The tragic death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini – in Kurdish, Jhina Amini –is a deeply shocking manifestation of an entire state machinery designed and enforced to discriminate against women and violate the rights of all individuals with impunity. Her death, which has shocked the conscience of many across the world, and the authorities’ violent response to growing protests against her treatment and the broader context of oppression, are yet another wake-up call for the international community, in particular the state members of the UN Human Rights Council. Without robust action to hold the Iranian authorities accountable, people in Iran will continue to pay with their lives and safety simply for exercising their human rights.
Iran’s ‘morality police’, which enforce the country’s discriminatory and degrading obligatory veiling laws, arbitrarily detained Mahsa/Jhina Amini for wearing ‘improper hijab’ on 13 September 2022 as she came out of Tehran’s Haghani metro station, according to an interview given by her mother.
She was subsequently taken to a police van and transferred to Vozara detention centre in Tehran. Her brother, who was with her at the time of arrest and awaited her release outside of the detention centre, has said that it took less than two hours between her detainment and her being wheeled out in coma.
On 15 September 2022, two days following her arrest, photo and video evidence emerged showing Mahsa/Jhina Amini in the intensive care unit at Kasra Hhospital in Tehran. The images revealed that she had clear bruises under her eyes and showed blood streaming out of one of her ears, signs which may be indicative of brain injury sustained as a result of trauma to the head. Kasra Hospital subsequently issued a statement on its Instagram page, which later appeared to have been removed, stating Mahsa/Jhina Amini arrived in their care ‘having suffered a cardiac arrest’ and with ‘no vital signs’. According to the statement, Amini was resuscitated but suffered another cardiac arrest after 48 hours and, given that she was ‘brain dead’, it was not possible for the medical team to resuscitate her.
“Words fail to express the shocking nature of the death in custody of a young woman detained by the Iranian authorities simply for exercising her human rights after credible allegations of torture and other ill treatment. Mahsa/Jhina Amini is the latest victim of structures designed to strip millions of people in Iran of their human rights while granting perpetrators of gross human rights violations and crimes under international law absolute impunity,” said Saloua Ghazouani, ARTICLE 19’s Director for Middle East and North Africa.
“Mahsa/Jhina Amini should have never been arrested and detained. Her arrest, which in itself constituted a blatant violation of international human rights law, was then followed by even graver violations. Effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations must be carried out into the causes and circumstances surrounding her death in custody and the allegations of torture and other ill-treatment. All those responsible must face justice,” Saloua Ghazouani continued.
State denials amid a crisis of impunity
Immediately after reports emerged that Mahsa/Jhina Amini was hospitalised following her arrest and witness testimonies indicating that she had been beaten in the van on the way to the station, the Iranian authorities made statements in an attempt to evade responsibility. Consistent with long-standing patterns of denial and concealment of crimes they commit and their refusal to conduct investigations in line with international law, they claimed that she had suffered from a stroke and a heart attack while in custody. On 19 September, Hossein Rahimi, the commander of the police forces in Tehran, stated that investigations conducted by himself and ‘special teams’ had shown that ‘there was not even the slightest misconduct or wrongdoings by the officers’. He further described the police forces as faultless and defended them against ‘unjust attacks’ and added that the news about the cause of Mahsa/Jhina’s death circulating online were ‘lies’ and that people should not pay attention to such ‘rumours’.
Mahsa/Jhina Amini’s father has refuted the statements made by Hossein Rahimi. He has stated that the authorities tried to prevent the family from seeing his daughter’s body so that they would not be able to see the marks on it, but that he had been able to see bruises on her legs.
Hossein Rahimi has also stated that the police have taken the statements of two other women who had been arbitrarily detained at the same time as Mahsa/Jhina Amini and were present in the same van. They allege these statements show that the police officers did not commit any wrongdoings. ARTICLE 19 is alarmed by these official statements and highlights the authorities’ well-documented and systematic practice of obtaining statements and ‘confessions’ under coercion, including through torture and other ill treatment, as well as their harassment, intimidation and persecution of witnesses to human rights violations and crimes under international law. In some cases, individuals, including prisoners and medical staff, who have witnessed violations and crimes such as torture and deaths in custody, have themselves died under suspicious circumstances.
