How Iran’s security forces are shooting to kill with ‘non-combat’ shotgun shells
“If you shoot at close range, you can kill.” In a rare interview, a member of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that members of his unit were firing shotguns at protesters’ chests and heads, aiming to kill them. While shotguns firing special ammunition can be considered “less-lethal” weapons – less deadly than military rifles like Kalashnikovs – they should never be used for crowd control at close range, experts say.
At least 277 Iranians have been documented killed in the protests that have wracked Iran since September 16 over the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died after being arrested by the morality police. Security forces have repressed the protests by force.
While the single highest death toll – more than 66 people killed in the city of Zahedan on September 30 – happened when police opened fire using live rifle bullets, other protesters have been killed and injured by beatings and the use of so-called “less-lethal” weapons – notably shotguns.
>> Read more on The Observers: Zahedan's 'Bloody Friday': Reconstructing a massacre in Iran's Sistan and Baluchistan province
Dozens of videos shared online show the use of shotguns by Iranian security forces, including plainclothes police officers, the Basij forces – the paramilitary branch of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – as well as anti-riot police. Amnesty International reports have also confirmed the widespread usage of shotguns by the Iranian security forces.
Analysis by the FRANCE 24 Observers team of more than 100 photographs and videos sent in from cities around Iran shows a wide range of so-called “less-lethal” ammunition used by the security forces. Our Basij source said his unit is equipped with such “non-combat” weapons and has been trained to use them. But they also have access to combat weapons like Kalashnikov assault rifles, and he believes they may be ordered to use them against the 2022 protests - as they were in 2019, when an estimated 1,500 protesters were killed in two weeks.
>> Read more on The Observers: Videos document injuries as Iran’s police swap Kalashnikovs for shotguns
‘They aim to kill’
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Mostafa (not his real name), a member of the Basij forces, who has been active in repressing the protests in a city in northern Iran. We confirmed his identity using photographs, but will not publish any identifying details for security reasons.
“Mostafa” told us how he and other members of the Basij had received training in the use of what they call “non-combat” weapons, but do not follow the training during protests.
In our unit, we have shotguns, tear gas, batons, paintball guns and stun guns. We had a few hours of introduction and training on "non-combat" weapons like these. We learned which weapons we are supposed to use in which situations. And we did some target practice, mostly with the paintballs, because I think it’s cheaper.
We had some training on how to control crowds, but I think it was useless. Protests in real life have nothing to do with what we trained for. For example, during our training courses, we were told to shoot at the ground if we are too close to the target. But no one does that.
I try not to hit protesters. I shoot at the ground or in other directions to scare them and push them back. But not everyone is like me. The others in my unit aim at people to hit them, to hit them in the chest or head, to kill them.
And if you kill someone, you won’t get in trouble. So hotheads or officers who do not care shoot at people’s heads. That can be deadly.
We have some Kalashnikovs in our arsenal too, but we have not used them yet. Kalashnikovs are now being used by IRGC members and the police. As far as I know, the Basij arsenal is the same in all the big cities. As Basij, we have not yet been ordered to use Kalashnikovs, but our unit used them in 2019. We will use Kalashnikovs again when the orders come.
At least 13 protesters killed by shotguns
Amnesty International's Iran researcher Raha Bahreini told FRANCE 24 that at least 13 protesters, including three teenagers, have been killed since September 16 directly because of shotgun shootings. She said the killings happened in Kurdistan, Kermanshah, West Azerbaijan, Alborz, Fars and Gilan provinces.
One of the victims was Hadis Najafi, 22, who died after being hit by a shotgun blast at a protest in the city of Karaj on September 21. A photograph shows what her family says are more than 20 shotgun pellets in her face and chest.
Reza Shahparnia, 23, lost his life after being pelted with more than 70 birdshot pellets in Kermanshah on September 20, according to his family.
The number of protesters in Iran blinded, paralysed or injured by shotgun ammunition is unknown.
Photographs of spent ammunition from 49 protests
To learn more about the weapons being used on the streets of Iran, the FRANCE 24 Observers team asked Iranians to send us photos of cartridge cases and other spent ammunition they found on the streets during the protests.
