat of death or serious injury. Killings resulting from the authorities’ use of deadly force against protesters, in violation of international law and standards, constitute an arbitrary deprivation of life in violation of the right to life and can also amount to extrajudicial executions, which are crimes under international law.

Videos from social media and messaging apps show extensive state violence against protesters. Sources: IODA/Amnesty International/ACLED

As protests intensified in most cities across the country, the Iranian authorities ordered different internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down the internet, achieving a near-total countrywide blackout. The Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) project based at the University of California, San Diego, observed steady drops in signals which started in the afternoon. Cellular operators in Iran began to disconnect first at around 2 pm local time, followed by other operators. By 7 pm on 16 November, Iran had descended into darkness.

Iran’s domestic internet remained online. According to the freedom of expression NGO Article 19, this enabled activities such as banking and government services to continue, which minimized financial losses and kept the government functional.

Iran’s security forces repeatedly used firearms, water cannons and tear gas against unarmed protesters and bystanders. Source: Amnesty International

The Iranian authorities will no longer show “tolerance” and “self-control” toward the protesters, said the county’s interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on 16 November. A day later, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei labelled protesters “evil-doers, hatemongers and unscrupulous people” and ordered the Iranian security services to “implement their duties” to end the protests.

Internet shutdown in Iran as observed by IODA. Source: IODA

Five days later, at 10 am local time on 21 November, IODA documented a spike in their measurements showing signs of recovery. The internet was being gradually restored. According to Article 19, many of the cellular data providers did not come back online until 27 November.

An unknown amount of evidence of crimes and serious human rights violations was lost as a result of the shutdown. 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.

What is an internet shutdown?

An internet shutdown happens when an institution—usually a government—intentionally disrupts the internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a specific region.

An internet shutdown can be implemented across an entire state or territory, or it can be implemented in specific sub-regions. Authorities may impose the shutdown in a variety of ways. They may slow down the internet to render access ineffective, such as what Indian authorities have done in Jammu and Kashmir since March 2020. Alternatively, they may order cellular and other ISPs to shut down services, as was the case in Sudan in 2019. In Iran, the shutdown was implemented nationwide by the government ordering different providers to shut down access to the world wide web, even as the domestic internet remained online.

PART 2: UNCOVERING THE KILLINGS

On 19 November 2019, Amnesty International released evidence that the Iranian security forces were using lethal force against protesters and that at least 106 people had been killed. The Iranian authorities immediately rebuffed this, calling Amnesty International’s claims “baseless and fabricated”. Iran’s Mission to the United Nations said Amnesty International was leading a “disinformation campaign against Iran from outside the country”.

Killings hidden from the world

After thousands of hours of relentless fact-finding, Amnesty International has since recorded and verified the deaths of 304 people killed by the Iranian security services between 15 and 19 November 2019. Our investigation, published in May 2020, found that more than 220 of these deaths took place within 48 hours of the internet shutting down on 16 November.

In the absence of online documentation during the shutdown, Amnesty International received information from human rights activists and journalists. To verify and add to these reports we interviewed family members and friends, medical workers and eyewitnesses, among others. Our researchers also cross-checked funeral posters, gravesites, death certificates and local media reports.

The result is a detailed record of the killings the internet shutdown tried to hide from the world and the Iranian authorities continue to deny.

Of the 304 men, women, and children whose deaths Amnesty International has been able to verify, 233 were identified by first and last name. For six other victims, we were able to obtain either the first or last name. For most victims, we know their age and gender, in addition to where and when they were fatally injured. For almost half, we know the bodily injuries they sustained, based on photographs, burial and death certificates.

Fact-finding was significantly impeded by the absence of information sharing during the days of the internet shutdown. While Amnesty International was able to verify 304 victims, we believe the real number of deaths to be higher.

Most deaths took place on 16 November, the day Iranian authorities shut down the internet.Source: Amnesty International/IODA

Lives, loved ones lost

At least 23 of those killed were children below the age of 18.

