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Iran: Security Forces Killing Kurdish Border Couriers

Human RightsIran: Security Forces Killing Kurdish Border Couriers

Iranian authorities have used excessive and lethal force against predominantly Kurds crossing the border from Iraq with goods for resale.High rates of unemployment and poverty are among the drivers for people to work as border couriers, known as Kulbars, legally or illegally, which is a physically demanding and dangerous work.Iranian authorities should develop sustainable economic opportunities in border regions to reduce dependency on border courier work for these communities to economically survive.

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities have used excessive and lethal force against predominantly Kurdish border couriers, known in Kurdish and Farsi as Kulbars, transporting goods between Iran and Iraq over rugged terrain, Human Rights Watch said today. The couriers have limited access to justice or remedy for these violations, and Iranian authorities have mistreated those they have detained.

Iranian authorities have long repressed and marginalized Kurdish communities. High rates of unemployment and poverty are among the main drivers for people to work as border couriers, legally or illegally, which is a physically demanding and dangerous work even beyond the additional dangers posed by Iranian security forces. United for Iran, a human rights group, said that the border couriers are mostly men and boys ages 13 to 65. But that they include some women. Iranian authorities have claimed that they have used force to stop smuggling but have also said they want to regulate the border couriers’ economic activities more broadly rather than violently repress it.

“Iranian security forces’ excessive use of lethal force against Kurdish border couriers is one more way that authorities repress socially and economically marginalized Kurdish communities,” said Nahid Naghshbandi, acting Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Iranian authorities should develop sustainable economic opportunities in border regions to reduce dependency on border courier work for these communities to economically survive.”

Between October 2021 and April 2024, Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 Kurdish border couriers who were survivors of and/or witnesses to Iranian security forces’ use of excessive and lethal force or relatives of victims. Witnesses said that Iran’s FARAJA Border Guard force and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were among the units that targeted the border couriers with lethal force.

Incidents documented occurred along Iran-Iraq border areas in the Iranian provinces of Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan. All 13 people were Kurdish, interviews were conducted remotely in Kurdish and Farsi, and interviewees described incidents that occurred between 2014 and 2023.

Six people interviewed said that Iranian security forces aimed at them and shot them, and that they had seen others shot. Two said that Iranian security forces shot and killed their relatives who worked as border couriers. One lost a leg after stepping on a landmine. Human Rights Watch reviewed medical records and court documents of six survivors of landmine and gunshot injuries, including two people who lost limbs after landmine explosions. Three said that Iranian security forces detained and beat them while shouting insults.

Ebrahim Raeesi, the recently deceased presidentsuggested in meetings with Kurdish communities that authorities should regulate Kurdish border couriers work rather than deeming it illegal. Since 2020, there have been plans in the government and parliament on regulatory measures for border couriers’ work, support for border communities’ socioeconomic needs, and calls to limit the use of lethal force against Kulbars.

Yet, officials in Iran’s security forces have framed this activity as a security issue. On December 16, 2018, Espadana Khabar News Agency, quoting General Qasem Rezaei, the commander of Iran’s border guards, saying that “borders are defined by law; any unauthorized crossing of the border is considered a crime….”

According to a July 8 report by the Centre for Supporters of Human Rights (CSHR), a nongovernmental organization established in the United Kingdom dedicated to advocating for sustainable peace and democracy in Iran and the broader Middle East by promoting human rights, many border couriers are involved in legitimate cross-border trade and not engaged in unlawful activities.

In June 2023, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security Commission announced the completion of a review of pending legislation, with proposed amendments that not only broaden the range of authorities authorized to use firearms but also the conditions under which they can do so. If passed into law, the amendments would put the couriers at even greater risk.

Instead of enabling even more lethal force against Kurdish border couriers, Iranian authorities should restrict the blatant use of lethal force against them, ensure their due process rights, and hold the forces who unlawfully attack them accountable for these violations

Acting Iran Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Iranian authorities’ use of lethal force against those crossing the border has led to deadly consequences for hundreds of these workers. The Kurdistan Press Agency, known as Kurdpa, reported that at least 44 were killed and 463 injured between March 21, 2023, and March 21, 2024. According to the report, military forces were responsible for over 80 percent of these casualties, and that at least 28 of the casualties were children. In a separate report, Kurdpa provided statistics indicating that from 2011 to 2024, at least 2,463 couriers have been killed and injured from the Iranian Kurdish regions of Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and Western Azerbaijan.

