In the southern port city of Mahshahr, Iran, during the nationwide protests of 2019, government forces deployed artillery weapons to target protesters who had sought refuge inside a canebrake. This Zamaneh Media investigative report was published in 2020 and it is about a five-minute video that sheds light on previously undisclosed details of the Mahshahr canebrake massacre.
In November 2019, nationwide protests erupted in Iran over a government-imposed gasoline price hike. In response, the government completely shut down the internet. Amidst a blackout of news and total isolation from the rest of the world, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its security forces orchestrated the most violent suppression of street protests in Iran’s contemporary history. In just four days, government forces killed hundreds of innocent civilians participating in peaceful protests.
The nationwide protests spanned over 200 cities across Iran, from small towns to large urban centers. Khuzestan province bore the brunt of widespread protests, resulting in one of the highest counts of protesters arrested, wounded, and killed. Among the cities in Khuzestan, Mahshahr (Mashoor), the province’s second-largest city and home to one of the country’s major sea ports, witnessed an unprecedented level of bloodshed during the government crackdown. The majority of those killed in this city belonged to the Arab minority ethnic group.
As the government gradually lifted the internet blackout after a week, photos and videos circulated online, revealing the extent of the violence in various cities. Khuzestan was the last region to regain internet access, taking 14 days for the province to reconnect. A short, low-quality, and shaky video surfaced on the internet from Mahshahr, leaving viewers shocked. This particular video captured protesters seeking refuge in the prominently Arab suburban town of Shahrak Jarrahi (Chamran) about 20 km north of Mahshahr Port. In Shahrak Jarrahi, in an area that was covered in cane growth, a canebrake a deadly attack against protesters took place. Protesters fleeing government forces took refuge inside the canebrake, and government forces fired at them with artillery weapons, leading to one of the deadliest killings, now known as the Canebrake Massacre or the Mahshahr Massacre.
The initial video showing artillery firing against protesters was only 1 minute and 35 seconds long. Radio Zamaneh, received the full-length version of this video, a 5-minute and 10-second account of the canebrake massacre in 2020. In this report, we will analyze this specific video and other videos from the November 2019 protests in Iran to understand the harrowing events of the bloody Canebrake Massacre.
The Onset of Protests in Mahshahr and the Surrounding Towns
The government announced a hike on gasoline prices on Friday, November 15, 2019. In the initial hours following this controversial decision by the “Supreme Economic Coordination Council,” protests erupted nationwide. People took to the streets and in some cities, protesters started road blockades. Primarily led by younger citizens in Mahshahr (Mashoor), the protestors initiated their demonstration at the Abolfazl gas station, situated near Be’sat Square. This location, at the intersection of Shahrak Jarrahi (Chamran), Be’sat town (another town 20 km north of Mahshhar) is situated right across the canebrake:
The ethnically Arab protestors who are the majority population in Shahrak Jarrahi and an ethnic minority group in Iran, took part in this protest. They voiced their discontent against poverty, unemployment, and the fuel price increase by obstructing roads and gathering at Abolfazl gas station. On Friday, November 15, Omid Benabbas, the director general of Crisis Management in Khuzestan province, declared the closure of all schools in nine cities for the following day. He attributed this decision to “pollution and weather inversion,” not the protests.
Abolfazl Gas Station; Photo Google Earth:
During Friday night, protestors sealed off numerous entrances and exits to cities and towns, including roads leading to Jarrahi, Memco, and Be’sat towns. These towns are in the peripheries of the port city of Mahshahr and they are residential complexes for petrochemical industry employees and workers who work in, around or offshore to the city.
Young protesters mostly of Arab Ethnic minority groups closed the roads:
As the protests extended into Saturday, November 16th, 2019, demonstrators fortified their positions by blocking almost all exits and entrance roads to these peripheral cities and towns. They set tires on fire and used soil and stones to construct barricades. The movement gained momentum as more people joined in. Government forces they attacked a a demonstration in front of Mahshahr’s governor’s office and security forces fired gunshots, killing a protester.