The authorities have also released vague and edited surveillance videos showing a woman collapsing while in the morality police station. In the video, a woman is seen approaching and speaking with a female officer before holding her temples and collapsing on chairs in the station. According to Hossein Rahimi, while ‘morality police officers are equipped with body cameras, in this case [Mahsa Jhina’s Amini’s arrest], they did not have cameras’.
ARTICLE 19 stresses that even if the woman depicted in the videos released by Iran’s police forces is Mahsa/Jhina Amini, the footage will not refute the allegations of torture and other ill treatment, which could have taken place at the time of arrest or during transportation to the detention centre. The release of such videos fails to even constitute a step towards meeting the bare minimum of state obligations under under international law and standards in cases where allegations of torture and other ill treatment emerge and/or in case of deaths in custody.
Violent crackdown on protests and internet shutdowns
As they issued statements to evade responsibility, the Iranian authorities simultaneously deployed police and security forces around Kasra Hospital and arrested individuals who gathered in solidarity and protesters were arrested, sometimes violently. The family of Mahsa/Jhina Amiri also reported threats from authorities, including being pressured to give remarks in support of authorities during Friday prayers, and being forced to coordinate the burial according to the stipulations of authorities.
“The Iranian authorities’ response to widespread and global outrage and outcry to Mahsa/Jhina’s death in custody mirrors their responses to countless other cases of deaths in custody, killing protesters, and other gross violations and crimes. They are manifest reflections of the deepening crisis of impunity in the country and the state’s policy of resorting to even higher levels of violence to quell criticisms and protests. ARTICLE 19 reiterates its calls on the member states of the UN Human Rights Council to urgently establish an international independent investigative mechanism in order to tackle the ongoing crisis of impunity in Iran and avoid another bloodshed,” said Saloua Ghazouani.
Since 16 September, protests against the authorities’ treatment of Mahsa/Jhina Amini, discriminatory and degrading hijab laws, and the broader context of oppression and gross human rights violations have been on the increase. ARTICLE 19 has been deeply alarmed by emerging reports of torture and other ill treatment at the time and following the arrests of protesters.
Amongst the cases, Leila Mirghafoori, an activist, was detained for 24 hours after protesting in front of Kasra Hospital following the announcement of Mahsa/Jhina Amini’s death on Friday, 16 September. She reported to the Human Rights Activists Network that a female officer threatened to kill her and choked her while she was held in a morality police van.
ARTICLE 19 is also deeply concerned by reports of the unlawful use of force by Iranian police and security forces. This has included the use of live ammunition, as well as ammunition containing multiple projectiles such as metal pellets, against protesters in several cities and provinces and the reported deaths of protesters as a result.
We are also alarmed by the local internet shutdowns that have been ongoing since the day of Mahsa/Jhina Amini’s burial. Shutdowns have been reported in Sanandaj and neighboring cities in the province of Kurdistan and there are indications of further disruptions as protests spread across the country. As of 19 September, we have been seeing mobile internet shutdowns in areas of protests in Tehran and severe national disruptions. The shutdowns and disruptions are particularly concerning given the precedent of the internet shutdowns of November 2019, when the authorities used the darkness of a shutdown to kill, maim and arrest protesters and bystanders with impunity.
ARTICLE 19 stresses that not only is Iran under an international obligation to uphold the rights of people to peaceful assembly and protest, but must ensure that protesters’ other human rights, including their right to life and freedom from torture and other ill treatment are strictly protected in the context of assemblies. Firearms must never be used as a public order management tool for dispersing protesters; under international law, police and security forces may only use firearms in order to defend themselves or others against an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and only when less extreme and harmful means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. The use of ammunition containing multiple projectiles such as birdshot, which are inherently indiscriminate, and cause painful, severe, irreversible and even fatal injuries, must be prohibited as they violate the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill treatment.
The Iranian authorities must immediately cease the use of lethal force during protests when protesters pose no imminent threat of life or serious injury to security forces or others, as well as their unlawful use of ammunition containing multiple projectiles such as birdshot.
ARTICLE 19 continues to monitor the ongoing violent crackdown on the protests, including measures to shut down and/or disrupt the internet.
