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Protest Against Killing of Couriers in Iran’s Kurdistan Province Attacked by Security Forces

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CHRI - A protest was met with tear gas in the city of Baneh in northwestern Iran on September 5, 2017, after people gathered in front of the local governor's office to demonstrate against the killing by Iranian border guards of two "kulbars," the Farsi word for border-crossing couriers.


Ghader Bahrami (45) and Heydar Faraji (21) were transporting goods by foot through a mountainous trail near Iran's border with Iraq when they were shot and killed by a border guard unit near Baneh in Iran's Kurdistan Province on September 4.

Kulbars are forced into the dangerous work out of necessity. High unemployment has forced them to brave the elements and conduct unofficial cross-border trade between Iran and Iraq for minimal income.

They often carry—some on their backs, some with horses or mules—fuel, nuts and dried fruits, as well as other Iranian domestic products to Iraq and return usually with household products such a TV sets and refrigerators.

Kulbars and their beasts of burden often get shot at by border guards as they navigate narrow paths littered with landmines from the Iran-Iraq War era (1980-88) as well as harsh mountain terrain and climate conditions.

Local MP Seeks Answers

The protest, which was attended by the "victims' families and locals," occurred the day after the killing in front of the governor's office in Baneh, according to the state-funded Iranian Labor News Agency.

Photos and video clips of the protest—including of skirmishes between security forces and protesters seen running away from tear gas—were subsequently shared by Iranian users on social media.

"I am seeking answers to this incident from every judicial official in the country," said a member of the Iranian Parliament from Baneh, Mohsen Biglari, in an interview with ILNA on September 5.

"I have asked the region's security council to convene and called on the Judicial Branch and all other relevant authorities to investigate and make sure that justice is served in the case of these two innocent kulbars," added Biglari.

"The individuals involved in the shooting must be firmly apprehended and severely punished," he said.

On September 5, Kurdistan's Provincial Prosecutor Akbar Johari announced that suspects had been detained and investigations into the killings were underway. However, Johari also blamed the victims for allegedly carrying illegally imported "flammable goods."

"The two kulbars were importing contraband items into the country when the guards fired shots at them," Johari told the judiciary's official news agency, Mizan. "Unfortunately, as result of this incident, the two kulbars lost their lives."

"They were carrying flammable goods, but nevertheless a judicial case has been opened and the suspects have been identified and detained," he added.

Unauthorized kulbars and their beasts of burden are often shot at by border guards as they navigate narrow paths in harsh mountain terrain in the border region between the towns of Qasr-e Shirin and Khoy along Iran's northwestern borders with Iraq and Turkey. The economically-depressed region is predominantly populated by ethnic Iranian Kurds.

According to a report by the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN), at least 92 kulbars were killed in 2016, a 27 percent increase compared to the previous year. Border guards killed forty of the victims.

Kulbars' Plight Receives National Attention

Until recently, the ongoing deaths of kulbar—by bullets, frostbite, or natural disasters on the dangerous trails they traverse—went unnoticed by most of the Iranian population.

However, the rise of the internet and social media in Iran, combined with the determined efforts of civil rights groups, has resulted in their dire situation being thrust into the public eye.

About a month after avalanches killed six kulbars while they were carrying goods across the Iran-Iraq border near the city of Piranshahr, Parliament sent a fact-finding team to the northwestern border region near Iraq in West Azerbaijan Province on March 8, 2017.

Shortly before, a teenage kulbar had died of frostbite along the same trade route, according to Mohammad Danesh, a civil rights advocate who spoke with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

"There are almost no factories or other job opportunities" for the people of the region "and therefore they have no choice but to work as kulbars and transport trade goods through difficult, mountainous terrain," he said.

Rasool Khezri, a member of Parliament from the electoral district of Sardasht and Piranshahr, told the Iranian Students News Agency on March 8 that the fact-finding team would relay the kulbars' demands—including for social security, unemployment and disability benefits, a border trade cooperative, asphalt pavement of trade routes, and directing revenue from border customs toward local development—to Tehran.

A report on the team's findings and recommendations was also supposed to be submitted to the parliamentary National Security Affairs Committee to add to the debate on the situation of kulbars, hundreds of whom have been killed in the past three decades on treacherous mountainous terrain.

Marking Iran's Labor Day on April 27, 2016, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the first time mentioned kulbars in a speech.

