The Aban Tribunal: Targeting Impunity and Supporting Victim-Survivors

Marilena Stegbauer

When the Aban atrocity took place, nobody ever thought that a Tribunal would be held after two years to bring to justice those responsible. You are putting [them] on trial. While they are not accountable, and we have to cover our faces to testify here, I’m sure that one day, they will have to cover their faces, and our positions will change.

Witness before the Aban Tribunal

From the 10th to the 14th of November 2021, the Iran Atrocities Tribunal, also known as “Aban Tribunal,” in reference to the month in which the nationwide protests erupted, convened in London. “Aban” is the month in the Persian calendar, in which the nationwide protests erupted and partially corresponds to November and is the term widely used by victim-survivors to refer to the bloody protests that left thousands of Iranians dead, severely injured, arrested and detained, with a significant number facing torture, inhumane and/ or degrading treatment in prison. The Tribunal is the latest offspring amongst a continuous trend of International People’s Tribunals emerging over the last few years alone. Other notable People’s Tribunals focusing on gross human rights abuses include The Iran Tribunal (2012), The Uyghur Tribunal (2020-2022), The China Tribunal (2018-2020) and the ongoing People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists (2021-2022).

While People’s Tribunals lack the authority to issue legally binding judgments, they have proven to be a powerful tool to target impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations and crimes under International Law. People’s Tribunals raise awareness amongst the international community and enable witness-survivors to report their suffering and incurring trauma before an independent and impartial panel of jurors. Therefore, People’s Tribunals can be crucial in providing victim-survivors with a platform to tell their stories and feel a sense of justice that may leave them empowered after having been silenced for so long by their repressive governments.

Furthermore, People’s Tribunals have a crucial role in preserving evidence that might otherwise be lost. Systematically and professionally collected evidence can, for example, prove vital for future legal proceedings under the principle of universal jurisdiction as shown in the successful conviction of an ISIS fighter for the death of an enslaved Yazidi girl in Germany and the ongoing trial of Hamid Noury (Abbassi) in Stockholm for crimes against humanity as chronicled in the Iran Tribunal’s judgment. International courts and bodies, like the International Criminal Court or the UN Human Rights Council, might also rely on these evidence collections in future proceedings to pursue accountability of those responsible on behalf of the international community and the people of Iran.

The Aban Tribunal is currently the only forum that is investigating and documenting the alleged crimes committed under International Law by the Islamic Republic’s leadership pertaining to the 2019 protests following a sudden spike in fuel prices that lasted five days. Its proceedings opened in an extraordinarily speedily manner, commencing on the second anniversary of the atrocities. The majority of witnesses called testified from within Iran where they are subjected to threats by the Islamic Republic, the very government that stands accused of committing the atrocity crimes. Moreover, the Aban Tribunal received an unprecedented attention with the entire five days hearing broadcast live to Iran by 24/7 hours News Channels. It has been estimated that 15 million viewers in Iran followed the proceedings in London. All recordings of the Aban Tribunal are publicly available in English and Persian.

On the 15th of November 2019, the day that the government announced the tripling in price, thousands of Iranians took to the streets. Within a few short hours, tens of thousands more had stopped their cars and joined a peaceful movement that quickly spread across almost all of Iran’s major cities and thirty-one provinces. Many Iranians were simply shocked and faced severe economic hardship through the rise as a witness before the Tribunal explained:

I saw that the crowds were gathering in the streets. […]. I’m also a citizen. I believed I had to participate in the protest because the rise in petrol price would affect all the other goods in the country. […] We just turned off our cars and stayed on the street. There was no violence.

Petroleum and natural gas are resources that are readily available in Iran which makes them affordable to the general population.  In stark contrast to most other resources, petroleum is not directly impacted by U.S. sanctions. Iran has been subjected to sanctions since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which had the Shah (the last king of the Pahlavi dynasty) ousted from power by the Islamist Revolutionaries, leading to the establishment of the “Islamic Republic” and the Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. Following the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by a mob of militarised “Islamic Republic” supporters that led to the Iran hostage crisis, the country faced decades of economic isolation. As a result, Iranians live with an economy that is prone to recessions with the 2020 Household Expenditure and Income Survey revealing a stark rise in poverty.

