In early October, about a month after the anti-government protests in Iran, a Tehran resident reported pushing at least three protesters into an ambulance during a student-led demonstration. But the resident said the protesters did not appear to be injured.
Around the same time, Niki, a university student in Tehran, said she saw security forces using ambulances to detain protesters at an intersection.
“They caught people,” she said. “They put them in the ambulance, turned off the lights. There were a lot of people in the back.” The ambulance then drove down the street, she said. “I didn’t see where they dropped people off, but I saw normal people inside, like young girls.”
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Protests calling for widespread social and political change that erupted in September have led to brutal crackdowns by Iran’s security forces, with more than 14,000 people arrested, according to the United Nations. At least 326 people have been killed, according to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based NGO. The demonstrations began after the death of Mahsa Amini, known by her first Kurdish surname Jina, in the custody of Iran’s morality police and were led mainly by women.
Part of that crackdown, according to witnesses and dozens of videos and images reviewed by The New York Times, included the use of ambulances by the security forces to infiltrate protests and detain protesters. Nearly all witnesses interviewed by the Times spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.
Such use of ambulances, which experts say violates international standards of medical impartiality, shows just how far the government has gone to suppress the nationwide demonstrations.
“People will be afraid to seek health care, which means more people will die,” said Rohini Haar, an assistant adjunct professor in the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Health care has credibility because of the idea of impartiality. It’s the basic idea of ’do no harm’, and abusing ambulances is clearly contrary to that.”
Security forces using ambulances
In an interview via an encrypted messaging app, a 37-year-old restaurant worker described seeing ambulances entering college campuses almost every day during protests, and uniformed security forces emerging from them. He works near three major universities in Tehran, where he sees daily protests. He also attended other protests and said he saw security forces using ambulances there as well.
Witnesses attending protests in Tehran spoke of seeing plainclothes police officers known as Basij force students into the back of an ambulance during a demonstration at Sharif University on Oct. 2.
One of the witnesses reported in an interview through an encrypted messaging app that he saw Basij beat one of the students, who was lying on the ground and covered in bruises, with a stick before taking him with another protester in a ambulance pushed and drove away.
In the early days of the protests, protesters were on the streets in Rasht, the capital of northern Iran’s Gilan province.
A video, the location of which was mentioned by a Twitter user and independently verified by the Times, which appears to have been filmed from a car, shows an ambulance on fire, apparently after being targeted by protesters. Someone in the car shouts, ‘They’re saving the girls! Come out!” as the car approaches the ambulance.
The video shows a man in what appears to be the uniform of the Iranian National Police exiting the ambulance and running away from the vehicle. He is briefly chased by a group of people before escaping.
The Times showed the video to Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who focuses on Iranian national security.
“That sure looks like a NAJA officer,” Ostovar said in an interview, using the acronym for Iran’s National Police. “He’s not a paramedic. The uniform and firearm are dead giveaways. The firearm Ostovar is referring to could be holstered on the man’s back as he runs away from the ambulance in the video.
While the video doesn’t show who set fire to the ambulance, another video from a different angle shows the same ambulance being pushed and shoved by a crowd of people.
Ambulances at police stations
The Times analyzed and geolocated videos and photos of ambulances entering, leaving, or just outside police stations at at least six locations across the country (in one case, the location was first mentioned by a Twitter user).
There are hospitals nearby at two of the locations, according to Google Maps, but the video from one of these locations clearly shows the ambulance entering the police station.
While the videos and photos don’t show who is being transported, a former emergency room physician said there is no legitimate medical reason for ambulances to be at police stations.
“I can say with almost 100% accuracy that this never happens,” said Dr Amir Alishahi Tabriz, who previously worked at Loghman-e Hakim and Torfeh hospitals in Tehran in 2013. Now based in the United States, he works with doctors in Iran to help their patients receive care after they are injured in protests.
“People don’t feel safe going to emergency rooms or hospitals. They know there are troops waiting to capture them,” he said. “If patients need help, we send them to health centers in the middle of the night.”
Outrage among Iran’s medical workers
The use of ambulances to detain people has outraged the Iranian medical community. A video posted to Twitter on Oct. 4 and verified by the Times shows medical workers demonstrating outside Razi University Hospital in Rasht, holding signs reading: “Basij are not students” and “Ambulances should be used for the transporting patients.”
Another video posted to Twitter on Oct. 21, deliberately blurred to protect the identities of the subjects, shows a demonstration that appears to be inside the Mashhad Medical Society building. At the demonstration, a speaker reads from a statement condemning the use of ambulances and medical symbols by security forces: “We want it to stop to gain social trust.”
The Times has verified that the room seen in the blurry images matches archival footage of the amphitheater of the Mashhad Medical Society building.
Haar, of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said the work of the medical community during protests and civil disturbances is protected by international human rights law.
“The principles of impartiality and independence, of caring for the injured and not misusing the medical emblem for political gain, are universally accepted foundations upon which the entire medical system relies,” she said. “Medical workers have a duty to treat the injured and sick. And the government has a duty to help us with that.”
Aside from protests in Rasht and Mashhad, other members of the medical community have raised concerns about the misuse of ambulances. On October 22, the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the licensing and regulatory body for healthcare professionals, expressed concern over the use of ambulances for non-medical transportation.
For many in Iran, using ambulances to quell protests contributes to their mistrust of the country’s medical system. There are several reports of Iranians injured in protests being detained following medical care in hospitals.
In an interview, a Tehran protester said many people tend to their injuries at home instead of going to the hospital due to a climate of fear.
“We felt most insecure when we saw the police. But we’ve unlocked a new level of fear. Now we feel the worst pain when we see ambulances,” said a protester in Tehran. “And every time we get stuck in traffic, the dilemma now is, what if there’s a real patient in it? Or what if they’re going to kill us?”
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