The Amini effect: The Impact of a Single Life and the Importance of Accountability in Iran

(left to right) Sara Hossain, chair of UNHRC team, Protests in Brussels Belgium, Mahsa Amini. Photo sources: Hossain & Associates law firm, Sam Miri., Al Jazeera.

A conversation with Bangladeshi lawyer Sara Hossain who heads the UN Human Rights Council’s independent investigation into Iran’s human rights violations following Mahsa Amini’s custodial death. The protests following that tragedy were one of the most significant events during late President Ebrahim Raisi’s time in office. His death in a tragic helicopter crash last month has precipitated polls in Iran, where polls will be held on 28 June to elect a president.

Sapan News The wave of protests in Iran in late 2022 saw human rights violations amounting to what United Nations Human Rights Council team of rapporteurs has termed “crimes against humanity”: Murder, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, disappearances and other inhumane acts, committed as part of a systematic attack on women, girls and others who stood up for human rights. 

The UN team reached this conclusion after investigating the events following the death in custody of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini on 16 September 2022. She had been arrested for not covering her hair according to official rules.

Protestors holding a sign in support of Mahsa Amini. Photo by: Simi Ghaffarzadeh

Women played a prominent role in the months-long protest movement with its slogan ‘Zan, zindagai, azaadi’ (women, life, freedom) following the tragedy. The United Nations Human Rights Council established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission in November 2022.  The mission report was published on 19 March 2024. 

 he UN mission comprised three legal experts, two of who are from Southasia*. Mission chair Sara Hossain is a barrister in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, Shaheen Sardar Ali is a British-Pakistani law professor in Warwick, UK, while Viviana Krsticevic is Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law.

4. UNHRC Team (left to right) Viviana Krsticevic, Shaheen Sardar Ali, Sara Hossain. Photo: Screenshot from UN press conference Talking to Sapan News about the main findings in the report Sara Hossain shared how the team conducted its research and the painstaking work that went into the fact-finding process.

The team received no cooperation from the Iranian authorities, who did not allow them to visit the country. Yet, by speaking to witnesses and other sources, they gained a detailed – and grim – picture of the repression.

Being unable to visit Iran posed a major challenge. Despite being “completely open to meeting anybody” the team couldn’t visit the places where incidents happened or speak to those who were involved “either on the side of the protesters or on the side of the government,” said Hossain. 

Another concern was the threats and harassment that Iranians, particularly Iranian journalists based outside, face even abroad. This prevents people from feeling free to speak openly even when they’re outside the country. The UN team had to take “a lot of precautions that limited access to people and information.” 

The family members in Iran of some Iranians living abroad were harassed; some lost jobs or faced arrest charges as well as other forms of threats and intimidation.

One of the team’s major findings was about Mahsa Amini’s death in custody, which the Iranian government essentially said no one was responsible for. The UN rapporteurs found a different picture, through the medical reports they collected and got analysed by forensic experts. They were also able to analyse ‘pattern evidence’, looking at what had happened previously to women who the morality police had taken into custody. They found evidence of a pattern of abuse like beatings and assault. 

“Our finding about Mahsa was that her death was caused by physical violence in the custody of the authorities,” says Hossain.

The team was concerned by the government’s disruption of Mahsa Amini’s family’s attempts  to commemorate her death. Her uncle went missing for several days. Her lawyer, who was supposed to accept the Sakharov Prize 2023 on her behalf in Strasbourg, was arrested and faced multiple charges. 

“I think that is a whole pattern,” said Hossain. The pattern was visible with other families of protesters, those who were involved in the protests after Amini’s death in custody. “Their family members were also repeatedly harassed.”

The team describes a case similar to that of Mahsa Amini. On 01 October 2023, 17-year old student Armina Garavand fell into a coma after female members of the vice squad threw her to the ground in a subway station in Tehran. She died in hospital due to severe brain damage. As with Amini, the authorities did everything possible to conceal the events surrounding the death. Riot police were present in large numbers at Garavand’s funeral on 29 October wher e several women, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, were arrested for not wearing a headscarf.

The team discovered that 551 people were killed, including 104 on the same day in a town in Zahedan, in the Iranian province of Baluchistan. People were gunned down as they left a mosque on a Friday. “In that incident and many others we found the kind of weaponry that was being used included firearms you don’t use in law and order maintenance: AK47s, assault rifles, and ammunition like metal pellets and paintball guns”.

