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‘Bloody Friday’: Witnesses describe deadliest occurrence in Iran protests

The shooting started in Zahedan before Friday prayers had ended.

Thousands of worshipers had gathered in Zahedan’s Great Mosalla, a large open-air space in the southeastern Iranian city, on Sept. 30, when a handful of young men broke away and began chanting slogans at a nearby police station. A man, 28, said his 18-year-old brother was with them. He spoke to The Washington Post on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Following his brother, the young man made his way through the crowd and encountered a shocking scene: plainclothes police and security officers fired at the protesters from the roof of the police station and other buildings. Security forces also started firing at the Mosalla, where people were still praying.

“They shot a lot, and this way and that way I saw people being shot and falling,” the young man said in a telephone interview from Zahedan. “A lot of people were shot and they crawled on the ground to buses or other cars to hide behind them. I just wanted to find my brother and leave.”

What happened that day — already known in Iran as “Bloody Friday” — is by far the deadliest government crackdown on protesters since demonstrations began across the country nearly a month ago. Internet service has been interrupted or severely disrupted in the region for the past two weeks, as has the mobile network, making it difficult to trace how the violence developed. The Post interviewed two witnesses to the September 30 crackdown, including the young man, who described security forces using deadly and indiscriminate force against peaceful protesters.

The Post could not independently confirm their stories, but their stories were corroborated by local activists and matched the findings of rights groups.

The Friday demonstration in Zahedan was announced on social media earlier that week in solidarity with the uprising that has gripped the country since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in the custody of the ‘morality police’. on Sept 16. But the protesters, many of them ethnic Baluch – a minority group living mainly in southeastern Iran and across the border into Pakistan – also had local motivations.

They were outraged by reports that a 15-year-old girl had been raped while in police custody in the city of Chabahar in early September. This Baluch girl was their Amini, another young woman they believe had been abused by state security forces. The crowd chanted “Death to the dictator” and “The rapist must be punished” that day as security forces opened fire.

The 28-year-old frantically called his brother’s phone and eventually found him behind a white Peugeot. They ducked down and walked out of the area, positioning themselves between a line of cars and a Mosalla boundary wall. The brothers had only walked a short distance when they saw a mutual friend, who beckoned them to escape with them. Then gunshots rang out again.

“[Our friend] was shot twice in the back, just two or three meters away from me,” said the young man in a exhausted voice. “One of the bullets hit his heart. He was martyred there.”

“According to the evidence we’ve gathered, what happened in Mosalla was a massacre,” said Mansoureh Mills, an Iran researcher at Amnesty International, who counted at least 66 people that afternoon. Other human rights organizations estimate the death toll even higher.

“Killing children and people who were praying…I don’t see what else it could be called,” Mills said.

The Iranian government stepped up the use of force against protesters after an order from the country’s top military body on Sept. 21 to “seriously confront troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries,” according to a leaked document obtained by Amnesty and reviewed by The Post.

The security forces appear to be enforcing this broad-based order with an even stronger hand in ethnic minority areas such as Baluchistan, as well as in Kurdistan in western Iran, where Amini came from and where the protests started.

The Baluch, like the Kurds, have long been neglected by the Iranian government. The area where most of them live, the provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, is among the poorest in the country. The Baluch and Kurds are also predominantly Sunni communities in a country ruled by a theocratic Shia government.

The state’s response in these areas “has been particularly brutal,” said Ali Vaez, Iran’s project director for the International Crisis Group. He warned that the government’s actions “further exacerbated the risk of continued unrest”.

After the initial shooting around the police station, security forces also fired on crowds gathered around the Makki Mosque, a short distance from the Mosalla. Bullets riddled the front of the mosque and tear gas canisters were fired into the prayer room, activists said, including the women’s section, where mothers took shelter with their children.

By this time, the young man and his brother had gathered a group of protesters to carry their friend’s body to Makki Mosque. A helicopter circled overhead, the young man told The Post, and gunmen inside regularly fired into the crowd. They “shot from above and we had to enter the mosque,” the man recalled.

Many of the dead and injured had been taken to the mosque by noon; protesters threw rocks at security forces to keep them away, witnesses said. So many people were injured that there was a shortage of blood in local hospitals, activists reported.

A 60-year-old man living in the Shirabad district of northern Zahedan received news that his 25-year-old son had been fatally shot and that his body was in the mosque. The man got there with great difficulty and asked others to help carry his son’s body home.

“When we tried to remove my son’s body, two people were shot in front of me near the door of the Makki mosque. One was shot in the head and the other in the chest,” the father said in a telephone interview from Zahedan, sharing his story on condition of anonymity. “We waited until sunset before we could leave.”

State media reported that three members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps were also killed that day. Among them was Colonel Hamid Reza Hashemi, a deputy intelligence commander of the Guards in Sistan and Baluchistan, according to the semi-official Tasnim News Agency.

The government has tried to blame Jaish al-Adl, a local militant group, for the violence, but the group has denied any role in the protests, and activists and witnesses interviewed by The Post say they have no armed groups. demonstrators in the crowd. In a statement the day after the attacks, the commander of the Guards Corps, General Hossein Salami, vowed to take revenge on the fallen security personnel.

“The Salami statement is a threat to the people,” said Abdollah Aref, director of the Baluch Activists Campaign, an advocacy group in Britain. “What they say is if you come out on the street, we’ll shoot and kill you.”

The young man and his brother made it home safely that Friday, but violence followed them. As protests in their neighborhood continued over the next few days, security forces responded with deadly force.

“They would wear local Baluchi clothes so they wouldn’t be recognized and people wouldn’t think they have ties to the government,” the man said. “They came in civilian cars and civilian clothes, shot people and left.”

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