Iranian police ‘intentionally targeted’ heads and eyes of protesters in Isfahan: witnesses

Photos and the accounts of eyewitnesses, including our Observer, support the theory that security forces targeted protesters’ faces while shooting during a crackdown in Isfahan, Iran, on November 26, 2021.
Photos and the accounts of eyewitnesses, including our Observer, support the theory that security forces targeted protesters’ faces while shooting during a crackdown in Isfahan, Iran, on November 26, 2021. © Observers

Iranian security forces carried out a violent crackdown on November 26 on farmers who had been peacefully protesting the redirection of a vital river in Isfahan for several weeks. Dozens of protesters lost eyes or sustained head injuries. Photos and eyewitness accounts indicate that security forces aimed and fired directly at people’s faces.

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The protest movement began on November 9, when farmers set up tents in the dry riverbed of the Zayandeh Rood, the river that runs through Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city with more than two million residents.

The farmers accuse the authorities of redirecting water to the neighbouring province of Yazd and they are angry that local industries draw from the river, contributing to the sharp reduction in water levels. They are demanding that the authorities open the region’s dams to release more water.

The authorities tolerated the protests for two weeks, and journalists from Iran’s public TV channel even interviewed protesters. 

But on the night of November 25, security forces began a brutal crackdown, setting the protesters’ tents on fire. The following morning, riot police and Basijis, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, moved in and attacked protesters. Security forces fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons. Some also used pump-action shotguns, which use bullets or nonlethal projectiles. 

This video was filmed on November 26 in Isfahan. It shows security forces using shotguns.
Security forces shot protesters gathered in the dry riverbed of the Zayandeh Rood in Isfahan on November 26.

But pump-action shotguns using so-called nonlethal projectiles like rubber bullets can cause serious injury or even death if fired at close range.

In Isfahan, the guns were loaded with shrapnel and hundreds of people were injured when security forces fired directly at people’s faces. Many victims lost one or both eyes. Some victims were younger than 18. 

A 15-year-old lost both of his eyes after he was hit in the face with shrapnel. Photo by a human rights activist.
A 15-year-old lost both of his eyes after he was hit in the face with shrapnel. Photo by a human rights activist. ©

'They intentionally targeted people’s heads'

Darya (not her real name) is a doctor in Isfahan. She was in contact with many of the people injured in the protests:

I can confirm that all of the injuries that I saw were to the upper body and most were head injuries. Many people had eye injuries or were blinded. That’s what happens when the order is given to use nonlethal weapons but also to end a protest the same day. So I think that orders like that really give the security forces a green light to do what they want. 

Photos showing people with eye injuries caused by shrapnel on November 26 in Isfahan, Iran.
Photos showing people with eye injuries caused by shrapnel on November 26 in Isfahan, Iran. © Observers

"Forty people with eye injuries came to the hospitals. Twenty-one of those people were hospitalised, two in intensive care," said Nourrodin Soltanian, the spokesperson for Isfahan hospitals, on Fars News, a media with close ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, on November 28.

'Most of the wounded avoid going to the hospital for fear of being arrested'

Darya said: 

We have absolutely no idea how many people were injured or who lost eyes, but one thing that I am sure about is that the number of casualties is much higher than the official count. 

Since November 26, dozens of people have contacted me to look for a doctor or surgeon who can remove shrapnel from their bodies without recording their names. Most of the wounded avoid going to the hospital for fear of being arrested.

If the wounds aren't too deep and they're on a part of the body that isn't too risky, they can be treated at home. But if the injury is complicated, doctors can treat them at a hospital by recording the patient's name with a different medical intervention, to protect them. Only those who had very serious injuries, or who panicked after they were injured, went directly to the hospital.

An Instagram post from a doctor in Isfahan who posted about a "crime", referring to protesters who were hit in the eyes.
An Instagram post from a doctor in Isfahan who posted about a "crime", referring to protesters who were hit in the eyes. © Observers

Many other doctors' accounts confirm these observations. Doctors and families of victims have shared many images clearly showing eye injuries. 

News of this violent crackdown prompted a wave of support online. Many Iranians took to Twitter or Instagram to post photos of themselves with one eye covered or hidden. 

These are a number of photos posted by Iranians on social media in support of the people injured in Isfahan.
These are a number of photos posted by Iranians on social media in support of the people injured in Isfahan. © Observers

'People are feeling profound hatred'

Darya continued:

A lack of training among the security forces could be one factor explaining this situation, but the number of head injuries is so high that I am convinced that the security forces intentionally aimed at people’s heads. And this isn’t the first time. 

About a decade ago, farmers in Isfahan protested for the same reason – water from the river was being diverted to another region. The security forces cracked down on them in a similar way and people sustained similar injuries. 

Human rights organisations and doctors reported that security forces went to the hospitals to arrest injured protesters. On November 29, at least 214 protesters were arrested, 13 of whom were minors, according to the Center for Human Rights in Iran. The Iranian police only reported 167 arrests. 

Our Observer concludes: 

The original protest was about water. However, the protesters have changed their slogans since the violence carried out by the security forces. Now they are speaking directly to the government and the Supreme Leader. Now people are feeling profound hatred. 

“This army came to fight the Supreme Leader,” the protesters can be heard chanting in this video.

An imam who leads the Friday prayer in Isfahan, Youssef Tabatabai is the local representative for Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Tabatabai said during a sermon that the protesters deserved the crackdown.

There have been recurrent protests over the past few years about the diversion of the Zayandeh Rood river. An essential part of city life for centuries, this river has now become seasonal and runs dry a large part of the year.