Protests on Saturday, November 16th, 2019:
Until that day, all available videos of the Mahshahr protests primarily depicted road blockades and occasional chants of anti-government slogans, with no evidence of violence or aggressive actions by the protestors. To these peaceful protests, security forces responded with gunfire. Gunshots can be heard in the audible videos from November 16th, 2019 including the the continuous sound of automatic and semi-automatic weapons firing such as Kalashnikovs and rail guns.
The subsequent video, recorded in Mahshahr (Ma’shoor) on Sunday, November 17, 2019, marked a significant shift. It was the third consecutive day of road blockades by protestors, specifically on the road leading to the special zone in the Mahshahr petrochemical plant near Imam Khomeini (Khor Musa) port. This road had been sealed off from Be’sat Square, at the entrance of Shahrak-e Chamran. Be’sat Square, a crucial traffic intersection in the area, lies on the route to the Mahshahr-Ahwaz road, serving as the gateway to Shahrak-e Chamran, Be’sat, Memco, the Mahshahr Petrochemical Special Economic Zone, and the Imam port-Mahshahr road.
Be’sat Square and the roads leading to various peripheral towns around it:
According to AHRO, Ahvaz’s Human Rights Organization, protests occurred in November 2019 in various locations, including Mahshahr, Jarrahi town, Shahrak-e Kureh (Taleghany), Shahrak-e Zanjir (Rajaee), Shahrak-e Gama (Valiasr), Shahrak-e Memco (Be’sat), Khur Alghazaleh (Madani), Ramileh (Shahrak-e Qods), Khur Musa (Imam Khomeini port), and Shahrake Albu Herdan (Bahonar).
In all these protests you can hear chants and slogans but no evident violence on the part of the protesters:
How Did the Killing of Protesters Occur?
The bloodiest crackdown on protestors, primarily Arabs, happened on Monday, November 18, 2019, in the canebrakes near Shahrake Jarrahi. Three videos have been published, depicting events in Be’sat Square, Shahrake Chamran Boulevard, and the canebrakes.
Contrary to official claims that protestors were armed and had fired on security forces from the canebrakes, leading to the death of a commander named Reza Sayyadi, all videos from that day indicate that protestors were unarmed and peaceful, consistent with other cities in Iran.
Minister of Interior Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli reported the blockade of Mahshahr Road for three consecutive days by protestors on November 19, 2019. Amnesty International’s report on the November 2019 protests notes the highest death tolls in Mahshahr and Bandar Imam, cities along this critical road. Security forces reportedly shot protestors to reopen blocked roads.
In this region as of November 16, 2019, military-security forces had been suppressing protesters with lethal weapons. On Sunday, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) joined with heavy military equipment, deploying “Boragh” armored personnel carriers and pickup trucks equipped with DShK, a Soviet-designed heavy machine gun, throughout the city.
This video is from Sunday, 17 November 2019; one can hear machine guns being fired at protesters:
Published videos show “Boragh” armored personnel carriers with 30 mm cannons in different parts of the city, including in front of the Qur’an gate in Shahrake Taleghani (Kureh). One video shows a large presence of IRGC forces and a Boragh personnel carrier in front of the Qur’an Gate (a public place in the town), facing protestors in military formation. The Qur’an Gate is situated at the beginning of Imam Ali Boulevard, the entrance to Shahrake Taleghani.
In the two other locations where Boragh personnel carriers, known as the Revolutionary Guards’ personnel carriers, were deployed, one is likely the access road of Shahrake Chamran (photo from Google earth).
The following video, comprising three merged videos, reveals the presence of IRGC forces with Boragh armored personnel carriers equipped with 30 mm cannons and pickup trucks fitted with DShK machine guns in three parts of the city. This armored personnel carrier, designed for battlefields, underscores the severity of the fighting, suppression, and deadly confrontations with protesters in Mahshahr and its surrounding areas during the November 2019 protests:
Recorded on November 18, the videos show protesters defending themselves with only stones.
The three videos depict the tragic events unfolding in the canebrakes.
The first video, captured on November 18, showcases protesters at the access road of Shahrake Chamran, between Be’sat Square and Abolfazl gas station, with the canebrakes on the left side of the demonstrators.
