Iran’s doctors have joined the uprising — and are paying the price

Iranian doctors in London take part in an Oct. 29 rally in support of physicians who are risking their lives treating protesters in Iran. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)

November 10, 2022-The Washington POST – By Babak Dehghanpisheh- Hundreds of doctors gathered outside Iran’s Medical Council in Tehran on Oct. 26 to take a stand — protesting the presence of security forces in hospitals and the arrest and intimidation of their colleagues during two months of nationwide unrest.

The protesters formed small groups. Some chanted “Death to the dictator,” a common rallying cry against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

Security forces, mostly plainclothes agents, had set up positions around the building and vans were parked nearby to transport detainees. Then, without warning, riot police on motorcycles began shooting metal pellets at the crowd, two witnesses told The Washington Post.

“They were shooting with guns, nonstop, everyone started running,” said a doctor who provided a written account of the attack.

“They used shotguns [with pellets], batons and tear gas without any limitation,” another doctor recalled. “They beat a young woman dentist and an old physician about 70 [years old] on their heads and they fell on the ground.”

The Post could not independently verify their accounts, which were shared on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals. But they were corroborated by activists and other media reports. A shaky video of the attack posted online shows people screaming and trying to flee as shots ring out.

Iranian doctors were among the first to question the official explanation for the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the “morality police” in mid-September, and are now the target of a broadening crackdown. As the uprising marks its eighth week — the most sustained challenge to the Islamic republic in decades — the government is punishing medical personnel for providing care to injured protesters.

What happened on Oct. 26 was the most direct clash yet between authorities and Iran’s medical community. The deputy chief of Tehran’s medical council said that he was pushed while trying to help a female doctor and that the head of the council was punched in the face during the chaos. Both resigned the same day amid reports that doctors had been arrested. Others posted pictures on social media of bruises and bloody cuts they sustained in the crackdown.

“It’s really the interference of the security agents inside the medical establishments that has made the medical community up in arms, and now they themselves are a target,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group.

Since the early days of the protests, security forces have positioned themselves inside hospitals to identify and arrest protesters, and have pressured medical personnel to inform on them. As the arrests increased, many protesters began avoiding hospitals, leading sympathetic doctors to offer care inside homes, often at great personal risk.

“Doctors are not different than the rest of Iranian society — they’re part of the community,” said Shahram Kordasti, a hemato-oncologist based in London who has been in touch with doctors in Iran during the protests. “They suffer the same way as others.”

ew hospitals now provide care without first recording the patient’s national identification number, an easy way for security forces to track injured protesters, according to doctors and activists. Some protesters have even gone to veterinarians to avoid detection and arrest.

Plainclothes forces have also been staking out pharmacies, said doctors and activists. If someone comes in to buy a sterile gauze pad for an injured friend or relative, the agents may confront them on the spot or, more likely, follow them to make an arrest when they identify the person in need of medical attention.

The ever-present threat of surveillance has led to the creation of an informal online network where protesters can identify their injuries and reach out to a handler, who then connects them to a doctor in their area, if one is available. A code system is used to minimize the chance of security agents infiltrating the network, according to a doctor who is involved in the effort.

A recent post included an animated step-by-step graphic showing how to remove the metal pellets commonly fired by security forces, and how to properly clean and dress the wounds. Other posts advise protesters on how to deal with head injuries and pepper spray.

“We teach people how to take care of themselves,” a member of the group told The Post, citing “gunshot wounds, blunt trauma caused by batons, penetrating trauma like stab wounds and also effects of riot-control gases” as the most common injuries suffered by protesters.

Tactics of repression: How Iran is trying to stop Mahsa Amini protests

Government forces have tried to mask their presence in and around protests by using ambulances both for transporting security personnel and for holding detained demonstrators, according to doctors and activists.

“A responsible government uses an ambulance to treat the wounded,” said Sahar Motallebi, an Iranian doctor and former U.N. employee based in Sweden. “This government uses ambulances for detaining people.”

It is the misuse of medical equipment and the infiltration of hospitals, doctors say, that has driven them to join the uprising. Three days after the crackdown in Tehran, the head of the medical council in the northeastern city of Mashhad and his wife, who is also a member of the council, were arrested for allegedly organizing a protest held by medical personnel the previous week, along with a third doctor who spoke at the event.

On the day the doctors were arrested in Mashhad, medical students at Kurdistan University of Medical Sciences, hundreds of miles away in the western city of Sanandaj, held their own demonstration. A video shows students in white lab coats running for cover as shots ring out and security personnel storm the campus.

“The biggest supporters of the protesters are medical personnel,” said Motallebi, but “the situation is getting more dangerous for [them].”

Comments are closed.