Anti-government protests broke out in the southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan province of Iran earlier this month, following the fatal shooting of at least ten Baloch fuel traders by the Iranian regime in February, and fueled by decades of repression and neglect against the Baloch people.
Iran Human Rights Monitor, a local group of activists observing rights violations in the Islamic Republic, posted on Twitter:
IRGC forces clashed with Baluch locals in Sistan & Baluchestan border region in SE #Iran
Local sources say at least 8 people were killed & dozens were wounded.
IRGC forces have a history of shooting impoverished Baluch citizens who are forced to carry fuel to make ends meet. pic.twitter.com/5ANRtuNkre
— IRAN HRM (@IranHrm) February 22, 2021
Sistan-Baluchistan is Iran’s poorest province, with nearly half of the 1.346 million population living under the poverty line. It is also the only province in which the rural population exceeds those living in urban communities, and has been historically under-resourced.
The shooting incident is the latest in a long history of discrimination faced by the Baloch population in Iran. Sandwiched between the borders of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the Baloch population is a historically disenfranchised minority that is relegated to the fringes of society, provided little to no economic opportunity, and systematically targeted by state violence.
A March 2 statement by Amnesty International on the shooting said:
Testimony from eyewitnesses and victims’ families, coupled with video footage geolocated and verified by the organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab, confirms that on that day [February 22], Revolutionary Guards, stationed at Shamsar military base, used live ammunition against a group of unarmed fuel porters from Iran’s impoverished Baluchi minority causing several deaths and injuries… At least 10 people, including a 17-year-old boy, were killed on 22 February, according to Baluchi human rights activists who interviewed primary sources.
Following these killings, demonstrations broke out in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, with protestors setting fire to a police car and occupying government buildings. Clashes with authorities reportedly left at least one police officer dead. Authorities reportedly shut down internet connections in the region, while human rights groups reported multiple arrests.
The protests reflect rooted discontent over decades of government negligence. According to a report published in June 2016 by Iran Human Rights Review, the development budget of Baluchistan is less than 0.001 percent of the total national budget. The report said:
More than half of the development budget is spent on security and policing in the province. While hundreds of billions of tumans (a unit of 10 rials) are spent to establish security and police stations and Revolutionary Guard Centres, many students continue to occupy sheds as classrooms.
The lack of economic resources is coupled with policies and practices that discriminate against the Sunni Baloch, both culturally and religiously. The push to marginalize Baloch identity is further heightened by the fact that many Baloch children are living undocumented in Iran. Thus, they are not only denied the ability to obtain an education in their native tongues, but in some instances are denied citizenship altogether.
The state-sanctioned repression does not stop there: For decades the Baloch have been the targets of countless campaigns of arrest, imprisonment, and execution in Iran. In 2016, the Iranian Vice President made headlines when she referenced a village in Balochistan in which all of the men were executed, noting that the survivors in the village had resorted to smuggling to survive.
The discussion of the Baloch people has long centered on their engagement in what is often referred to as “unlawful cross border commerce”, a problematic framework in and of itself as it imposes restrictions related to trade and movement on these communities. Historic Balochistan straddles the border of three nation-states, and Baloch who engages in trade throughout this region is often labelled terms such as “smuggler.”
These labels have also been used for years to justify the repression and killings of Baloch in Pakistan by the state.
— IRAN HRM (@IranHrm) February 22, 2021
For decades, thousands of Baloch have been criminalized, arrested, and executed as smugglers and outlaws, a charge that has historically been levied against other border communities in Iran.
Earlier this month, in a statement condemning the execution of a Baloch prisoner, the United Nations said that at least 21 Balochi prisoners were executed in Zahedan, Mashhad, and Isfahan prisons since mid-December 2020. The statement added that many of those executed “had been convicted on drug or national security charges, following flawed legal processes.”