The Iran Atrocities Tribunal, also known as the Aban Tribunal, is an International People’s Tribunal investigating whether Iranian authorities committed crimes against humanity and grave violations of human rights in the atrocities of November 2019. Six internationally renowned lawyers are seated on the panel of judges to review the accusation of crimes against humanity against 160 officials.
In November 2019, protests broke out over fuel prices that led to nationwide, peaceful protests. The following week saw unprecedented repression, leaving thousands dead, injured, arbitrarily detained and tortured. The nationwide protests were peaceful and consisted mostly of people blocking roads with their cars and shouting slogans. Most protests started off targeting the rise in fuel prices but quickly turned to their qualms with the establishment. The response of the Iranian government was brutal. Over the week that followed, protests across the country were repressed by police and military forces with firearms and other weapons of war. Meanwhile, the state imposed a nearly total shutdown of the internet – the atrocities happened behind closed doors, away from the international public eye.
People’s tribunals first appeared in 1966 when Bertrand Russell initiated the International War Crimes Tribunal, known as the Russell Tribunal. This was a reaction to the world’s poor response towards the crimes committed by the US during the Vietnam war.
The judgments of these tribunals provide reliable facts and evidence that can be used to urge official international organisations or governments to take action and create a historical ‘evidence base’ record (where no other may ever exist) of the criminality of horrifying events. They also provide some resolution to the survivors or loved ones of those killed or victims who have died since the event being investigated.
Months after the November 2019 atrocities, no tangible action was taken by the international community nor domestically against the authorities, and victims and their families were being silenced. After calls made by families of those who were killed or greatly affected, three civil society organisations, Justice for Iran, Iran Human Rights and ECPM – Together against the death penalty saw the need for a platform to have their voices heard. They asked six internationally renowned lawyers to sit on the panel of judges and make a verdict over the accusation of crimes against humanity. They include the chair, Wayne Jordash QC who has been appointed as the advisor on international criminal law to the General Prosecutor of Ukraine.
The first call for witnesses was issued in November 2020, when the Tribunal was officially established, and was repeated in November 2021. More than 400 people responded. These included victims of injuries, arrest or torture, family members of killed victims, as well as bystanders, eyewitnesses, medical professionals, members of police and armed forces, and government and judicial officials.
Evidence was collected and verified by co-Counsellors, Regina Paulose and Hamid Sabi, and their teams. In November 2021, the Tribunal came to fruition and has since had two sets of hearings, each several days long.
According to evidence gathered by Counsel, 160 stand accused of crimes against humanity, including murder, torture and rape. Among them are the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, current president, Ebrahim Raisi, and former president, Hassan Rouhani. They have chosen not to respond to Counsel’s call to defend their positions.
The panel is expected to make a final judgment over whether the acts committed amount to crimes against humanity and other grave human rights abuses, based on evidence gathered by Counsel and told by witnesses.
Out of over 400 who volunteered to deliver testimony at the Iran Atrocities Tribunal, 224 witnesses recorded their statements in the form of long and detailed interviews in the presence of co-Counsellors. Volunteers were asked to send a summary of their testimony, along with any supporting evidence. All witnesses were given the option to record their full testimony in the form of a detailed audio conversation and submit it to Counsel. The testimonies of those willing to participate in a detailed interview were recorded during sessions that took between 30 minutes to 3 hours. After verification, all statements were translated into English and provided to the panel of judges.
In addition, over the course of two sets of hearings 53 witnesses testified again before the panel and answered their questions. Most of these testimonies were presented by video conference, and the witnesses appeared virtually in court. During the first set of hearings, two witnesses (from the United Arab Emirates and Norway) and in the second set, four witnesses (from the UK) testified in person before the panel.
For the safety of witnesses, in consultation with cybersecurity experts, a security protocol was put in place for all Counsellors, and they were asked to respect it throughout all the stages of their work. The full texts of the testimonies were accessible to a limited number of staff, and others were given access identifying details had been omitted. Communication with witnesses was carried out through end-to-end encrypted messaging services and they were reminded of safety precautions at the end of each conversation. Each witness was assigned a number that was used in all documents and correspondence. The names and personal information of witnesses were asked only once for registration and authentication before recording and were not recorded in any capacity.
