Iranian medical staff face death threats, arrest and interrogation for treating injured protesters

From right to left: Dr Shouresh Haidari was held in prison for over two weeks after being accused of helping injured protesters. Dr Mohammad Edalttalab was attacked and beaten in his office for treating injured protesters. Dr Aida Rostami was known to the protesters in a suburb of Tehran because she treated the wounded. She was declared dead in December 2022 with signs of torture on her body.
From right to left: Dr Shouresh Haidari was held in prison for over two weeks after being accused of helping injured protesters. Dr Mohammad Edalttalab was attacked and beaten in his office for treating injured protesters. Dr Aida Rostami was known to the protesters in a suburb of Tehran because she treated the wounded. She was declared dead in December 2022 with signs of torture on her body. © Observers

Iranian medical personnel are being pressured to lie about the causes of injuries or deaths of protesters attacked by Islamic Republic security forces. They have been arrested, interrogated, beaten and, in one case, allegedly killed for treating injured protesters in secret, as doctors and activists in Iran told the FRANCE 24 Observers team. 

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After four months of protests in Iran, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran's forces continue to crack down on medical personnel.

The protests began with outrage followng the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after being arrested by the morality police for “improperly” wearing her hijab.

Activists and human rights monitors report that dozens of Iranian doctors have been arrested, most of them in the Kurdish region of western Iran. Shouresh Heidari, a pharmacist from Kurdistan province, is the first medical professional whose detention was covered by the Iranian media. He was detained from November 20 to December 5 for treating injured protesters in the city of Bukan. 

According to Iranian activists in contact with Iranian doctors, hundreds of them were also interrogated and threatened with losing their medical licences if they treated the injured in secret. 

Threatening doctors, falsifying death certificates 

Sanam (not her real name) is an Iranian doctor. She works in a hospital in southern Iran, in a city that has seen significant protests over the past four months:

Since the protests began, the pressure came with injured and killed protesters. At first, this was only through the hospital director. He came to the emergency room himself and took identification cards from injured or killed protesters and coordinated with security forces. He told us we couldn’t treat injured protesters at home, and that we absolutely must register protesters’ real names in our database when we treat them at the hospital. 

However, he systematically put the wrong cause of injury or death in the reports. Car accidents and falls from heights are common false reasons for injury given in the forms for wounded protesters. For protesters who were killed, the same false causes of death were given along with "penetrating objects" – which were actually bullets.

But after a few weeks, as the protests grew even larger and the number of injured or killed demonstrators increased, they changed their methods. The hospital's security staff were replaced by new people who looked like members of the Revolutionary Guard or the Basij [Editor’s note: the paramilitary branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].

Security forces patrolling hospitals:

Two members of the security forces are always at our hospital looking after the injured demonstrators. They take injured protesters’ identity documents, they arrest those who are "more important" or "more suspicious" in their eyes. And they threaten the families of the injured or killed demonstrators.

They bully families into going along with the false causes of injury or death they put on the forms. They tell them not to talk to the media or say anything on social media if they do not want trouble and want to be able to recover their loved one’s body and have a proper burial. 

>> Read more on The Observers: Iran: Protesters denied medical care and tortured to death in secret prisons

And they do not bring in the protesters who are killed in the streets or in the ambulances anymore. They take them straight to the morgue and take care of the forms and speak to the families there, with far fewer witnesses than in the hospital.

Our hospital is in a financial crisis, like everywhere else in Iran, and for the last two months they have hired some new, strange nurses. While most of us in the hospital do not wear hijab and we are openly pro- democracy, these new nurses are all hijabi and support the regime. This way they have even more eyes and ears among the medical staff, maybe in order to break our unity.

In October 2022, Dr Hossein Kermanpour, head of the emergency department at Sina Hospital in Tehran, was sacked after posting a photo of a tear gas canister fired by security forces at the hospital, writing: "In history, they didn't learn that even the toughest regimes in history never fired tear gas into a hospital in a confined space. But they did."

"In history, they didn't learn that even the toughest regimes in history never fired tear gas into a hospital in a confined space. But they did."

But the pressure on the medical staff is more than just some threats and warnings. Authorities have clamped down by regularly interrogating and even detaining doctors. 

‘I don’t know any doctors around me that haven’t been harassed in one way or another by the security forces’

Shamim (not her real name) is a physician in a city in central Iran. She tells the Observers about the pressures on the medical staff that she has witnessed:

Many of my colleagues are threatened with phone calls. Many others have been summoned to the intelligence office in our city as if to say “We are watching you”. They threaten them: “You will lose your job or your licence if you treat people at home or in your office”. And they threaten to cause trouble for family members – trouble of any kind. And they even threaten death. Some are summoned to the intelligence offices every day, others once or twice a week.

I have some colleagues who have been detained for weeks at a time. They don’t even dare to speak to the media or say anything on social media about us being arrested for treating injured demonstrators.

One of my closest friends was arrested and held for two weeks. We realised after she disappeared for two days. And we have no idea what happened to her during those two weeks. She refuses to speak, she refuses to meet anyone, she does not go outside, she disappeared from social media.

I have stopped counting how many of my colleagues are in this same situation. I don’t know any doctors around me that haven’t been harassed in one way or another by the security forces.

On November 17, Dr Mohammad Edalattalab posted a video of himself in tears, with a swollen face and bleeding lips, explaining that security forces ransacked his office and beat him up for treating injured protesters in Somesara, a small town in northern Iran.

In this video, Dr Edalattalab explains to his colleagues in the doctors' union that the security forces attacked his office and beat him up. He asks them to support him, otherwise they will have to step down from union leadership.

But activists say that security forces are doing even more to interfere with medical personnel. The "Committee for Monitoring Arrested Prisoners" is an initiative set up by Iranian human rights activists around the world to document arrests by Iranian security forces and monitor the status of detained protesters.

‘The security forces prevented doctors from resuscitating an injured demonstrator’

Our Observer Delaram (not her real name) is a member of this initiative:

We have documented several cases where security forces in Iran have interrupted the treatment of injured protesters in order to transfer them to detention centres, despite going against medical staff’s advice. We have also documented a case where security forces prevented medical staff from resuscitating a seriously injured demonstrator in a hospital.

Amir Javad Asadzadeh was arrested in Mashhad on November 19 and taken to prison a few days later, where he died. We interviewed the medical staff at the hospital and they confirmed that the security forces prevented them from resuscitating Mr Asadsazdeh. The pressure put on medical staff just for doing their job – which is to save lives no matter what – is unprecedented even by the standards of the Islamic Republic.

Activists say doctors can even face death. That is the case of Dr Aida Rostami, who was well-known among protesters in Ekbatan, a suburb in western Tehran that has seen some of the fiercest anti-regime protests in Iran over the past four months.

Dr Aida Rostami treated injured protesters in the neighbourhood until she disappeared on December 12. While authorities claimed she had fallen from a bridge, her family said they saw signs of torture and sexual abuse on her body, including stitches on her eyelid where the eyeball had been completely removed. She was buried under tight security in her hometown of Gorgan on December 15.

The funeral of Dr Aida Rostame took place in Gorgan under tight security.

Protests and general strikes have raged in Iran since September 16 over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after being arrested by the morality police for “improperly” wearing her hijab. What followed saw men and women take to the streets united in their outrage, led by women who tore off their hijabs, cut their hair and adopted a rallying cry of “women, life, freedom.”More than 19,000 protesters have been arrested and 480 killed, according to human rights organisations.