"The authorities must strengthen relevant agencies and put determined individuals in charge of combating the organized trafficking of goods inside the country," he said. "I don't mean you should confront poor kulbars in the border regions who only bring in small items across, but rather major traffickers who bring in dozens or hundreds of containers at a time."

The kulbar's constant travel through regions where separatist movements are based has resulted in some officials calling for the couriers to be dealt with as a national security threat.

"Kulbars earn their living from taking goods across the border and as the supreme leader said, they should be excluded as traffickers because they are from a poor sector of society," said Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri on February 6, 2017. "On the other hand, there are some kulbars who are hired by suspicious characters. We cannot deal with this lot in a rational manner; rather, the security forces must identify these mercenaries and deal with them."

The officials have mostly avoided discussing the contentious issue publicly, but revealing comments have slipped from time to time.

"Securing the border is our ultimate goal," said Alireza Radfar, the deputy governor general of West Azerbaijan for political and security affairs, on February 7, 2017. "For years our border areas have been threatened by trafficking, illegal crossings by unauthorized individuals and banned goroohak groups.

The word "goroohak," literally "grouplets," was used in the early 1980s after Iran's 1979 revolution to refer to outlawed opposition groups that launched armed struggles against the Islamic Republic. Since then, officials have used the term to refer to any group engaged in violent struggle.

"Our border guards cannot ignore unidentified people crossing restricted border areas," he added.

A January 31, 2017, a condolence message to the families of four of the victims of an avalanche by the governor general of West Azerbaijan Province, Ghorbanali Sa'adat, was the first ever by an official. He also set up a special committee to investigate the incident.

That day, Ashkan Mahdavi-nia, the local governor in Sardasht, announced 8,000 kulbar IDs had been issued and that the couriers were now "permitted to trade goods two or three times a month at the Qasemrash and Ashkan border crossings (with Iraq)."

However, the trade limit was criticized as too restrictive by Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh, a MP from Naghadeh and Oshnavieh in West Azerbaijan Province.

"You have issued permits to allow them to endanger their lives on unsafe mountain passes and you think you've done something special for them?" he said.

Enter the Intelligence Ministry

After the Persian service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interviewed a 70-year-old kulbar named Khezr Asgarzadeh on January 29, 2017, in Piranshahr, he was summoned to the city's Intelligence Ministry branch office and warned not to speak to foreign media, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported on February 4.

"The border guards took away my trade ID and when I asked them to give it back, they told me it will be sent to the Piranshahr intelligence office," said Asgarzadeh.

"I went there on February 1 and agents interrogated me about the things I said in that BBC report," he added. "They told me I should not have agreed to be interviewed and filmed with a load on my back in front of a camera. They said I had disgraced Iran, and canceled my ID card."

"I was in another country [Iraq] when they filmed me," he continued. "I didn't lie about anything. I just talked about how difficult it is to be a kulbar and about my own life."

"In these regions, we don't have anywhere to work," he said. "I don't have a piece of land to farm or a shop. I have been a kulbar since I can remember."

Parliamentary Action

On February 15, 2017, Hosseinzadeh and 29 other MPs were able to gain the approval of the full session of Parliament to expedite preliminary deliberations with "double urgency" on a bill to improve the situation of Iran's kulbars.

"In this expedited bill we're trying to transform the border into a dependable trade zone," he said. "In other words, we are seeking to create jobs and resolve the issues facing kulbars from an economic point of view."

"That's where officials have always failed in the past decades," he added.

Hosseinzadeh also noted that a census was being conducted among kulbars in the provinces of Kurdistan, West Azerbaijan and Kermanshah to gather the necessary information that would become the basis for providing them social security and insurance services.

On January 31, 60 Iranian civil rights advocates and political activists signed an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani following the deaths of kulbars in Sardasht.

The activists demanded that they be legally recognized and supported by the government.

"Based on Article 28 of the Constitution, one of the responsibilities of the government is to create jobs for everyone on an equal basis," said the letter. "Article 23 of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration also recognizes the right of every person to have a job of his/her free choice under fair conditions and be provided with support in times of unemployment."

"Many in Kurdistan respect kulbars because they are earning an honest living through hard work," wrote the activists.

In August 2012, the Center for Human Rights in Iranpublished a comprehensive report on kulbars titled, "Dangerous Borders: Documenting the Killings of Couriers in Iran's Western Provinces."

The report called on the Iranian government to stop border guards from using lethal force against the impoverished and vulnerable workers kulbars and provide them legal status.