Access to remedy and justice for the border couriers remains severely limited, exacerbating their social and economic marginalization. Despite the frequent and often fatal assaults they face, legal recourse is minimal and accountability for state agents is rare. Iran’s legal system prioritizes national security over individual rights, leaving the victims with little protection under the law. Efforts to seek justice are often thwarted by systemic biases, lack of transparency, and the broad discretionary powers granted to security forces.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent their escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable to protect life.

The United Nations Fact-Finding Mission, as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, should monitor and report on the treatment of Kurdish border couriers in Iran.

“Instead of enabling even more lethal force against Kurdish border couriers, Iranian authorities should restrict the blatant use of lethal force against them, ensure their due process rights, and hold the forces who unlawfully attack them accountable for these violations,” Naghshbandi said.

Border Couriers in Kurdish Regions

Border couriers, who are often Kurdish, transport goods between Iran and Iraq by bypassing customs, typically earning payment based on the weight and type of goods they carry. The Kurdish word Kulbar, is derived from “Kul” meaning back and “bar” meaning carrier. They often carry loads weighing between 25 to 50 kilograms (55 to 110 pounds), sometimes heavier, along mountainous routes averaging around 10 kilometers, with some routes stretching longer distances. A small number also carry their loads on horses and mules. Payment varies depending on factors such as load weight, route, and economic conditions.

The border couriers typically transport consumer goods legally available for sale. This includes a range of items such as tea, packaged foods, electronics, textiles, footwear, clothing, kitchenware, health and beauty products, tires, mobile phones, and occasionally cigarettes. Border couriers told Human Rights Watch that alcoholic beverages are generally avoided because there are prohibitions on transporting alcohol and alcoholic consumption, which can result in significant fines or imprisonment.

Kurdish border couriers told Human Rights Watch that Iranian security forces frequently shot at or assaulted them without warning, even when they were not carrying any goods. A 31-year-old man from Sardasht in Western Azerbaijan province said that in July 2018, security forces began shooting at him and fellow couriers from a distance of 10 meters (32.8 feet) without warning. The security forces shot him in the spine, leaving him paralyzed.

A 33-year-old man from the region Hawraman, which is located in both Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces, said he witnessed a border courier in front of him being shot and tried to help move him to a hospital.

“In fall 2023, about 2,000 couriers were gathered when security forces suddenly attacked,” he said. “They fired shots into the air, hoping we’d flee, but many held onto our goods. When they saw this, they began shooting into the crowd. With no way to run, they accused us of smuggling weapons, which was untrue. Someone lower down in the mountains was shot in the leg. We tried to help him, but security forces initially blocked us.”

Many border couriers are also killed and injured by landmines, many of them remnants from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. However, some said they believed some of the mines were placed recently as explosions occurred along routes they had previously used and believed to be safe.

A 33-year-old man from Piranshahr in Western Azerbaijan province said that he lost his leg from a landmine explosion when he was 30. He said that many of his family members also were border couriers. Security forces had also shot his brother and killed his cousin.

Provinces with large Kurdish communities like Kermanshah and Kurdistan were among the top 10 provinces with the highest unemployment rates last year, as reported by AsrIran news website, and many border couriers come from these areas. Eleven border couriers said that they turned to this work as a last resort because they could not find any other employment opportunities and needed to support their families. Four men said that they started working as border couriers as young as age 11.

A 36-year-old man from Sardasht, in Western Azerbaijan province, said that when he was 8, his father stepped on a landmine and died while working as a border courier. The son started doing the same work at age 11 to help cover family expenses.

Some people said they took up this work because other available jobs offer unsustainably low wages. A 33-year-old man from Hawraman said that despite having a bachelor’s degree, he could not get a stable government job. The private-sector jobs he found paid so poorly that he could barely afford his rent. He started working as a border courier to cover his rent and provide for himself and his wife.

