(New York) - The violence against protesters in Iran underlines the urgent need for an independent and transparent criminal investigation into the actions of those officials responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. Since February 14, 2011, Iranian security forces' attacks on anti-government protests have led to three confirmed deaths, dozens of injuries, and hundreds of arrests.

In response to a request from the Council for the Coordination of the Green Path of Hope (the Council), an opposition body, thousands of Iranians filled the streets of Tehran and other major cities on March 1 to protest the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Security forces, including riot police and basij militias, outnumbered demonstrators in many parts of Tehran and attacked them with teargas, batons, and gunshot pellets. Witnesses have told Human Rights Watch that most of the security forces attacks appeared to be efforts to prevent crowds from forming and chanting slogans. Dozens were arrested, the witnesses said. The Council has supported calls by youth groups on Facebook for two more protests, on March 8 and March 15.

"Iran should immediately end attacks against protesters and set up independent and transparent investigations into the arbitrary arrests, detentions, injuries, and deaths that have taken place following public demonstrations that began on February 14," said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "Iran should understand that its strong-arm tactics aren't impressing anyone. It needs to call off the attackers and start prosecuting any member of security forces using unjustified force against protesters, regardless of rank or affiliation."

Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Iran's major cities on March 1, including Tehran, Mashhad, Esfahan, Shiraz, Rasht, and Ahvaz. A participant in Tehran told Human Rights Watch that there was a very heavy security presence in the streets and that riot police, basij, and other plainclothes agents used pellet guns, batons, and even paintball guns, apparently to identify protesters for arrest later.

"Most of the demonstrations and chanting of slogans took place after 6 p.m.," the witness told Human Rights Watch. "Security forces, especially the basij and plainclothes, had occupied most of the major streets. Unlike on February 14, protesters could not chant slogans or videotape [the day's events] for much of the time today." The witness also said that as soon as protesters began chanting slogans, plainclothes agents and riot police wielding batons forced them to disperse. He confirmed reports that authorities had arrested protesters.

The March 1 protests and ensuing violence came after demonstrations across the county on February 14 and 20. Thousands took to the streets of Iran's largest cities on February 20 to commemorate the deaths of Saneh Jaleh, 26, and Mohammad Mokhtar, 22, who were killed during the February 14 protests in Tehran. The opposition contends that these deaths were the result of excessive force by security forces. The government claimed that protesters and anti-government opposition forces killed the two young men. A third protester, Hamed Nour-Mohammadi, was later killed in Shiraz during the February 20 protests. Human Rights Watch has not been able to independently confirm the cause of death in any of these cases.

Officials claimed that Jaleh, a 26-year-old art student from the town of Paveh in Kermanshah province and an ethnic Kurd, was a member of the basij and that demonstrators killed him. Jaleh's brother, Ghaneh, denied those allegations on Voice of America's Persian language service. Authorities subsequently arrested him, and he is believed to be in Paveh prison.

The February 20 demonstrations in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Rasht, Tabriz, and Mashhad met a similarly harsh response by security forces, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Riot police, basij, and plainclothes agents fired teargas into crowds, used batons and sticks to beat protesters, and arrested dozens.

Witnesses who participated in the February 20 demonstrations said that the security presence on the streets of Tehran rivaled what they had witnessed during protests after the disputed June 2009 presidential election, and that many security officers were carrying firearms. The demonstrations in Tehran that day got under way around 3 p.m. One witness told Human Rights Watch that anti-riot police had occupied Tehran's major streets and intersections and positioned themselves to force protesters into side streets. He said he saw many plainclothes agents among the anti-riot police who targeted individual protesters for arrest.

Another witness who participated in the February 20 protests in Tehran told Human Rights Watch that he saw plainclothes agents take away at least 15 demonstrators that day. He also said plainclothes agents attacked protesters with batons.

There were unconfirmed reports from Persian-language media that authorities arrested dozens of demonstrators in Tehran alone during the February 20 protests. It is believed that authorities have released many of them. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify independently the number of arrests during the protests that began on February 14.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran has an obligation protect and promote the right to life, freedom of expression and association, and the right to assemble peacefully. Iran should also abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which state that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality.

The principles also require governments to "ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law" and that "superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known, that law enforcement officials under their command are resorting, or have resorted, to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and they did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use."

"President Ahmadinejad praised the protesters seeking change in Arab countries while brutally cracking down on anyone who speaks out against his government," Stork said. "Like other authoritarian rulers, he fails to realize that brute force against peaceful protesters will not silence the demands of the people."