Another significant injury was blindings. Faces and eyes, heads, necks, torsos and also genital areas were targeted, shot directly by paintball guns at a very short range. “Several witnesses actually said to us that they saw the attacker looked straight at them… and shot straight at them,” said Hossain. 

Some of the injured were unable to get medical care due to fear of being arrested. During the immediate aftermath of the protests, security forces surrounded many hospitals or had a presence inside. “They were picking people up as they went in or as they identified them. In some places, we also got evidence that hospital staff were told that they needed to hand over anyone who came with injuries. Some did and some didn’t,” Hossain told Sapan News.

Victims told the team that they were afraid of going in for treatment for fear of being marked as protesters. “So some of them delayed their medical care for weeks. They had appalling infections and other things as a result.”

The Iranian government’s ‘pardon’ of 22,000 people in February 2023 indicates that at least that many were picked up or charged. The UN rapporteurs believe that many are still in custody.

Several witnesses testified to conditions in custody and torture, including sexual violence, including gang rape or rape with an object, besides beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture and ill treatment. Several women told the mission about the abusive words directed at them including while they were being tortured. One of the torturers told a victim “that this was the freedom you wanted,” said Hossain. “So equating their demands with sexual violence.”

The team also found that children and young people were held in custody. “Some children were held in conditions which were almost equal to enforced disappearance because nobody knew where they were.”

Many detainees were unable to contact lawyers and families. Some were held in solitary confinement for days. Many were charged with vague offences like ‘waging war against God’ and ‘corruption on earth’. People involved in” completely legitimate acts of peaceful protest, which are totally permitted and enabled under international human rights law, were being prosecuted through these processes,” said Hossain.

The team found that nine men had been executed. This had “a huge effect in terms of suppressing the protests early on because of the fear factor.” 

There are currently 26 death penalties pending against people involved with the protests. The UN team has called for a total suspension and review of all of those cases, ”and of course, withdrawing those death sentences.”

Hossain identifies two more important issues. One is repression in digital space. Those who were organising the protests or acting in solidarity or supporting them were tracked online and their content from Facebook or Instagram was used for prosecuting them. 

The second issue was internet shutdowns imposed at the same time as protests. “So you couldn’t follow what was going on, you couldn’t report.”

A significant crime against humanity that the team found was around gender persecution, sometimes intersecting with ethnicity and race. “Mahsa Amini herself was an Iranian Kurdish woman. This finding of gender persecution intersecting with ethnicity and race is due to the way in which the discriminatory laws on the basis of gender applied in the context of minorities as well, in exacerbating the situation.”

UNHRC Investigative Iran panel (left to right) Viviana Krsticevic, Sara Hossain, Shaheen Sardar Ali. Photo: Screenshot from UN press conference The UN has extended the team’s mandate for a year, so the research will continue. “I’m glad we have it because we received a lot of information and evidence in the last few months of the work, which we were not really able to fully assess by lack of time,” said Hossain.

The rapporteurs found that the nature of the crimes is such that other states can prosecute the perpetrators on the basis of ‘universal jurisdiction’ including those who fled Iran. Many countries require the accused to be on their territory, but others such as France have broader legislation and can prosecute suspects anywhere. Some violations could also fall under the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, says the UN team. States could hold Iran accountable under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Iran is a party. Ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Azeris and Baluch were particularly targeted by human rights violations and government violence.

Similarly, South Africa sued Israel under the Genocide Convention in December 2023. In the short term, the court could take ‘provisional measures’ to prevent new crimes, as in the South Africa case. In the longer term, the judges can make a comprehensive ruling, which is binding and possibly enforceable by the Security Council, if it decides so.

“The biggest challenge I think we face, in addition to doing the work, is having the findings be taken seriously,” said Hossain. ”What is the point of human rights investigations unless you accept their premise, which is that human rights are universal? And that wherever a violation occurs, whoever is involved, the world will hold them to account? Whether we’re talking about Gaza or about Iran”. 

Hossain notes that while it is important to have accountability on what’s happening in Gaza, this is not a reason to not have accountability on Iran and vice versa. 

Rob Vreeken is the Istanbul correspondent for the Dutch daily De Volkskrant. He is the author of three books: ‘Bombay hyperstad’ (2006, about life in the Indian mega city), ‘Baas in eigen boerka’ (2010, about women in the Islamic world) and ‘Een heidens karwei’ (2023, about the failed Islamization of Turkey under President Tayyip Erdogan). He was awarded the Dutch journalist ‘Tegel’ award for his reporting on Israel and Palestine in October 2023.