Security Forces’ Use of Lethal Force

Twelve people interviewed described incidents in which Iranian security forces had opened fire on couriers, usually without warning. Two described killings of their relatives. One said that his brother-in-law, 30, was fatally shot in October 2022. The man, who had a 10-year-old child, was the second husband of the interviewee’s sister, whose first husband had also died while working as a border courier a decade earlier. He said:

My brother-in-law and his friends, who all faced unemployment, went to Iraqi Kurdistan to bring goods for sale in Iran. However, Iranian border closures left them stranded in Kurdistan Region of Iraq for almost 10 days. Upon their attempt to return, Iranian forces shot my brother-in-law in the mountains around 1 a.m. … When we received the body … the doctor said that he had been hit by a Kalashnikov bullet, piercing his left leg and causing severe bleeding.

A 33-year-old man said that in fall 2023, he was shot by security forces in his back, injuring his spine, while he was carrying cosmetics and hygiene products. He said he faced serious mental health issues after the shooting, including attempting suicide three times. A month earlier, security forces had shot him with birdshot pellets in his back, which he said resulted in infection.

Iranian security forces shot a 40-year-old man from Oshnavieh, West Azerbaijan province in February 2017, blinding him. He said:

It was the first and last time I worked as a Kulbar. I decided to go out of necessity that time. It was evening when we saw people coming down from the border… Little did I know they were border guards who had come on foot… As I realized they were soldiers, my head was facing towards them, and they were shooting bullets toward me. One bullet hit me directly on my head, hitting my left eye, and then it hit my right eye, causing me to lose both of my eyes.

A 36-year-old man from Sardasht was shot in the back in January 2014, resulting in a spinal cord injury and permanent disability. He said he was carrying goods with his mules when the security forces began shooting. His mules were killed, and he witnessed the mules of another man accompanying him killed by security forces and then set on fire.

A 25-year-old man said that when he was 16 or 17, security forces shot him on the borders of Nowsud, in Kermanshah province.

The Iranian border police always shoot at us. I’ve been shot in the knee multiple times, and now I have three bullets lodged in the tendon of my right knee that affect my balance. The first time I faced a shooting, I was just 16 or 17 years old. Initially, fear paralyzed me: it’s a strange feeling when you see someone aiming directly at you…. During my escape, I tumbled from a five-meter-high rock and ended up breaking my knee.

A 41-year-old man from Oshnavieh in Western Azerbaijan province said that in February 2017, security forces shot him in the head, leaving him blind in both eyes. A 32-year-old man from Sardasht said that in December 2013, security forces ambushed him and his fellow border couriers, resulting in severe injuries to him and the loss of eight horses:

The [Iranian security forces] fired as if they were on a battlefield, a bullet struck me in the stomach. I fell from my horse, and they approached me, beat and insulted me as I bled, despite my pleas. One of them aimed a gun at my head, just like a close-up execution. Miraculously, I survived. After [I was] taken to multiple hospitals, doctors said I wouldn’t make it. I spent nearly a year in a coma, losing my eyesight and undergoing stomach surgery due to the bullet tearing my large intestine in five places.

Lethal Threat of Landmines

Many border couriers suffer severe injuries from landmines, including loss of limbs. While many landmines were laid during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, some border couriers believe that Iranian security forces have laid mines more recently along their routes. Iran is not among the 164 countries that have ratified the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel landmines and requires mine clearance, stockpile destruction, and victim assistance.

A 33-year-old man from Piranshahr lost his leg due to a landmine in November 2020. He said:

I had been through the route that I took many times before as a Kulbar, and I knew it well. Even just three nights before, I was there, and there were no mines. There had never been any mines there previously. But on the day, we went, there were mines there. This indicates that just one or two nights before, they had planted mines there, knowing that it was the route used by Kulbars. We’ve traveled these routes so many times, we know where the old mines are and we go through places we’re sure of, but they plant new mines.