One of the youngest victims, Mohammad Dastankhah was shot on his way home from school by security forces stationed on the roof; a base belonging to the Basij paramilitary force in Sadra, Fars. Mohammad’s death certificate states that he died of gunshot wounds that caused extensive internal bleeding and pierced his heart and lung. He was 15 years old.

Eyewitness accounts and video footage verified by our Digital Verification Corps confirm that, on 16 November, security forces shot at unarmed protesters and bystanders with live ammunition from this location.

In total, Amnesty International documented the deaths of 22 boys aged between 12 and 17, and one was a girl reportedly aged between eight and 12.

The number of children killed is very likely to be higher. Amnesty International has received information from human rights activists about at least four additional young male victims indicating that they may have been under the age of the 18 at the time of their deaths.

Mohammad Dastankhah

Of the 304 victims for which Amnesty International has obtained information, 236 were identified as men and 10 as women. In 35 cases, the sex and age of those killed remain unknown to Amnesty International.

Security forces shot dead Azar Mirzapour, a 49-year-old nurse and mother of four, on 16 November in the city of Karaj, Alborz province. On her way home from work, she called her children to say she was minutes away, but the streets were busy because of the ongoing protests. Her family never saw or heard from her again. They searched for her at several police stations, initially suspecting that she was arrested. After about two days, they discovered her name in a list at a mortuary. The Iranian authorities forced her family to sign an statement not to speak to the media. Following Azar Mirzapour’s funeral, her family tried in vain to seek information from various state bodies about the circumstances of her killing and those responsible. One prosecution official denied that security forces were responsible, while a police official accused her of being a “rioter” whose “destiny” was to be killed.

Azar Mirzapour

Bahman Jafari, 28, was on his way to work in Shiraz, Fars province, when security forces shot him four times in the heart and stomach at 9 am on 17 November. He died in an ambulance before reaching the hospital. Hospital staff told his family that his body had been taken to the Legal Medicine Organization, a state forensic institute supervised by the judiciary. The authorities only released his body to his family a week later after they signed an agreement to tell people that he died in a car accident and not to speak to the media. The authorities blocked his burial in central Shiraz, instead forcing them to bury him in a cemetery around 40 kilometres away. They only allowed immediate family members to attend the funeral, where security and intelligence officials harassed and intimidated mourners. The authorities also banned his family from holding a public memorial marking the 40th day of his death.

Bahman Ja’fari

The lethal force used and covered-up by the communication blackout, cannot be justified.

According to our extensive research, including video analysis, in almost all protests that took place between 15 and 19 November, there is no evidence that protesters posed an imminent threat to life or of causing serious injury to another person. As such, the use of firearms by the authorities was completely unwarranted. Information obtained from eyewitnesses suggested that, in most cases, security forces deliberately fired live ammunition at victims’ heads or torsos. This claim is supported by the description of injuries cited on 24 death or burial certificates seen by Amnesty International.

Overall, for nearly half of the victims (141), we were able to corroborate the types of fatal injuries they sustained. In at least 66 cases, victims were shot in their head and/or neck, and in at least 46 cases, in their chest and/or heart.

PART 3: WHY INTERNET SHUTDOWNS ARE A HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE

Threats to digital expression and Internet freedom are more pronounced than ever. Internet shutdowns have emerged as a popular means of information control
The Human Rights Council, Resolution 32/13

The ability of people to access communication technologies in a secure and private manner has become vital for the organization and conduct of peaceful assemblies and is an essential tool for effective human rights work. Imposing internet shutdowns and restrictions when people are protesting does not increase safety and security. Rather, it stops important information from reaching citizens—such as how to find areas of safety or contact emergency services. It also prevents international and local organisations from documenting human rights violations—such as killings or the disproportionate use of force by the police or military.