Iran’s discriminatory and degrading hijab and morality laws
Obligatory hijab laws and their enforcement by states’ police and security forces violate the rights of millions of women and girls in Iran, who face systematic, widespread and legally-entrenched forms of discrimination and violence. Video footage regularly emerges showing police and security forces violently arresting women, including by beating and kicking them and dragging them to the ground. Many women have also shared on social media platforms and elsewhere experiences of violent treatment by state forces enforcing hijab and morality laws, which have included beatings inside police vans. ARTICLE 19 stresses that such deliberate conduct that includes slapping, kicking, and dragging on the ground by state police and security forces, where this conduct is designed to intimidate, punish or discriminate against women and girls and cause severe physical or mental pain and suffering constitutes torture: a crime under international law.
Articles 638 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, in flagrant violation of international human rights law, criminalises the public removal of hijab. Under the Article, any act that is deemed ‘offensive’ to public decencies is punished with an imprisonment term of between 10 days and 2 months, or 74 lashes. A Note to the Article stipulates that women who are seen in public without veiling are to be punished with an imprisonment term of between 10 days and 2 months or a cash fine. Article 639 of the Code, which criminalises ‘encouragement to corruption’, allows the authorities to arrest and prosecute individuals for encouraging others to remove hijab.
Obligatory veiling laws, which make criminals of women and girls who exercise their human rights and refuse to wear the hijab, constitute an extreme form of discrimination and violate a whole host of rights, including the right to equality, privacy and freedom of expression, religion and belief, and the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and punishments. These laws have been enforced for decades by state actors and emboldened non-state actors and vigilantes to subject women to violence, including through verbal harassment and physical assault. This degrades women and girls and strip them of their dignity.
In the context of a growing movement against obligatory veiling, these provisions, as well as other provisions under the Islamic Penal Code, have been systematically used to arbitrary arrest and detain women who protest against mandatory hijab. In July 2022, a 28-year-old woman, Sepideh Rashno who was filmed confronting a civilian religious vigilante trying to force her to conform to hijab laws, was arbitrarily arrested and detained. Subsequently, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) aired a video ‘confession’ in which Sepideh Reshno was made to apologise; visible bruising could be seen on her face. According to reports, Sepideh Rashno had been beaten in custody and was taken to the hospital for internal bleeding before appearing on the video.
In July 2022, new guidance for stricter enforcement of hijab, including through gender segregation in the workplace and denying women access to government services, banks, and other state institutions if they do not observe mandatory dress rules, were announced.
In recent years, the Iranian authorities have attempted to repackage and propagate their enforcement of discriminatory and degrading obligatory veiling laws as ‘educational and orientation’ initiatives. In December 2017, Iran’s police forces announced that the morality police were no longer ‘arresting’ those breaking the Islamic dress codes, but merely ‘offering’ them ‘education classes to reform their behaviour’. In his 19 September statement, Hossein Rahimi, the commander of Tehran’s police, stated that ‘undoubtedly, individuals who do not conform with Islamic dress code must be referred to the judicial system [for prosecution], but we do not do this and instead hold educational classes for them.’
ARTICLE 19 highlights that women and girls are arrested, often violently, and prosecuted for not conforming with obligatory veiling laws on a daily basis. We further stress that ‘educational and orientation’ initiatives, which are celebrated and promoted by the authorities, violate an array of women’s human rights including their rights to freedom of thought, religion and belief, freedom of expression, equality and freedom from inhumane, degrading and humiliating treatment and punishment.
In her 2006 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief (A/HRC/4/21 2006) expressed concerns about the incompatibility of forcible imposition of religious dress code on women and girls with international human rights law. She also stated that denying women and girls the right to wear religious symbols when they freely choose to do so was incompatible with international human rights law.
International law: Investigations into torture and other ill treatment and unlawful deaths
Under international law, states are under an obligation to criminalise torture, and to conduct prompt, independent, transparent and impartial investigations wherever there is ‘reasonable ground’ to believe that an act of torture or other ill treatment has been committed even when if there is no formal complaint.
Where admissible evidence exists, they must prosecute in fair criminal proceedings all those ordering, perpetrating, or attempting to perpetrate, participate, or who are complicit in acts of torture, including pursuant to superior orders. Those convicted must be subjected to appropriate penalties that take into account the grave nature of their acts.
States also have an obligation to carry out impartial, independent and effective investigations in a prompt and transparent manner, where they know or should have known of any potentially unlawful deaths. This includes where there exist reasonable allegations of a potentially unlawful death even if there are no formal complaints. The duty to investigate potentially unlawful deaths is an essential part of upholding the right to life.