Following more than two weeks of outcry over the killing of dozens of protesters in the southern city of Mahshahr, senior Iranian officials on Wednesday tried to justify the shooting of demonstrators by claiming they were armed.
Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, a member of Iranian parliament’s presidium admitted that “many people have been killed” in Mahshahr but claimed that protesters wanted to “harm the main energy transport lines (pipelines) of the country”.
Mahshahr is in the oil-producing Khuzestan province and close to large petrochemical plants and other oil facilities.
Hashemi also claimed, “We know exactly the identity of those killed” and how they got weapons, but he did not mention any figures.
More than three weeks after the nationwide protests the Islamic Republic has yet to publish the number of protesters killed by security forces. The most conservative figure published by Amnesty International is a minimum of 208 verified victims, but other estimates go as high as “possibly a thousand”. An opposition groups has said 366 were killed.
Protests broke out on November 15 after a sudden triple rise in gasoline prices but soon turned into widespread anti-regime unrest. Security forces soon began using military weapons against protesters, with evidence of snipers shooting people in the streets or in many cases firing point blank.
This was accompanied by a news and internet blackout, but as restrictions on media slightly decreased more information is being published.
Eyewitness accounts to the New York Times and Radio Farda speak of largely unarmed protesters in Mahshahr who had simply blocked roads. A few people did have weapons, but in the mainly Arab-populated region it is a tradition to have guns.
However, another senior official, President Hassan Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi on Wednesday presented a different version of the events, although the aim was again to justify shooting protesters.
Vaezi claimed that existing images show that a group of armed men fired at security forces and at people, adding “that this was a strange act”.
ISNA news agency quoted Vaezi as telling local reporters that in Mahshahr and another southern town armed men “had taken position behind barricades” and they killed some ordinary people. He did not offer any evidence.
The New York Times in an in-depth report on December 3 explained the extent of the crackdown by security forces, particularly mentioning the example of Mahshar, based on multiple interviews with eyewitnesses. The report concluded that anywhere from 40 to 100 mostly unarmed protesters were killed in the area.
The U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook also has spoken about the killings in Mahshar. On December 6 he said the U.S. has video evidence of heavy machine guns opening fire on protesters who escaped into marshes nearby, killing up to a 100 and then took the bodies away in pickup trucks.
Iranian human rights activists and one eyewitness have told Radio Farda protesters fled to the marshes to escape shooting by security forces and then they were surrounded and sprayed by heavy machine guns mounted on trucks.