Activities such as organising protests, speaking freely against government policies, and documenting and disseminating information on human rights violations all rely on the ability to access the internet. Such activities are protected under international human rights law, which also guards against unjustified internet shutdowns.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Amnesty International is calling on the Iranian authorities to take the following actions:

  • Make public all available information and records regarding the number of those killed during the November 2019 protests; their identities and ages; and the location, cause and circumstances of each death;
  • Ensure that there are independent and impartial investigations into all of the deaths, and that those suspected of criminal responsibility for the killings of protesters and bystanders during the November 2019 protests are criminally investigated, and, where sufficient evidence exists, are prosecuted in proceedings that conform to international fair trial standards and do not involve seeking or imposing the death penalty;
  • Desist from using internet shutdowns that are incompatible with international human rights law to clamp down on human rights in the future;
  • Complete a transparent and independent investigation into the shutdown and hold accountable those who were responsible for violating human rights;
  • Enact legislation in line with international human rights law that recognizes the fundamental role that the internet plays in the exercise of human rights and guards against shutdowns.

One year on from the protests, the Iranian authorities persist in their refusal to conduct open, independent and impartial investigations and ensure accountability. In fact, top officials have openly praised Iran’s security and intelligence bodies for their role in the brutal crackdown. Given this systematic impunity, Amnesty International is renewing its calls on member states of the UN Human Rights Council to take the following action:

  • Mandate an inquiry into the killings of protesters and bystanders, including children, in the November 2019 protests. The inquiry should report on its findings to the Human Rights Council, and its report should include recommendations on how to ensure Iran upholds its human rights obligations, including in the context of the protests and their aftermath, and on bringing those responsible for ordering, planning, carrying out these serious human rights violations and crimes to justice in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty.

Shutdowns can rarely be carried out by states alone. Internet service providers play a major role in implementing shutdowns. Amnesty International is calling on ISPs operating in Iran to take the following actions:

  • Ensure that they operate in a manner that respects all the human rights of their users, including the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, when responding to orders from state authorities on internet shutdowns.
  • Conduct human rights due diligence, including detailing the risks of complying with network disruption requests. Such assessments should be made public.
  • Exercise their leverage with the Iranian authorities to demand information on the legal basis of internet shutdown requests, including asking for explanations on how the shutdowns would comply with international human rights laws.
  • Publish public transparency reports on network shutdown requests from authorities in Iran and notify customers when a network disruption is imminent.

TAKE ACTION

Call on the 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. During this brutal crackdown, the Iranian authorities killed over 300 people and carried out mass arrests.

Victims, survivors, their families and society as a whole deserve truth and justice now.

Please use social media to urge Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to end the web of impunity.

Photo by Iranian Religious Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

EXPLORE OUR DOCUMENTATION

VICTIMS’ WALL

The names and details of the 304 people killed by the Iranian security services between 15 and 18 November 2019

Tap to view
Swipe to scroll

Age
Date of fatal incident
Location of incident
Reported cause of death
Source

PROTEST ARCHIVE

Watch 121 videos verified by Amnesty International.

The videos are sorted alphabetically by city: Abadan, Aderan, Ahvaz, Andisheh, Arak, Behbahan, Bushehr, Esfahan, Eslamshahr, Fardis, Gorgan, Javanroud, Karaj, Kermanshah, Khoramshahr, Mahshahr, Mariwan, Mashhad, Meshkin Dasht, Najaf Abad, Neyshabur, Sadra, Sanandaj, Shahriar, Shiraz, Tabriz, Tehran, Urumieh, Yasuj, and Zanjan.

Please be aware that the videos in this archive may show police violence against protesters, shootings or audio of shootings, or other violent events.

