In early October, about a month after anti-government protests began in Iran, a Tehran resident reported seeing at least three protesters being wheeled into an ambulance during a student-led demonstration. But the resident said the protesters did not appear to be injured.
Around the same time, Nikki, a university student in Tehran, said she saw security forces using ambulances to detain protesters at intersections.
“They caught people,” she said. “They put them in the ambulance and they turned off the lights. There were a lot of people behind.” The ambulance then drove into the street, she said. “I didn’t see where they dropped people, but I saw normal people in there, like young girls.”
Protests demanding widespread social and political change that erupted in September led to a brutal crackdown by Iranian security forces and the arrest of more than 14,000 people, according to the United Nations. At least 326 people were killed, according to the Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights. The demonstrations began after the death of Mahsa Amini, whose first Kurdish surname, Jina, was detained by Iran’s morality police and led mainly by women.
Part of the crackdown involved security forces using ambulances to infiltrate protests and detain protesters, according to witnesses and dozens of videos and images reviewed by The New York Times. Almost all of the witnesses interviewed by The New York Times spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.
Experts say the use of ambulances violates international norms of medical justice and underscores the government’s extreme efforts to quell demonstrations across the country.
“People will be afraid to seek health care, and that means more deaths,” said Rohini Haar, an assistant adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “Health care has credibility because of the idea of justice. It’s the basic idea of ’doing no harm’ and the abuse of ambulances clearly violates that.”
Security forces use an ambulance
A 37-year-old restaurant worker described in an interview via the encrypted messaging app that during the protests, he saw ambulances entering university campuses and uniformed security officers emerging from them almost daily. He works near three major universities in Tehran, where he has seen daily protests. He has also attended other protests and said he saw security forces using ambulances there as well.
Witnesses who participated in protests in Tehran described seeing plainclothes police officers, known as Basij, force students into the back of an ambulance during a demonstration at Sharif University on October 2.
One of the witnesses reported in an interview via the encrypted messaging app that he saw Basji beat a student lying on the ground, covered in injuries, with a baton, before pushing him onto the ground along with another protester. ambulance, and drove away.
Demonstrators on the streets of Rasht, the capital of northern Iran’s Gilan province, during the early days of the protests.
A video that appeared to be taken from inside a vehicle showed an ambulance on fire, apparently after being attacked by protesters, the location of which was mentioned by a Twitter user and independently verified by The Times. Someone in the car shouted: “They’re saving the girl! Get out!” as the car approached the ambulance.
The video showed a man wearing a uniform similar to that of the Iranian National Police leaving the ambulance and fleeing the vehicle. He was briefly pursued by a group of men before fleeing.
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 definitely looked like a NAJA officer,” Ostova said in an interview, using the acronym for Iran’s National Police Force. “He’s not a paramedic. The uniform and the gun are dead giveaways.” The gun Ostovar mentioned may have been holstered on the back of the man in the video as he fled the ambulance.
While the video doesn’t show who set the ambulance on fire, another video, taken from a different angle, shows the same ambulance being shoved and shoved by the crowd.
ambulance at police station
The New York Times analyzed and geolocated videos and photos showing ambulances entering and leaving police stations, or just outside them, at at least six locations across the country (in one case, which was first shared by a Twitter user) mentioned).
According to Google Maps, there were hospitals nearby at two of the locations, but video from one of the locations showed an ambulance clearly entering a police station.
While the video and photos did not show who was being transported, a former emergency room doctor said there was no valid medical reason for the ambulance to stop at the police station.
“I can say with almost 100 percent accuracy that this will never happen,” said Dr. Amir Alishahi Tabriz, who worked at Tehran’s Loghman-e Hakim and Torfeh hospitals in 2013. Now he lives in the United States, working with doctors in Iran to help their patients get treated after they were injured during the protests.
“People don’t feel safe going to urgent care or a hospital. They know the military is waiting for them to catch them,” he said. “When patients need help, we send them to medical centers in the middle of the night.”
Anger among Iranian medical workers
The use of ambulances to detain people has angered the Iranian medical community. A video posted on Twitter on October 4 and confirmed by The Times showed medics demonstrating outside the Razi University Hospital in Rasht, holding up signs saying “Barski is not a student” and “Ambulances should use to transport patients” slogan.
Another video posted on Twitter on October 21, deliberately blurred to protect the identities of the subjects, shows what appears to be a demonstration at the Mashhad Medical Society building. During the demonstration, a spokesman read a statement condemning the use of ambulances and medical signs by security forces: “We want to stop this behavior to gain the trust of society.”
The Times confirmed that the room seen in the blurred footage matched archival footage of the amphitheater at the Mashhad Medical Society building.
Hal, of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said the medical profession’s work during protests and civil unrest is protected by international human rights law.
“The principles of impartiality and independence, of caring for the wounded and of not misusing medical emblems for political gain, are generally accepted foundations on which the entire healthcare system rests,” she said. “Medical personnel have a duty to treat the sick and wounded. The government has a duty to help us do that.”
In addition to the protests in Rasht and Mashhad, other members of the medical community have expressed their 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 about the use of ambulances for non-medical transport.
For many in Iran, the use of ambulances to suppress protests has increased their distrust of the country’s healthcare system. There have been several reports that Iranians injured during the protests have been detained after being treated in hospitals.
In an interview, a protester in Tehran said that due to the climate of fear, many people preferred to deal with injuries at home rather than going to the hospital.
“We feel the most insecure when we see the police. But we have unlocked a new level of fear. Now we feel the most distressed when we see the ambulance,” said a protester in Tehran. “Every time we get stuck in traffic, the dilemma now is, what if there are actually sick people there? Or what if they’re going to kill us?”
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