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EU to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions over deadly crackdown on 2019 protests in Iran

The European Union has announced Magnitsky-syle sanctions, targeting eight Iranian militia and police commanders and 3 state entities implicated in human rights transgressions during the nationwide civil protests in November 2019.

The measures, due to be imposed next week, will take effect as the EU begins its annual renewal of sanctions against more than 80 Iranian individuals over rights abuses. 

They come following recent moves by the EU to take a “tougher stance to uphold human rights”. In March 2021, the EU imposed fresh sanctions against 11 individuals from countries including China, North Korea, Libya and Russia, with an EU diplomat stating that:

“Those responsible for serious rights violations must know there are consequences”

The Biden administration imposed sanctions of their own in March 2020, announcing visa bans for two Iranian officials involved in human rights abuses. US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, vowed to “impose costs on those responsible” and work with allies to “promote accountability for such violations and abuses”.

Sanctions will likely be enacted through the newly established EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – a global human rights sanctions regime which allows the EU to target individuals and entities who they find to be “responsible for, involved in or associated with serious human rights violations and abuses worldwide.”

Members of the Basij militia, a paramilitary group heavily involved in the November 2019 crackdown, are likely among those targeted. The organisation is one of the five forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and is primarily responsible for the suppression of Iranian dissidents. In a report published in June 2020, Minority Rights Group International said that the Basij has:

“played a dominant role in cracking down on street protests. Although many of its members are young volunteers, it is one of the main security entities of the Islamic Republic and is widely accused of violations of human rights”

The November 2019 protests took place in over 190 Iranian cities and in all 31 provinces, eventually becoming the most violent and unprecedented anti-government protests since the 1979 revolution, with about 1500 killed and over 7000 arrested.

Almost 18 months after the crackdown, the Iranian regime has failed to find any government officials or perpetrators accountable, with authorities calling official death tolls “fake news” and re-arresting a number of former political prisoners and opponents. Security and intelligence forces, in partnership with the judiciary, have mostly continued their brutal assault on fundamental freedoms.

In March 2021, Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, released a report detailing the impunity enjoyed by much of the Iranian regime. The special rapporteur called the lack of accountability “beyond belief”, stating that:

“the government has still not conducted a proper investigation nor held anyone accountable for the lethal force used against protestors”

While the imposition of sanctions against top officials is a step in the right direction, the EU must commit to further measures and the Iranian government must also move to hold perpetrators accountable. Sanctions against a few individuals will not change the policies of the entire regime and any significant change must come from within.

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