Balochi protests in late February rocked the Iranian city of Saravan in the Sistan and Balochistan province. These demonstrations led to strong condemnations because of the excessive violence unleashed against innocent Balochi protestors. Iran’s leadership has not accepted responsibility for the excessive violence, despite the harrowing accounts.
Protests flared up after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) blocked a road to stop the Balochi people from smuggling fuel to sell in Pakistan. The shootings began when Balochi fuel smugglers reportedly attempted to break through a blocked road set up by the IRGC. A fuel smuggler, AbdolHamid Esmail Zehi, was shot dead first. At least 10 other Balochi fuel smugglers were killed and five others wounded in clashes with the IRGC. Other reports said Iranian border guards lined up dozens of fuel smugglers and shot them. It is reported that 23 were killed after this deadly shooting.
At the national level, the public condemnations in the aftermath of the harrowing shootings were quickly silenced. However, Saravan’s Friday prayer leader said the shootings had to be condemned as they violated Iranian law. Molavi Abdulhamid, the Sunni Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, called the shootings a crime. Five Iranian members of Parliament visited Saravan and were told that the local people needed food to survive after they were prevented from smuggling fuel to sell in Pakistan.
Internationally, the United Nations and the US State Department condemned Iran’s harsh response to the protests. Amnesty International condemned the shootings, sdeclaring them to be unlawful. Human Rights Watch demanded a transparent investigation and called on the Iranian government to comply with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. A campaign led by Balochi activists is demanding those involved in killing Balochi protesters to be held to account and for justice to be delivered. The Balochi people represent a severely impoverished ethnic minority in Iran.
This latest excessive use of violence shocked the Balochi people as cross-border fuel smuggling had been tolerated in the past. To facilitate fuel smuggling, the state-run Razzagh Plan distributed “fuel cards” to the Balochi people living within 20 kilometers of Pakistan’s border. These “fuel cards” allowed the Balochi people to buy fuel at subsidized rates and then to smuggle and sell in Pakistan.
But with Iran struggling to sell fuel in recent years due to a tight US-led sanctions regime, the IRGC took over the Razzagh Plan which had been supposedly established to help the Balochi people. The IRGC took over the remaining 30 percent of shares in the Razzagh Plan, after owning 70 percent of shares previously. This control will allow the IRGC to further strengthen its domination over the economic and political management in the Sistan and Balochistan province; hence increasing its interference in the lives of the Balochi people who have suffered excessively at the hands of the IRGC.
Local authorities blamed the shootings on Pakistani border guards. The Deputy Governor for Security Affairs in the Sistan and Balochistan province Mohammad Hadi Marashi held meetings with local tribal leaders, claiming that only three people were killed, despite most accounts indicating a much greater number.
Amnesty International said that the city of Saravan experienced near total internet shutdown as the protests flared up on February 23. Later in the day, videos emerged showing the IRGC shooting at unarmed civilians, and killing at least one child. Some 2,000 to 3,000 people participated in the protests, and were shot at for 10 minutes.
When the protests eventually subsided, one issue became very clear. The increased securitization of the border areas in Iran has made it unsafe for the Balochi people. The Sistan and Balochistan province is heavily guarded now and considered to be a securitized border zone, where Iran’s military and intelligence officers remain extremely active. And although Iran’s government has promised to probe the border shootings, it is likely that this probe – like others – will be brushed under the carpet, highlighting its lack of concern and interest in the suffering of the Balochi people.