In this footage, two large advertising billboards indicate the precise location of the protesters, as confirmed by the attached map. Over 45 seconds, the sound of semi-automatic rifles firing at least 40 times is heard, emphasizing the security forces’ intent to use excessive lethal force against the protesters who stand in front of them, only throwing stones in response.
In this video, two large advertising billboards can be seen on both sides of the boulevard, which indicates exactly where the protesters are standing, and the attached map shows the exact location of the billboards.
The subsequent video, taken in Be’sat Square, suggests that, following increased gunfire from security forces, the protesters were pushed back toward the square and sought refuge in the nearby canebrakes on their left side.
In this 45-second video, semi-automatic rifles are heard at least 40 times, firing from the security forces to the protesters, who are standing in front of them and throwing stones at them.
The next video was taken in Be’sat Square. According to the position of the first video, where the protesters are behind Be’sat Square, it is clear that with the increased shooting of the security forces at the protesters, they have been pushed back (towards the square) and are running away. It is also seen that several protesters went to the canebrakes on their left side and took shelter there.
This video was likely taken from the beginning of the Mahshahr-Chamran road, considering the black billboard in it. In this 25-second video, the defenseless protesters are running away while at least 49 to 54 gunshots are heard from automatic lethal weapons. This amount of shooting explicitly exhibits the intention of the security forces to kill the protesters.
The positions can be seen more clearly in the image and map below.
But the third video, which shows the shooting of protesters by pickups equipped with DShK guns, is the last piece of the bloody puzzle of the killing of Arab citizens at the canebrake. The video that was published almost two weeks after the killing of Jarrahi canebrake was 1 minute and 35 seconds long, and the video that reached Zamaneh (the video below) is 5 minutes and 10 seconds long, which shows 3 minutes and 75 seconds before the arrival of the pickups trucks.
A group of protesters who were stuck between the security forces took refuge in the canebrakes. IRGC pickup trucks from the eastern side of the canebrake (from Shahrake Chamran side) and black pickup trucks of Special Units’ Forces (Special Units Command of Law Enforcement Command of the Islamic Republic of Iran) from the western side of the canebrake (towards Be’sat Square) surround the protesters.
Throughout the video, the persistent sounds of DShK and other automatic lethal weapons, such as the AK-47, echo continuously. In the 305-second footage, approximately 384 to 403 gunshots can be discerned.
Zamaneh talked to Jaṡ van Driel, a firearms and weapons expert who also works in court and legislation and holds licenses in both the Netherlands Register of Court Experts and the Register of Specialists of the National Police Academy of the Netherlands. Having previously analyzed the Mahshahr canebrake video, van Driel told Zamaneh:
It’s an intense firefight. At least six different weapons are discharged, predominantly assault weapons, encompassing both automatic and semi-automatic variants. Notably, there is a heavy machine gun positioned on top of one of the vehicles. Throughout about three-quarters of the footage, the distinctive sound of such a formidable weapon firing can be identified (specifically, referring to the DShK).
Van Driel asserts that these weaponry types are typically reserved for use in full-scale wars.
The video was captured behind the day market in Chamran, adjacent to a partially constructed building located approximately 150 meters from the canebrake, providing a visual of the protesters. Although the video quality is shaky and low, it offers crucial insights into the killings that occurred in the canebrake.
In the image below, marked as number one is the location of the camera (the small circle), number two is the canebrake and the area where protesters sought shelter (larger circle), while number three the large oval, is Chamran town’s market:
The subsequent images clearly display the town’s market’s location, the precise spot where filming took place, and the unfinished building structure.
The first image showcases the day market of Chamran city, where number one is the filming site, number two is an unfinished structure, and number three is the canebrake:
The following two images are screenshots from the canebrake’s video, emphasizing the unfinished structure.
