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Rights groups say Iran is escalating crackdown in Kurdish areas

A protester reacts after a water container was hit by a bullet during a protest in Javanrud, a Kurdish town in Iran, on Nov. 21. Five people were killed in the town during a protest following the funeral for two people killed Saturday, a human rights group said. (Hengaw Organization for Human Rights/AP)

Human rights activists are sounding the alarm about what they say is an intensifying crackdown by security forces in Iran’s Kurdish region, reporting that nearly four dozen people have been killed in recent days amid efforts to suppress weeks of protests against the country’s clerical leaders.

Despite a near-total communication blackout on information from the northwest region of the country, five human rights groups interviewed for this article have described widespread and indiscriminate use of heavy gunfire against civilians and the heavy deployment of security forces, including the Revolutionary Guard. The Kurdish human rights group Hengaw estimated that at least 42 people were killed in Kurdish areas over the last week.

Iranian authorities have especially targeted Iran’s largely-marginalized Kurdish communities since protests broke out in mid-September, sparked by the death of an Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa “Jina” Amini, while in police custody for a clothing violation. The rising death toll and deployment in Kurdish areas of the Revolutionary Guard, a parallel military force set up to protect Iran’s cleric-led state, has heightened fears that a further escalation in violence is underway.

“The suppression of protests in Iranian Kurdistan has entered a new phase,” said Rebin Rahmani, a member of the Board of Directors of the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Tuesday condemned “the hardening of the response by security forces” and described Iran’s situation as “critical.” Two Kurdish Iranian 16-year-old boys were among those killed this weekend, U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk told a briefing in Geneva.

Iranian authorities have struggled to put down the protest movement, which early on challenged mandatory veiling for women and has since grown into a broad call to overthrow the government.

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More than 300 people have been killed, among them more than 40 children, and deaths have been reported in nearly every one of Iran’s 31 provinces, according to Turk. Other groups have recorded higher death tolls. Iranian authorities have detained more than 15,000 people.

Among the dead, at least 98 Kurdish Iranians “have been killed by shootings, baton traumas and knives by the security forces,” Rahmani said.

On Monday, five people were killed in the western town of Javanrud during a protest following the funeral for two people killed Saturday, according to Hengaw. Witnesses told the group that the Revolutionary Guard fired machine-guns and semi-heavy machine guns at civilians. Videos shared online showed people running and taking cover from what appears to be heavy gunfire. Another video appeared to show bloodied bodies lying on the street.

The Washington Post could not independently verify these videos.

Other unverified videos circulating online showed large convoys of trucks with armed security forces heading into Kurdish-majority towns, including Mahabad and Boukan, in recent days.

Several rights groups said that the Revolutionary Guard has been leading the crackdown. “Revolutionary Guard forces have directly been responsible for all the repressions of the past week,” Rahmani said.

“When the Islamic government is faced with internal crises and nationwide protests, it represses ethnic minority areas to create an atmosphere of terror throughout Iran,” Rahmani said. “On the other hand, every time the nationwide protests have been receding, holding protests in Kurdistan, which is accompanied by more severe repression, has given a new wave of energy and hope to the protests in other parts of Iran.”

Skylar Thompson with the activist news agency HRANA said there’s been a “drastic decline” in recent days in the volume of reports coming out of Kurdish communities due to internet blackouts.

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On Tuesday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said President Biden was “gravely concerned” about the intensifying violence, and reiterated support for “the Iranian women and all the citizens of Iran who are inspiring the world with their bravery.”

Inside Iran, rights groups and activists said it has also become more difficult to document abuse and violence because of widespread fear of government retribution.

“We have many cases where friends contact us and ask us to work on an arrest, but then later the family contacts us and says we have to delete the post,” said Leila Kari with the rights group, Dadban, which provides Iranians with free legal consultation. “Their children are like hostages, and the regime threatens them that if they talk to media, they will kill their children.”

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