We received dozens of photographs taken during or after 49 protests at which witnesses said security forces were firing projectiles. We confirmed the images using complementary eyewitness accounts and social media reports of incidents involving security forces in Iran. Of these, 26 incidents took place in eight cities: Tehran, Yazd, Kish, Sanandaj, Zahedan, Mashhad, Gohardasht and Karaj.
The images showed a wide range of spent ammunition, including empty shotgun cartridges, individual shotgun pellets, paintball pellets and teargas canisters. We also received images of injuries sustained by these “non-combat” weapons.
The largest number of images we received showed shotgun cartridges. Of 12 cartridges recovered from protests around Iran, 10 had clear casings and the inscription “Maham *12*” on the metal base, indicating they were 12-gauge cartridges manufactured by Shahid Shiroudi Military Industries, one of Iran’s largest ammunition manufacturers.
Several of the Maham cartridges bore markings in English. One recovered in Mashhad says: “ANTI RIOTS RBC SOFT 4/2015”. Another sent in from Kish read “ANTI RIOTS RBC HARD 2/2015”. An image that was sent to us from Karaj shows an unused cartridge containing multiple orange-coloured pellets inside.
Two other spent cartridges we saw had bases with the logo of Cheddite, a Franco-Italian manufacturer, and yellow or green casings. A cartridge with a green casing, recovered in Yazd, bore the inscription “Shahin 2017 4”, a brand of hunting ammunition manufactured by Shahid Shiroudi. Shotgun cartridges with Cheddite bases and Shahin casings are commonly used by Iranian hunters to shoot game.
‘If you shoot at close range, you can kill’
Mostafa, the Basij member we spoke to, sent us a photograph of a box of Maham cartridges with transparent casings and the inscription “ANTI RIOTS RBC SOFT.” He said the Maham cartridges were “standard issue” for members of the security forces. We are not publishing the photograph for security reasons.
We have a lot of the Maham transparent casings. The cartridges which are filled with “soft” balls usually have larger rubber balls inside. They are painful, but they hurt less if you avoid shooting at the face and eyes. “Hard” balls are smaller, the cases have lots of hard beads in them.
We shoot with everything they give us. Mostly, they are the transparent 12-gauge Mahams, but we have also been issued coloured cartridges, which are not necessarily for anti-riot use. They have no marking, and mostly contain tiny pellets. We have more and more of these lately. They don’t come in the normal Maham boxes. I do not know if they are Maham or something else.
What is the significance of the inscription written on the base of the cartridge? If it’s a 12-gauge, there are tiny iron balls in it that you shoot and the other side gets smashed. Have you seen the pictures of people shot with shotguns? They have tiny injuries all over their bodies from those small iron pellets.
If you hit a bird with it, it's deadly. If you hit a person, it's painful. It can blind someone or paralyse them forever. If you shoot at close range, you can kill people too. No matter what is written on it, whether it's an anti-riot cartridge or a hunting cartridge, it's the same.
‘Pellets are lethal ammunition and should never be used in the policing of assemblies’
Neil Corney, an arms expert at the Omega Research Foundation, told FRANCE 24:
Any use of pellet ammunition would be unlawful against protesters [Editor’s note: according to the United Nations Human Rights Guidance on Less-Lethal Weapons in Law Enforcement]. It is lethal ammunition and should never be used in the policing of assemblies, protests etc. – particularly the peaceful protests, which most in Iran are.
The use of multiple projectile ammunition, such as multiple projectile kinetic impact rounds containing more than one projectile, is contrary to international policing norms and standards. Any ammunition with metal projectiles should be considered lethal – buckshot, birdshot, pellets – whatever it is called – it is potentially lethal – and should never be used against crowds or protesters.
If shotguns are loaded with “less-lethal” ammunition [Editor’s note: such as rubber balls or plastic pellets], they may be less lethal, but at short range can be lethal. Because the projectiles spread out, it is very likely that vulnerable parts of the body will be hit – like the head or eyes – causing serious injury or death.