The last two screenshots are from a video taken after the canebrake incident, illustrating the incident’s exact location and the filming spot:
The individual who recorded the video of the Mahshahr canebrake massacre engages in a conversation with at least three others, including his father. The dialogue unfolds in Arabic over five minutes, transcribed as follows:
– Did they shoot that woman? Did they really shoot? / Yes, yes, they shot her / Now, they shot another one and took him away! / Come this way, from here… / Bravo, guys, bravo! / Uhm, don’t you have a weapon? Shall we react to them? (obscenity) / They [protesters] have nothing [they are unarmed] / Long live the children of Altanide [a village in Jarrahi] / – Let’s go back home, don’t get shot! / Father, we only die once! Let them kill me! / Long live the children of Altandie, today is your day… / He is also shooting!? / Yes, I saw…! (Obscenity directed at Khamenei) / Look how he is lurking!? / Yes, I see this mother f…, let’s hit them with something! / Come and look / Father, I am filming them… / What did they do to these poor [people]… / Long live Tanideh… / Father, I am filming them! / Hide yourself, don’t get shot / I hid myself / They entered the canebrake! Look at this one… how he has ambushed / This one fell here… / This one fell here… This one fell here… / Who? Where? / Here!? / No, dad, he is a sniper! He is shooting, [obscenities] / They are bringing the DShKs! / DShK was here for a long time… / Guys, let us go back… / (Women screaming and crying in the distance) / … Come back / Father, let me film them… / …, come / – Don’t go there, they will shoot you / Long live Yarrahi [Jarhari] kids… / – Watch out that the other one won’t shoot you! / – Which? / – That one, in front of you…
The recorded conversation in the video unequivocally indicates that the protesters are unarmed, and notably, women and children are present among them. In the video, approximately 18 to 24 individuals are visible. Some are lying on the ground, while others are in motion, with some rising up or standing from the ground during the recording. The impact of bullets hitting the ground is evident at least twice. At the 31st second, right in front of the person filming and several individuals lying on the ground, dust rises as a bullet strikes the ground. Additionally, at 01:18, several bullets hitting near the canebrake generate a dust cloud, unmistakably caused by the impact of DShK bullets.
At 01:18, as the dust cloud, caused by the impact of a bullet, becomes visible, simultaneous and continuous heavy automatic weapon (DShK) shooting can be heard. An individual is visible on the right side of the frame, a short distance from the dust.
At 00:10 in the video, near the area where the dust later rises, the image shows at least three individuals. Two of them are running on the right side of the frame, while another person is standing next to the bushes. At 1:08, a person is seen fleeing before the bullets strike.
Between 00:16 and 00:20, as the camera turns and zooms toward the canebrake, approximately eight people are lying on the ground next to the canebrake. Some remain in that position until the end of the video, with two or three just being motionless, likely injured or killed. Another two or three initially attempt to move but eventually fall to the ground. For instance, at 00:49, one of them stands up and attempts to run away.
From 00:52 to 01:06 minutes, a person can be seen going towards the canebrake.
This enclosed area shows the location of the protesters on the ground:
The following are various screenshots from the video showing the protesters:
Between 01:06 and 01:14, an individual not previously visible in the video briefly raises their head for a few seconds within the space between the two iron pillars of the unfinished structure before promptly concealing themselves once more.
At 01:23 to 01:24, an individual emerges from the canebrake, seemingly attempting to assist one of the protesters who has fallen to the ground, but quickly disappears again.
At 01:41, two people are seen running away just below the individuals lying on the ground next to the canebrake:
Between 01:55 and 02:01, the video captures at least seven individuals. Three of them are entering the canebrake from the road side, that is the intersection of Abolfazl gas station, with one of them appearing to be a child. On the right side of the frame, four other individuals, two of whom are lying on the ground, are visible, positioned behind a small building.
The approximate location of these individuals is indicated on the map below:
Throughout this five-minute video, the camera consistently pans toward the individuals seeking shelter by the canebrake, making an effort to provide a more comprehensive view.
At 02:24, for a fleeting moment, a person is observed standing at the end of the canebrake, facing the individual behind the camera.