Security forces stand in Tayyeb b…

Abadan, Khuzestan
15 – 23 Nov 2019
IRN091

Protesters gather in Adaran junct…

Aderan, Tehran
17 Nov 2019
IRN098

Riot police shoot a protester nea…

Aderan, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN099

A member of the security forces b…

Ahvaz, Khuzestan
19 Nov 2019
IRN086

Peaceful protesters at Molavi squ…

Ahvaz, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN092

Protesters at Kian-Pars 3rd squar…

Ahvaz, Khuzestan
15 Nov 2019
IRN001

Iranian security forces drive mot…

Ahvaz, Khuzestan
15 Nov 2019
IRN002

Peaceful protesters at Kian-Pars …

Ahvaz, Khuzestan
15 Nov 2019
IRN003

Protesters at Kian-Pars 3rd squar…

Ahvaz, Khuzestan
15 Nov 2019
IRN017

A security official on the roofto…

Andisheh, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN058

Peaceful protesters chant “Don’t …

Andisheh, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN093

Security forces take shots at pro…

Andisheh, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN094

Teargas used against protesters i…

Andisheh, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN095

Protesters stand in front of a bu…

Andisheh, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN096

Protesters march on Velayat boule…

Andisheh, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN027

Heavy security presence in the st…

Arak, Markazi
15 or 16 Nov 2019
IRN097

People cough as tear gas fills a …

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN011

Protesters and security forces th…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN012

Smoke and gunfire are recorded as…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN016

Security forces fire tear gas at …

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN010

Security forces at Nahaei street …

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN100

Security forces fire shots to dis…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN101

Standoff between protesters and u…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN102

Chaotic scenes at Melli Bank squa…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN103

Security forces in uniforms and p…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN104

A member of the security forces t…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN105

Security forces shoot towards pro…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN106

Security forces at Almasi bouleva…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN107

An injured protester is carried a…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN108

Security forces attempt to disper…

Behbahan, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN008

Security forces fire tear gas int…

Bushehr, Bushehr
16 Nov 2019
IRN020

A water cannon and tear gas are u…

Bushehr, Bushehr
16 Nov 2019
IRN019

An injured man is carried away th…

Bushehr, Bushehr
16 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN054

Security forces fire water cannon…

Bushehr, Bushehr
16 Nov 2019
IRN021

Security forces advance on Emam K…

Bushehr, Bushehr
16 Nov 2019
IRN022

Tyres burn on the Dastgerdi expre…

Esfahan, Esfahan
17 Nov 2019
IRN050

An injured man lies near the inte…

Esfahan, Esfahan
17 Nov 2019
IRN073

Security forces hit protesters wi…

Esfahan, Esfahan
16 Nov 2019
IRN109

In Zeynabieh area, a protester li…

Esfahan, Esfahan
16 Nov 2019
IRN110

Crowds protest peacefully in Esfa…

Esfahan, Esfahan
16 Nov 2019
IRN111

Teargas fills the air as security…

Esfahan, Esfahan
17 Nov 2019
IRN113

Security forces advance through D…

Esfahan, Esfahan
16 – 18 Nov 2019
IRN132

At Basij boulevard, tear gas fill…

Eslamshahr, Tehran
16 – 18 Nov 2019
IRN115

Sound of tear gas canisters being…

Fardis, Alborz
17 Nov 2019
IRN045

Near Valiasr square, security for…

Gorgan, Golestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN085

Security forces confront proteste…

Gorgan, Golestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN117

Security forces shoot at people f…

Javanroud, Kermanshah
17 Nov 2019
IRN053

People run as gun shots can be he…

Javanroud, Kermanshah
16 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN079

Security forces shoot semi-automa…

Javanroud, Kermanshah
16 Nov 2019
IRN056

Protesters throw stones, security…

Javanroud, Kermanshah
16 Nov 2019
IRN118

Smoke rises from near a police st…

Karaj, Alborz
16 Nov 2019
IRN039

Protesters run away from security…

Karaj, Alborz
16 Nov 2019
IRN062

A compound belonging to the polic…

Karaj, Alborz
16 Nov 2019
IRN038

The woman filming shows the dried…

Karaj, Alborz
15 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN064

CCTV footage of man being fatally…

Karaj, Alborz
17 Nov 2019
IRN119

In a video compilation, security …

Kermanshah, Kermanshah
16 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN070

