H.E. Ayatollah Khamenei
Human Rights Watch is writing to express grave concern about the official reaction to demonstrations by students in Tehran and other cities over the past week. We are especially disturbed by the attacks on demonstrators and bystanders of vigilante and paramilitary forces claiming to be acting on your orders.
The student demonstrations started in response to fears that official plans to privatize universities would lead to a rise in tuition fees. The protests spread outside the campuses and became much broader calls for respect for basic freedoms and expressions of dissatisfaction with government policies.
All over the country, including Tehran, Mashhad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz and Ahvaz, vigilante paramilitary forces known as lebas shakhs-iha (those who wear plain clothes) have brutally assaulted demonstrators using batons, chains and knives. Some have charged into crowds on motorcycles, causing numerous injuries. There have also been reports of vigilantes carrying students away to be beaten. According to information Human Rights Watch has received, some of these vigilantes have posed as students and acted as agents-provocateurs, inciting property damage and attacks on the police as well as leading students into ambushes where they are attacked and beaten by other groups of vigilantes. When challenged by students and bystanders as to why they are attacking demonstrators, the vigilantes have claimed to be acting on your orders. Hamid Ostad, the leader of a vigilante force in Mashhad, reportedly said on June 11, when he was released from less than twenty-four hours detention after attempting to block parliamentarians from visiting the city, "We operate under the command of the Supreme Leader" Fatmeh Haghighatjou, a member of parliament from Tehran, told the parliament on June 17 that vigilantes were invoking the name of Your Excellency as they attacked groups of students.
The Iranian authorities have an obligation under Iranian law as well as international human rights law to investigate incidents of criminal assault and bring to justice those suspected of human rights violations. Last week, speaking in Khorasan province, President Mohamed Khatami called on security forces to stop vigilantes from acting outside the law, and some of these vigilante activists have been among the several hundred persons arrested in connection with the clashes associated with the student demonstrations. Those persons arrested in the commission of a recognizable criminal offense, and those whose responsibility for such an offense is based on evidence and reliable testimony, should receive a prompt, fair, and public trial conducted in accordance with international fair trial standards.
Human Rights Watch also calls on Your Excellency to establish an independent commission of inquiry into the activities of these vigilantes who have been responsible for serious abuses. This inquiry should have the resources and authority to investigate thoroughly attacks by vigilantes against persons attempting to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The inquiry should determine whether government officials have played any role in sponsoring or encouraging such attacks in the clashes that began on June 10 as well as previous instances of vigilante violence. It should make its findings public.
This commission, whose members should comprise persons of recognized independence and integrity and with knowledge of international law enforcement standards, should have the authority to recommend for investigation and possible prosecution persons suspected of carrying out or sponsoring vigilante activities that constitute recognized criminal offenses. The commission should also address the need for all security forces to be linked by a clear chain of command to accountable public officials.
The activities of such vigilante forces have been a long-standing problem in Iran. You will recall the trial of the Chief of the Tehran Police, Farhad Nazari, after the July 1999 raid on the student dormitories at Tehran University. He stated in court that vigilantes had carried out the raids, yet no one has ever been held accountable for these assaults that claimed scores of victims. In November 2002, in response to student protests against the death sentence imposed on university professor Hashem Aghajari, Your Excellency warned students that if they did not "return to their homes" then "the people will intervene," which many Iranians took to be a thinly veiled threat to unleash the same vigilante forces that had participated in the July 1999 incidents.
Your Excellency, we strongly urge you to act now to uphold respect for basic freedoms and human rights in Iran. We call on you to use your authority to bring an end to vigilante violence against government critics and bring to justice those who act outside the law.
Middle East and North Africa Division