Starting from 02:40, the sound of DShK shooting intensifies, drawing nearer to the location where the protesters are lying on the ground next to the canebrake. The black dot, initially visible on the opposite side of the road in front of the canebrake during the video, is revealed to be a protester who briefly raises his head at 02:53. Additionally, at 03:00, when the cameraperson zooms in on the canebrake, at least six people are distinctly visible lying on the ground.
At 03:06, just before the pickups equipped with DShK gun enter the canebrake area, the person recording the video engages in a conversation with another individual about the DShK machine guns. By 03:28, as the black pickups begin to enter the starting point of the canebrake road, a person on the right side of the frame is observed walking slowly and attempting to conceal themselves from the approaching pickup trucks.
Simultaneously, as the pickup trucks arrive, the volume of gunfire intensifies, and at 03:35, the distinct sound of DShK’s rapid fire becomes audible. The direction of the DShK’s shooting is aimed toward the individuals lying on the ground next to the canebrakes.
From 03:55, the black pickup truck of the Special Unit reaches the protesters who are lying on the ground next to the canebrakes. The sound of gunfire persists until the end of the video. At 03:57, one of the protesters trapped attempts to escape while moving in a seated position, amidst the ongoing gunfire. By 04:15, a pickup truck with a DShK on top, attempts to maneuver, trapping the same person who was fleeing and another individual lying down between the two pickup trucks. Between 04:22 and 04:26, the person lying on the ground between the pickup trucks stands and moves towards the other two individuals, seemingly with intent to help.
Simultaneously, the second pickup without a DShK approaches the other two protesters lying on the opposite side. They manage to get up and run away at 04:29, but the third person lying on this side of the street remains motionless, suggesting the possibility of injury. Here, distant screams of women become audible. As the two attempts to escape, another person lying lower gets up and tries to flee at 04:36, but the shooting recommences, causing a significant camera shake. It appears this individual fails to escape and falls to the ground again at 04:43.
By 04:48, the person who attempted to run away earlier can be seen on the other side of the road (near the unfinished structure) at a short distance, sitting on the ground in a half-raised position and kneeling, presumably injured. Concurrently, the person recording the video exclaims, “Long live the youth of Jarrahi.”
In addition to these people who are moving and running away, several people are still lying on the ground.
After this, the motorcycle sound is heard and the video ends.
The truth of Jarrahi canebrake’s massacre was recorded with the courage of a person who was likely to be seen and shot at any moment, a young man who told his father twice, “Father we only die once! Let them kill me!”
During the video, the sound of shooting can be heard from a distance away from the canebrake. It makes it clear that at the same time, open fire on the protesters is taking place in other places near the canebrake.
While such a bloody massacre took place in Mahshahr (Mashur) on Monday, November 18th, on Tuesday, November 28th, the governor of Mahshahr announced that the protests had stopped since as of the night before and that the condition of the city in addition to the petrochemical activities are back to “normal”.
How many Protesters were Killed in Mahshahr?
Four years have passed since the November 2019 protests, and the exact number of casualties in Mahshahr and its surrounding towns, especially the canebrake incident, is still unknown. The government, including officials such as the Interior Minister and IRGC commanders, initially remained silent or denied the massacre. Subsequently, they attempted to shape an alternative narrative. The government has consistently refused to disclose any statistics or information on those killed, wounded, or arrested.
According to a New York Times report published on 1 December 2019, based on witness and medical personnel accounts, it was estimated that between 40 to 100 protesters who had sought refuge at the canebrake were killed by IRGC and other government forces. Most of the victims were described as “unarmed youths.”
Based on the documents provided to it by an official of Khuzestan province, IranWire has confirmed the killing of 148 protesting citizens during the protests of November 2019 in Mahshahr.
In a statement titled “Commemorating the Mahshahr Massacre and Designation of the Iranian Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violation of Human Rights”, the US Treasury announced on November 18, 2020, that the number of people killed in Mahshahr was around 148.
Amnesty International, in a report published on November 11, 2021, coinciding with the second anniversary of the Aban protests, has identified 59 people who died in Khuzestan province so far.
Ahvaz Human Rights Organization (AHRO) in a report dated November 15, 2020, confirmed the identity of 27 people who were killed in Mahshahr and Jarrahi canebrake.
