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Iran's crackdown risks blinding protesters

Amid rising alarm about protesters held incommunicado, medics and activists fear injury and even permanent blindness from birdshot fired by security forces.
Iranians gather during a protest to voice their anger after their province's lifeblood river dried up due to drought and diversion, in the central city of Isfahan, on Nov. 19, 2021.

Iranian activists expressed serious concern about 214 protesters arrested during last week's rallies against water mismanagement in the central city of Isfahan.

In a statement Dec. 29, the Center for Human Rights in Iran said the country's officials were responsible for those held in custody, many of them incommunicado, including at least 13 children.

The initially peaceful protests continued for two weeks on the drained basin of the Zayandeh-Roud River, chosen as a symbolic venue to highlight the plight of water shortages in central Iran. Last Thursday and Friday, however, the rallies turned ugly and quickly spilled over into the entire city after a pre-dawn raid by riot police who reportedly burned the protesters' tents.

Videos on social media showed demonstrators shouting slogans against Iran's most powerful man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many were seen severely wounded, lying motionless on streets, including teenagers, women and elderly farmers, who became the face of the protests.

Since the arrests, activists have been collecting reports on the widespread use of birdshot  fired into the eyes of the demonstrators. According to those accounts, confirmed by medical sources, at least 30 people were being treated for injuries in their eyes. One 15-year-old protester was said to have gone permanently blind as doctors had to remove his both eyes. 

In an Instagram post, an Isfahan-based ophthalmologist described targeting the protesters' eyes as a "crime" and wrote "Riot police are expected to disperse the crowds … rather than kill or leave them disabled."

In solidarity with the protesters suffering eye injuries, Iranians took to social media with patches on their eyes. Among them were mothers of two protesters who were shot dead in the 2019 November unrest, which was brutally silenced and became the deadliest crackdown on street protests in the Islamic Republic's history.

The advocacy group's statement urged the international community to investigate the Isfahan crackdown as part of "the systematic violation of human rights in Iran." It further lamented the tendency toward "intensifying violence" against Iranian protesters as a "clear indication of the ruling establishment's growing intolerance for voices of dissent."

Iranian authorities have vowed "robust legal action" against "the rioters," some of whom were "armed with pistols". After previous rounds of unrest, many detainees have faced trials, ending in long-term imprisonment, and in some cases death penalties. The country's hard-line judiciary chief, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, has now linked the Isfahan protesters to foreign governments and has accused them of "surfing on the tides by disrupting public order."

Elsewhere, the state TV aired "confessions" by some of the detained "riot leaders" — a signature practice of the hard-line broadcaster, which it has persistently used for decades despite serious criticism.

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