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Killings and Resulting Protests Highlight Worsening Plight of Porters on Iran’s Borders

On Monday, eight fuel porters in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan were killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) after staging a protest over the hardline paramilitary’s efforts to obstruct the border and undermine the porters’ livelihood. Dozens of other protesters were reportedly injured in the clash, which sparked much wider protests the following day.

Prior to the first round of protests, the IRGC had dug deep trenches near the border with Pakistan, which is the only source of income for many people in the region. The IRGC also positioned tanks and heavy artillery in that region as part of a wide-ranging effort to halt the transportation of fuel by the porters known as sokhtbars, who are almost exclusively members of the local Baluch ethnic community.

The situation of the sokhtbars in Sistan and Baluchistan is very similar to that of the kolbars in Iranian Kurdistan, who carry a wide range of goods, over harsh and dangerous terrain, to the impoverished and politically neglected region. On both the western and the southern borders, the killing of these porters by security forces and the IRGC is a fairly common occurrence.

According to detailed reports from the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the IRGC controls 90 of Iran’s 212 official ports of entry and uses this control in order to dominate the country’s trade in smuggled goods. This has been a major factor in the paramilitary’s long-term development of a financial empire that allegedly comprises more than half of the gross domestic product. By also criminalizing private occupations that are borne out of necessity, the IRGC has helped to entrench a system of wealth inequality that has locked the majority of the Iranian population in poverty, even according to official government estimates.

Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the NCRI, recently described that situation with explicit reference to the sokhtbars and the kolbars, many of whom obtained university degrees or even made their living as professional athletes before being forced into the perilous and back-breaking work of repeated border crossings. “The clerical regime plunders the wealth of the people of Iran or wastes it on war and suppression,” Mrs. Rajavi said. “Children of the regime’s leaders are living lavish lives in Europe and the US while deprived Iranian children have to work as porters.”

A spotlight was shown upon the young age of some of these porters by one of the most recent accounts of authorities’ attacking them prior to the Monday’s protest. On February 17, border security forces and the IRGC opened fire on Baluchi sokhtbars, killing 19-year-old Mohammad Snjarzehi and his father. The incident also underscored the life-long, even multigenerational, dependency that some families have on this activity.

About a week earlier, on the other end of the country, authorities fatally shot a 37-year-old kolbar and father of three, Behzad Hashemi. Other such incidents are no doubt being tracked by human rights groups focused on the plight of the Kurdish minority. Those groups have determined that in 2020, at least 59 kolbars were killed and 179 injured. This actually represents a decline over previous years, possibly caused by the reduction in demand for fuel and other goods during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019 the death toll was estimated at 76, and it has also been reported that over a four year period between 2016 and 2020, at least 976 were either killed or injured.

Regular reporting of these attacks has helped to make the kolbars the focus of much social activism in Iran and among the Iranian expatriate community. Last summer, a Persian hashtag meaning “do not kill kolbars” began trending widely after it was reported that at least 21 had been killed over a five month period, some of them at close range and apparently without warning. But far from investigating the resulting allegations of extrajudicial execution, regime authorities supported the IRGC gunmen and even imposed fines, prison terms, and flogging sentences on at least 10 individuals who had previously protested on behalf of kolbars.

Sokhtbars have received comparatively little attention from the international media, presumably on account of being the focus of less domestic activism. But the regime’s repressive response to that activism has been no different, as was made clear in the wake of Monday’s killings. Fearing popular unrest, the IRGC reportedly increased its armed presence throughout Saravan County, where the killings took place, and even drove residents out of one nearby village. The paramilitary also blocked the roads to local hospitals and morgues where victims’ loved ones were most likely to spark a larger gathering.

Despite all of this, residents of the county and city of Saravan held a demonstration in front of the headquarters of local government on Tuesday, and eventually sacked the building and set it on fire. Also, on Tuesday, and Wednesday people in different cities in the Province took to the streets and closed their shops in solidarity with the people of Saravan.

Accordingly, regime officials reportedly severed internet connections for virtually all of Saravan on Tuesday, thereby repeating a familiar tactic for slowing the flow of information and impeding the organizing efforts of activists groups during times of crisis. In the face of a spontaneous nationwide uprising in November 2019, the regime briefly cut off internet access for most of the country, thereby providing itself some cover for direct IRGC attacks upon protesters, which left an estimated 1,500 people dead.

Early reports indicate that the current protests in Sistan and Baluchistan Province quickly met with similar crackdowns. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), estimated that at least 40 people have been killed and 100 injured.

The incident is further evidence of the need for coordinated activity to confront the regime both domestically and on the world stage. The disproportionate crackdowns like the one that is ongoing in Sistan and Baluchistan are a sign of the regime’s anxiety but also of its underlying vulnerability, and thus of its potential for overthrow.

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