Although the exact number of people killed in the Mahshahr protests is still unknown, all the statistics indicate a bloody repression that mainly includes Arab ethnic minority citizens.
Following the canebrake massacre, the local government forces in Mahshahr attempted to erase traces of the killing of protesters, by burning certain parts of the canebrake and demolishing another section with a bulldozer. In a video recorded after the massacre, an Arab citizen comments on this attempt to erase the location
“This canebrake was a thorn in their eyes; it was the place where our children resisted. Now, they are destroying it.”
Listen to the Arab citizen’s statement on the killing of Mahshahr and the erasing of the evidence from the canebrake:
At least two children lost their lives during the Mahshahr protests. Amnesty International’s list of victims from the November 2019 protests in Mahshahr includes the name of an 8-12-year-old girl. Her surname appears on the list of those killed as “Chanani,” and her first name is unknown. A second child by the name of Ahmed Albu’ali was among those killed, a 17-year-old teenager. Both of these children were fatally shot on Monday, November 16, 2019, succumbing to bullet wounds.
According to the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization, Ahmed Al-Buali was the sole child of the family and a resident of Kureh (Talqani town) who was shot at close range near the Qur’an Gate.
In addition to the protesters who were killed, a significant number of citizens (with exact numbers and identities unknown) were arrested during the protests by security forces and some were arrested after the protests concluded. Most of these arrests occurred at night in the neighborhoods where the protests were taking place.
Which Forces Were Involved in the Killing of the Protesters?
The responsibility for the massacre falls on the IRGC forces, which oversees the security of Mahshahr port city. Specifically, this armed forces organization played a prominent role in the killing of protesters in Mahshahr. During the canebrake massacre, both the Revolutionary Guards and the Special Unit forces were involved in firing machine guns and killing the protesters.
The black pickup truck that appears in the canebrake’s video blong with the Special Unit forces that function as anti-riot police in Iran. Second Brigadier General Hasan Karmi, the commander of the Special Units of the Police Force, in an interview with Mehr news agency on September 23, 2019 (one month before the November 2019 protests), said that his forces do not possess “lethal weapons” and do not use such weapons against protesters. Evidence suggests otherwise.
Our anti-riot units have no lethal weapons at all. They do not carry lethal weapons to the missions. Most of our weapons are non-lethal, and we even use plastic bullets, water cannons and other equipment that are conventionally used around the world. From the equipment that the troops carry with them, there is apparent strength of military, defense, and combat preparedness that the troops know and [are trained in]. And we recently added electronic equipment that we work day and night with and with sound and light, we have a handful of machines. In a conflict, we usually try not to have a clash early and to leave a distance between us and the crowd so that they can calm down and finally be dispersed. We try not to get involved early to let the crowd disperse. Contrary to the commander’s claim, the Special Unit employs lethal weapons, including Kalashnikovs, MP5 machine guns, snipers, and vehicles equipped with artillery DShK guns.
Contrary to the commander’s claim, the Special Unit employs lethal weapons, including Kalashnikovs, MP5 machine guns, snipers, and vehicles equipped with artillery DShK guns.
Documenting the Role of Institutions Involved in the Killing and Suppression of Protesting Citizens
Roya Borund, the executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, who has made many efforts over the past years to document human rights violations in Iran, said in response to Zamane that documenting human rights violations is done for several purposes:
Among them is the revelation of the truth, which is very important for the families of the victims in terms of dignity. And it allows society to be aware of what happened and to know how to prevent such incidents from happening again. Another goal is to hold people who violate human rights accountable and pay compensation to victims and assert their rights. But the most important issue in documenting to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies is clarifying the truth and completeness of what happened and who was to blame, who ordered, and who were the decision-makers. If this information is not available, it is not possible to determine what measures are required in law and practice to create sufficient transparency and guarantees in institutions such as security and decision-making institutions and to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies in the future.
According to Roya Broumand, the work philosophy of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation and many other human rights organizations is based on the question, “Who did what action to whom and why?” So they strive for documentation based on this and within the framework of this question. It is necessary to know which institutions have played a role in the violation of citizen’s rights, for example, during the demonstrations, which forces arrest and which forces shoot?