Dozens of security forces in plai…

Kermanshah, Kermanshah
15 – 23 Nov 2019
IRN120

Consistent sound of weapons being…

Kermanshah, Kermanshah
17 Nov 2019
IRN121

Plain clothes members of the secu…

Kermanshah, Kermanshah
18 Nov 2019
IRN122

Security forces fire tear gas at …

Kermanshah, Kermanshah
16 Nov 2019
IRN043

At Allah square, peaceful protest…

Khoramshahr, Khuzestan
15 Nov 2019
IRN123

Peaceful protesters from Arab min…

Khoramshahr, Khuzestan
15 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN124

Security forces fire tear gas can…

Khoramshahr, Khuzestan
16 Nov 2019
IRN057

Security forces in Chamran town c…

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
18 Nov 2019
IRN125

Some protesters throw stones at s…

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
17 or 18 Nov 2019
IRN126

Consistent shots are heard as pro…

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
18 Nov 2019
IRN127

Tanks and vehicles equipped with …

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
16 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN128

Protesters throw rocks towards se…

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
18 Nov 2019
IRN129

Men stand in a residential road i…

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
15 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN130

Tanks and vehicles equipped with …

Mahshahr, Khuzestan
16 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN131

Protesters at Jomhuri street thro…

Mariwan, Kurdistan
17 Nov 2019
IRN133

Security forces at Jomhuri street…

Mariwan, Kurdistan
17 Nov 2019
IRN134

A woman protester confronts secur…

Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi
15 or 16 Nov 2019
IRN065

Security forces attempt to clear …

Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi
15 Nov 2019
IRN006

A tear gas canister detonates nea…

Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi
15 Nov 2019
IRN007

Police attempt to disperse protes…

Mashhad, Khorasan Razavi
15 Nov 2019
IRN018

The man filming says Basijis shot…

Meshkin Dasht, Alborz
16 Nov 2019
IRN135

Protesters throw stones at the Sh…

Meshkin Dasht, Alborz
16 Nov 2019
IRN136

Shots can be heard as a square at…

Najaf Abad, Esfahan
17 Nov 2019
IRN049

Protesters block Iran square in N…

Neyshabur, Khorasan Razavi
16 Nov 2019
IRN036

A helicopter flies overhead. Secu…

Sadra, Fars
17 Nov 2019
IRN137

Peaceful protesters chant in Sadr…

Sadra, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN138

Chaotic scenes as one protester l…

Sadra, Fars
18 Nov 2019
IRN139

Protesters throw stones towards s…

Sanandaj, Kurdistan
16 Nov 2019
IRN141

An injured protester is carried a…

Shahriar, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN067

Protesters set fire to the ring s…

Shahriar, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN142

A police car stops in the road an…

Shahriar, Tehran
15 – 19 Nov 2019
IRN143

A person standing in the street i…

Shahriar, Tehran
16 – 18 Nov 2019
IRN144

Police fire Kalashnikov rifles at…

Shahriar, Tehran
16 Nov 2019
IRN024

Security forces fire tear gas at …

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN033

Security forces are chased into G…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN061

Protesters face off with police o…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN034

Security forces on motorbikes dri…

Shiraz, Fars
17 Nov 2019
IRN076

Smoke fills the sky as Goldasht p…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN030

Security forces shoot automatic r…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN060

Heavy security presence at Mali A…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN145

Security forces shoot towards pro…

Shiraz, Fars
17 Nov 2019
IRN146

Heavy security presence in Paramo…

Shiraz, Fars
16 or 17 Nov 2019
IRN147

Protesters lie injured or dead on…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN148

Security forces close roads in ce…

Shiraz, Fars
15 Nov 2019
IRN004

Heavy presence of security forces…

Shiraz, Fars
15 Nov 2019
IRN005

A member of the security forces e…

Shiraz, Fars
15 or 16 Nov 2019
IRN028

Protesters throw rocks at Goldash…

Shiraz, Fars
16 Nov 2019
IRN032