In 2022, a local Iranian lawyers’ office requested in a letter to the West Azerbaijan province governor to remedy the landmine issue, stating:

The frequent and indiscriminate victimization of citizens due to landmines underscores the extensive and insecure nature of the mine-affected areas. There is a pressing need for extensive and continuous communication with the Ministry of Defense and the Mine Clearance Command… Additionally, the use of landmines in some border areas, where the transit of Kulbars is expected, requires the governorate to seriously address the issue with relevant authorities.

Injuries often lead to lost livelihoods. Without social or unemployment benefits in Iran, the injured border couriers’ only hope is to be recognized as disabled veterans and receive disability benefits.

According to BBC Persian, the only Iranian authority addressing the situation of landmine victims is the “Article 2 Commissions” stationed within Iranian governorates, consisting of eight members including representatives from military and security agencies, as well as the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, an Iranian foundation that receives its funding directly from the national budget which gives home loans to disabled veterans and to the families of soldiers killed in action.

However, there is no representative from the victims’ side in these commissions. The Commissions are formed at the provincial level where the incident occurred, reviewing the evidence provided by the victim and determining whether they qualify as a martyr (soldiers killed in action) or disabled veteran. If the Article 2 Commission recognizes the individual as a disabled veteran, the Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs provides them with a pension; otherwise, they receive support from other welfare organizations such as relief committees that are Iranian charitable organizations providing support for poor families or the State Welfare Organization of Iran, also known as the Behzisti Organization.

Lawyers and civil activists argue that Article 2 Commissions often fail to recognize border couriers as disabled for various reasons. These include stepping on mines while crossing into Iraqi territory, engaging in illegal border crossing, having relatives involved in Kurdish anti-government groups, or smuggling alcohol from Iraq.

Lack of Access to Remedy and Justice

Human Rights Watch reviewed court documents of five people who were injured by Iranian security forces. Review of legal documents reveals that complaints filed by those who have been shot are often dismissed under Article 3, Clause 9 of the law on security forces’ use of arms. However, interviewees who were granted compensation by the authorities said that it had never been paid, or never paid in full.

In 2022, an investigative court of the Military Prosecutor’s Office in West Azerbaijan addressed a case involving a shooting in violation of regulations. In 2021, members of the border patrol had fired at border couriers in the “no man’s land” area of the border, resulting in a person’s death. Based on Article 265 of the Code of Criminal Procedure of 2013, the authorities issued a non-prosecution order for the shooter.

A 41-year-old man, who was shot and lost his eyes while working as a border courier in 2017, shared his court documents with Human Rights Watch. According to the proceedings in 2020, a Military Court in West Azerbaijan, issued a non-prosecution order for the defendants. The court eventually ordered the border guards to pay him blood money, but he said that he has not yet received any compensation.

In May 2022, a military court in the West Azerbaijan province sentenced a border patrol officer to pay full blood money and a fine of 30 million Iranian rials (approximately US$100 at the time) as an alternative to imprisonment for what it ruled was the involuntary manslaughter of Naser Ebrahimzadeh, who was in a vehicle near the border.

In 2018, a Military Court in West Azerbaijan reviewed the case of the firing of more than 100 Kalashnikov bullets by the border guards in West Azerbaijan towards border couriers, which resulted in a man being injured in the right shoulder in 2017. A verdict also ordered blood money.

Human Rights Watch also reviewed court documents of a man injured in a landmine incident. In this case not only was he not compensated but the court found him guilty of illegal border crossing.

A 33-year-old man, who lost his leg in 2020 due to a mine explosion while working as a border courier, received medical treatment in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and returned to Iran. He was summoned by a Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office in West Azerbaijan on charges of illegal border crossing. Ultimately, an appellate court freed him, but confiscated his passport, and placed him under a travel ban.

In 2022, a local Iranian lawyers’ office addressed the review of unresolved cases of landmine victims in the letter to a governor in West Azerbaijan province. The lawyers cited over 400 unresolved cases, some dating back more than 25 years, that have been brought to the attention of the governor’s office without receiving any response.

The lawyers said that because of the government’s failure to clear landmines, it has the responsibility to support and compensate the victims. Current statistics indicate that the governor’s office has not convened commission meetings proportionate to the number of cases.

Story from www.hrw.org

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity.

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