Roya Broumand further emphasizes the need to identify these people and institutions and says:
Many times when the militia groups are present and they are not wearing formal clothes, for example in Latin America, to identify these pseudo-groups, they would check what their boots look like, because it was not possible to distinguish from their clothes what organization they belong to. That is, in reality, various efforts were underway to determine where these groups received orders to oppress the people and what institution was responsible for directing them. In the case of Iran, we are still in the first stage, first, we need to understand who they killed, sometimes by identifying the type of cartridges and weapons used, we can understand which organization is using these weapons.
According to this human rights defender, such an investigation should be a field investigation, and on the spot, it should be possible to talk to all the people and even the relevant authorities: “But unfortunately, the possibility of such an investigation systematically is not available in Iran at the moment.”
Based on the aforementioned cases, it is crucial to identify the groups and institutions involved in suppressing and killing protesters during the November 2019 protests. This is necessary to ascertain the truth, ensure justice, and uphold the rights of the victims.
Among the individuals associated with the brutal crackdown in Mahshahr are Colonel Karim Babaei, the commander of the Basij (Resistance Mobilization Force) in Mahshahr, and Mohsen Biranvand, the city’s governor.
One year after the November 2019 protests, on December 20, 2020, Mohsen Biravanvand was dismissed from his position due to financial criminal charges brought against him and subsequently arrested by the security forces.
The Bloody Repression and its Causes
As mentioned earlier, one reason for the violent crackdown on demonstrators in Mahshahr, particularly the killings in the canebrake, was to clear the way for access to the petrochemical plant and Chamran town, where petrochemical employees reside.
However, there are other underlying reasons for this repression, including anti-Arab stereotypes, class disparities, and longstanding discrimination in the region. The protesters demanding the reopening of the road were predominantly non-native workers, often referred to as “flying workers,” who live in segregated neighborhoods and experience significant class differences compared to the predominantly Arab residents of the protesting neighborhoods.
The majority of demonstrators present in the canebrake were from Tanideh (Kuye Ammar), one of the poorest neighborhoods in the region, predominantly inhabited by Arabs. The person who filmed the video in the canebrake repeatedly chants, “Long live the children of Altanideh.”
A month before the November 2019 protests, Salman Hashemi, the Friday Prayer Imam of Taleghani town (Kureh), highlighted that despite Mahshahr city being home to 23 petrochemical complexes and the country’s largest non-transit port, the primary issue and weakness faced by the local population was unemployment. Hashemi emphasized that this, along with poverty, posed grave societal and national problems.
The Friday Prayer Imam of Taleghani also expressed how impoverished settlements in Mahshahr are deprived of fundamental rights, such as access to safe and affordable drinking water. He stated, “We are not saddened by scarcity and poverty; we are saddened by discrimination. The pollution caused by the 23 petrochemical complexes affects us, yet the profits go to the people of Tehran, and the employment opportunities are given to the youth of other provinces.”
On October 23, 2019, Jassim Ebadi, Friday Prayer Imam of Chamran city, stated:
“Since I started my work as Friday Imam, I realized that poverty is rampant in Bandar Mahshahr city; 70% of referrals to Imam Juma’s office were from the poor.”
Ebadi also noted the state of disrepair in the city’s schools, with one school’s roof on the brink of collapsing at any moment.
While Arab citizens grapple with poverty, unemployment, and systemic discrimination, the predominantly non-native residents of Chamran town enjoy access to adequate facilities.
The protests in Mahshahr have deep historical roots and have persisted over the years due to poverty and discrimination. During the water shortage protests in Khuzestan province in the summer of 2021, Mahshahr once again became a site of massive demonstrations and brutal suppression of protesters. The army deployed heavy weaponry and personnel carriers to the city during the 2021 protests.
Isa Baldi, an Arab worker, was one of the people killed by security forces while on his way to work in Taleghani town. It is important to note that he was not involved in the protests.
*Acknowledgments to Qusi Durghi for her valuable assistance in compiling this report.