Protesters say they fear Iran’s security services may be planning an assault in the city of Zahedan – the site of a deadly attack on civilians last year – as reports emerge that there are thousands of armed police on the streets.
Fifteen checkpoints have been put up in the past week across the city, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province, and several people have been detained by security forces.
“All entrances and exits to and from the city have been blocked and they’ve set up checkpoints,” said Mohammad*, who is in his 20s and one of thousands of protesters who march around the city each Friday after prayers. “We have no idea how many were detained and where they were taken.”
Several cities in the largely Sunni Muslim province in the south-east of Iran are now surrounded by security forces, said Mohammad. He fears snipers will kill protesters “the moment we hit the streets” – a repeat of what happened in Zahedan just a few months ago on what is now known as “Bloody Friday”.
Friday’s protests were peaceful, but Farzin Kadkhodaei, a human rights activist from Baluchistan, said everyone entering or leaving the city is now being searched. “They’re looking at their phones, especially if they’re young.” Most of those arrested do not have identity cards, he added. “There’s no one following up on their situation.”
Kadkhodaei said the city feels as if it is under siege. He said police have begun filming protesters, including near the city’s Makki mosque, who they later arrest. “People are being abducted from homes, parks and, from 1 January, they’ve started making mass arrests,” he said, estimating that at least 114 people were seized in the first week of January. “We don’t even know if they’re alive or dead.” One of the detainees, Hossien Khashani, was severely tortured, he said.
Pro-regime media released a video apparently showing six recently detained protesters shooting at security officers.
The Guardian has learned that families of detainees have been visiting courts around the city in the hope of seeing their loved ones. “The release of minors who have been arrested depends entirely on the mood that day of the guards. They released a few teenagers and the rest are still in prison,” said Kadkhodaei.
One of the protesters, Shoaib Mirbaluchzehi-Regi, 18, has been sentenced to death. He has reportedly been tortured, stripped and sat in front of a cooler. The interrogation officers allegedly forced him to confess that he belonged to an armed militia group. When he had denied the charges, he was tortured and refused legal support, activists said.
The province of Sistan-Baluchistan has “borne the brunt of security forces’ vicious crackdown on demonstrations”, said Amnesty International, which reported 18 people – including two children – were killed by security forces during protests in the city of Khash on 4 November.
With increased surveillance and disrupted internet connections, Skylar Thompson, the head of advocacy at Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRA), said it was difficult to verify what is going on in Zahedan and that while situation feels dangerous, there is no indication the city is under siege as yet.
“We don’t have information that the city is under siege but it is, however, the only place in Iran where the protests are continuing,” she said. “It’s true that the atmosphere in the city does feel rather unsafe. We have noted that there are more checkpoints in the city. But I think that this is due to the appointment of a new governor.”
Mohammad Karami, a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in the south-east of Iran, was appointed governor in December. “I think that this has understandably heightened the fear in the area,” Thompson said.
Sara*, who joined Friday’s protests in Zahedan, said she won’t be deterred by the heavy police presence.
“Security forces have been attacking the Baloch areas for about two weeks. At least 15 checkpoints have been set up in and around our city this week. They will try to threaten us and we are not going to be afraid,” she said, and added that she has also lost family and friends during the protests.
She called Iran’s government “anti-human and anti-women”.
“This government has discriminated against the Baluchis, Kurds, Sunnis, Bahá’ís and other national minorities since the beginning [of the Islamic Republic]. But these discriminations are more painful in Baluchistan. Because they are both Baloch and Sunni, and Baluchistan is the poorest region of Iran.”
She said the authorities were deliberately trying to keep people in the province poor and ignorant, “because if they know their rights, they want their rights and this is dangerous for the government”.
* Names have been changed