Although evidence before the Tribunal suggests that the vast majority of protesters were unarmed, they were nonetheless met with violence and brutality by the Islamic Republic’s security apparatus. In the days that followed, amongst a total internet shutdown, protesters were targeted and rounded up by a combination of security forces including the ordinary police, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) or riot police, the Basij; a para-military organisation that systematically recruits troubled or previously convicted minors and plain-clothed forces that cannot be distinguished from ordinary protesters. The role of the plain-clothed officers was to blend in with the crowds and incite violence within them. A former police officer explained:

[…] some of the plainclothes people had arms […] and some of the people who were wearing the local clothes of that city started to shoot at the people and this led to an increase in tension. And as a result, the protesters were provoked.

Evidence before the Tribunal suggests that the forces were under the command of the Military of Intelligence, which had participated in a top-secret Security Council meeting convened on the second day of the protests, Saturday, 16th of November 2019. Confronted with ever-growing masses of protesters on the streets, chanting “death to Khamenei,” evidence before the Tribunal suggests that it was Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei himself who gave the order to “wrap it up.” The Prosecuting Counsel submits that this effectively meant that the security forces received a carte blanche to use whatever means necessary, including lethal force, to bring the protests to an end. Counsel further submitted that this order was conveyed amongst all forces and clearly understood by those bearing arms on the ground to use any force, including lethal force.

As a result, the killings by the security forces intensified on Saturday, 16th of November 2019. Many protesters and bystanders were killed, injured, arrested, tortured, and/or mistreated. Amnesty International verified that there were at least 324 deaths across 37 cities with witnesses before the Aban Tribunal testifying that many of their relatives or friends had been shot in the head, upper torso and back indicating that they were targeted with an intention to kill or seriously injure while fleeing the unfolding massacre as a witness recalls:

In the afternoon of the 16th, I needed to go to Sadra township and when I entered… […] in the past I have also experienced war and […] I realised that […] it was a scene of war. On the one hand, you had the ordinary people, on the other side you had the armed individuals who were shooting them […]

In their closing statement of the November 2021 hearings in London, Chairman of the Tribunal, Wayne Jordash QC, stated that the figure provided by Amnesty International may well be only a fraction of the actual deaths that occurred as a result of the actions of the security forces. Furthermore, various reports issued by the UN and other international organisations confirm that 1000s of protesters were arrested during or in the direct aftermath of the Aban protests. In a coordinated effort, using Kalashnikovs and other weapons of war, security forces, including ordinary police and the Basij, rounded up protesters, often with the use of motorcycles or helicopters so that they could be arrested by the IRGC. Moreover, many witnesses testified that ambulances were used to arrest critically injured protesters under the disguise of providing medical assistance:

Then we saw that the ambulance took this [wounded] person […]. We realised, […] the ambulance wasn’t gonna go to the hospital but is going to the police station. […] Rather than helping them, they would arrest them.

Once arrested, protesters were held by a variety of security agents often without access to family or lawyers. Many were subjected to torture and ill-treatment designed to intimidate and humiliate and/or force the victims to admit criminal conduct or implicate foreign agents for their involvement in the protest. As confirmed by scores of witnesses, ill-treatment and torture included electric shocks, sexual violence and threats, beatings, and being forced into physically stressful positions. The Tribunal also heard evidence that minors were physically and psychologically tortured in front of other detainees.

In August 2021, Counsel to the Aban Tribunal identified and subsequently “charged” 160 individuals. All had the opportunity to present their defence during the November hearings in London or appoint a legal representative. Importantly, their failure to do so will not be considered as adverse to them and the Tribunal will not draw adverse inferences from their failure to defend themselves. As of today, none of the 160 accused has been investigated or formally charged in Iran. Therefore, The Aban Tribunal is the only avenue for victim-survivors to seek support against their suffering and address the web of impunity in Iran. Seeking accountability for grave human rights violations is not only crucial for the sake of their lived experience but might as well prevent future crimes.