Witnesses who testified at the hearings were told that they could do so anonymously with their faces fully covered. Some who were worried about being identified by voice testified with a disguised voice. This possibility was discussed with all the witnesses and the necessity of protection of their identities was explained. Though, some who still resided in Iran chose to testify openly. Others who had previously decided to testify openly changed their minds from days to moments before their testimonies and were given the option to do so anonymously. In some cases, witnesses who had agreed to testify in court, whether publicly or otherwise, decided against it in the interest of their safety, and instead submitted written testimony to the panel.
The Iran Atrocities Tribunal is independent and not affiliated with any government , and therefore has no executive power to facilitate visas from any country. The Tribunal attempted to help 10 witnesses who wished testify in person by issuing invitation letters and guiding them through the visa application process. Those who were asylum seekers in countries outside the UK were not granted visas as they were not in possession of valid passports and their documents were not recognised by the UK. Of those who had valid passports, only two were granted visas and the rest were rejected by British embassies. All witnesses who were denied visas were informed that they could testify anonymously or refuse to testify altogether. Three withdrew, one testified anonymously and four did so pulicly.
After the hearings, the organisers attempted, through international human rights organisations, to make arrangements for the transfer of three refugee witnesses in Iraq and Turkey to a third safe country. However, due to reasons such as a change in asylum policies, and the situation in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine being prioritised, these efforts have proven futile, but still ongoing.
Due to the above circumstances, witnesses who participated in the second set of hearings did not request visas. Those who testified in person had already been residing in the UK prior to the hearings.
To verify testimonies, their contents were compared to videos, photos and news of the same protests available. In cases where several witnesses testified about the same location or event, statements were fact-checked against each other. To verify the testimonies about the weapons used by the security agents to shoot protestors, and to ensure accurate information about locations, the Tribunal solicited opinions from experts. In many cases the witnesses had attached documents and corroborative evidence in support of their testimonies. These documents included photos and footage of protests in various cities, pictures and films of bodies bearing wounds and injuries caused by firearms and cold weapons, medical imaging showing the bullets in the bodies of those injured, hospital and forensic reports confirming the injuries and damages caused by bullet penetration, videos and photos of the dead, their gravestones and death certificates, and documents relating to court proceedings and prison sentences of protestors detained during the November 2019 demonstrations. Witnesses who had insider information due to their positions had their documents examined multiple times. A few testimonies failed the verification process and were not submitted to the panel.
There was widespread coverage of the first session, especially in Iran. More than 15 million viewers watched live broadcasts each day for five consecutive days as the hearings were covered by major Iranian media outlets, including, Iran International, BBC Persian, Radio Farda, Persian Voice of America, Radio Farda and Iran Wire. It became the most watched event in Iran’s history of civil activism.
Though the second session in February was semi-public and live recording was prohibited, the Tribunal still garnered a lot of attention in Iran, due to Persian mainstream media coverage.
Iran’s government officials and their affiliated media outlets reacted to the Tribunal on a large scale. The Iranian government has refused to respond to the evidence presented, but on February 7th, 2022, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that they had made a formal complaint to the UK government to cease the Tribunal’s proceedings in favour of diplomatic relations. The UK government is not a participant in the independent Tribunal.
Organisations such as Amnesty International, Article 19 and the International Bar Association, and European officials, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Swedish MP Amina Kakabaveh, have commended Aban Tribunal for its endeavour in ending impunity in Iran and called on the international community to support the Tribunal.
Alongside a broader civil society coalition, the NGOs, who have organised the Tribunal will continue to campaign for justice for all victims of human rights abuses that occurred in November 2019.
Their hope is that the judgement will trigger a UN-led independent investigative mechanism, such as those for Syria, Myanmar, and Nicaragua, and that those responsible for crimes against humanity will be held to account under international law, whether by domestic courts or internationally. They will advocate for those responsible to be put on human rights sanction lists adopted using the Magnitsky Acts.
If you have any information regarding the November 2019 atrocities, please contact the Co-Counsel Signal/WhatsApp number at: +447770057007.
You can donate to the Tribunal here – all proceeds will be used to cover the costs of the Tribunal.
We ask the press, public figures and private citizens to show solidarity with the Iranian people. Often, these atrocities occur outside the public eye, as officials wish them to be. Be an ally to the Tribunal. Be the voice of the voiceless. These are some examples of actions you can take:
-Talk to your family, friends, and neighbours and ask them to support the Tribunal
-Write to your MP and ask them to echo the Tribunal’s call on the UN and you government
-Do anything and everything in your power to bring it to the attention of media, law and policymakers.
A crime against international law demands an international response.