Twenty-year-old Sajad Zergani was shot dead by Iranian regime security forces at a checkpoint in the Zawiya neighbourhood of Ahwaz on 16 August. Initial reports suggest that officers opened fire at Sajad and his friend without any warning. Sajad died shortly after. While there are no details to date verifying these accounts or even confirming that the checkpoint was marked or that the two unarmed young men were given any warning, such random shootings of young Ahwazis by regime officers are routine, according to human rights activists in the Arab region of Iran, with the perpetrators not subject to prosecution.
What happened to Sajad?
According to Ahwaz Organisation for the Defence of Human Rights (AODHR), despite dropping out of full-time education before finishing high school, Sajad had been working as a freelance interpreter in the city of Mashhad, primarily in the hospitality industry where he translated from Arabic to Farsi and vice versa for visiting Arab guests among others.
On the day of his death he was on his way to visit his mother in Ahwaz, a trip he made every two or three months when he could take time off for a week’s holiday.
After he spent the previous night with friends in the Zergan neighbourhood, another friend offered Sajad a lift to his mother’s home in the Medan neighbourhood five minutes’ drive away. Upon reaching a checkpoint at around 7am the two young men reportedly got out of the vehicle beside “Checkpoint 18” which is adjacent to an empty open area in the city’s Fourth Street, when they were approached by regime security officers. When the officers told them to stop, Sajad and his friend reportedly panicked and ran away, knowing that regime security forces routinely target young Ahwazi men. The regime officers confirmed that they were right to be wary, opening fire indiscriminately, although both youths were unarmed. Although Sajad’s friend was also shot and injured he managed to escape, but Sajad was fatally wounded when he climbed a low wall in his effort to flee.
The extrajudicial killing of Ahwazi civilians by Iranian forces constitutes a violation of international law. The Iranian state should undertake effective measures to prevent such casualties perpetrated by its security personnel in Ahwaz.https://t.co/Q0MKAsTqYB
— Abdulrahman Hetteh (@AHetteh) August 20, 2018
As if shooting two unarmed youths wasn’t cruel enough, eyewitnesses reported that the officers responsible left Sajad bleeding heavily on the ground while they gathered witness statements, refusing to allow anyone to go near him, provide even basic first aid or call for any ambulance. Even as he lay bleeding heavily, the officers told bystanders that he was a “criminal”, though his only “crime” was to fear the brutality of regime security forces. By the time the officers called for an ambulance, it was too late with the paramedics pronouncing Sajad dead at the scene and took his body straight to the mortuary at the regime’s Legal Medicine Department in the city.
Latest photo of the martyr Sajjad Zergany who were killed by Iranian checkpoint police forces.
He is going to be buried today at 5 pm Ahwaz local time https://t.co/ZZo6D2cM1Q
— Faisal Maramazi (@fmaramazi) August 20, 2018
Although Sajad’s injured friend escaped and returned to his family, his parents knew that police would be looking for him and since he had done nothing wrong, they took him to Checkpoint 18 and handed him over to security forces who took him to hospital. While he was being treated, officers from the regime’s infamous intelligence services arrested him, taking him to an unknown location. Despite pleas by the young man’s parents security services have refused to tell them his whereabouts or even to admit that he’s in regime custody.
Dr. Mohammed Ali Ardabili, a professor of law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, said Iranian law does not allow police to use live fire or to injure or kill unarmed citizens who fail to follow instructions. While police have authority to stop pedestrians and motorists for questioning and to arrest them in certain circumstances, he said, they have no legal justification to shoot or kill those who fail to respond to warnings. Ardabili said that police are obliged under their own code of conduct to endeavour to keep suspects or detainees alive, and that – nominally at least – breaking any of these laws constitutes a crime that should allow relatives to pursue legal action against the officers responsible.
Laws exist in theory only
In Ahwazis’ case however, these laws exist only in theory, with police and security services routinely and randomly opening fire at unarmed civilians, usually young men, without warning or justification and without fear of any legal repercussions; any complaint is more likely to see the complainant arrested than the state security or police officer prosecuted.
With casual anti-Arab racism the norm rather than the exception in the media, the police and security services – almost exclusively ethnically Persian, especially in the higher ranks – know that they don’t need to worry about any repercussions for targeting Ahwazis; many officer regard it almost as “a perk of the job”.
On many occasions, when the police open fire on suspects, they injure bystanders and innocent civilians; these crimes are a commonplace in Ahwaz, with many innocent bystanders simply killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and their grieving families left with no hope of any justice or compensation for their deaths.
On 2 April 2017, an unarmed wheelchair-bound disabled man in the town of Koura in southern Ahwaz capital was killed by stray police gunfire. The same month in the city of Falahiyeh, a young man named Hassan Alboghobesh was killed by stray police gunfire while driving his motorcycle, and others in the same street were wounded. In Sus city on 22 February 2017 another young man was shot dead, this time by stray gunfire from Iranian intelligence service personnel.
Police shootings all too common
Such cases are all too common. On 24 October 2016 Iranian security forces opened fire for no reason at the car of an Ahwazi man named Abbas Sawari while he was driving home with his wife and two-year-old daughter. The toddler died instantly. In November 2015, a young Ahwazi man, Ali Jalali, from the Arfish neighbourhood (known also as Lashkarabad) of the capital, was shot dead by Iranian police force.
In all these cases and many others, the victims’ families had no means of attaining justice or compensation for their loss.
According to the documented evidence, most of the victims of shootings carried out by the Iranian security forces at checkpoints are young Ahwazi men, aged between 16 and 25, mostly riding motorcycles.
Ahwazi human rights activists say that young Ahwazis, who often try to flee when they see police and checkpoints despite having committed no crimes, are extremely justified for doing so. Some are political and civil rights activists who fear arrest, imprisonment and torture simply for having spoken out or criticised the regime in their writings.
Checkpoints are not placed in fixed locations, with police instead setting them up randomly, without setting up anything that identifies them or alert motorists to their existence. Drivers have no way of knowing they have inadvertently ignored and driven through a checkpoint. Police then appear and shoot at the drivers.
Ahwazis often try to avoid passing through checkpoints so as not to be subjected to racist, demeaning and offensive verbal and physical abuse, especially if they’re dressed in traditional Arab clothing which the police and security services see as justification for assaults.
Many Ahwazi activists assert that the Iranian regime’s totalitarian and profoundly racist nature makes such brutality and persecution an integral part of its strategy to intimidate citizens and terrorise them into submission. The regime isn’t only imprisoning Ahwazi activists and sentencing them to death in prison, the activists say, but using the constant threat of lethal violence and everyday harassment against the people, especially the young, to crush, dishearten and dissuade them from the very notion of uprising or fighting for their freedom.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.