One person was shot dead in Iran during the eighth consecutive night of protests over severe water shortages, bringing the death toll in the unrest to at least five.
Two people also suffered gunshot wounds in the streets of Aligudarz, a town in the western province of Lorestan, state broadcaster IRIB’s website reported on July 23.
The report comes after Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Iranian authorities “appear to have used excessive force” against the protests, which began in the neighboring province of Khuzestan before spreading to other parts of the country.
The New York-based group urged the authorities to “transparently” investigate the reported deaths and hold those responsible to account, and to “urgently address long-standing grievances on access to water in the country.”
“Iranian authorities have a very troubling record of responding with bullets to protesters frustrated with mounting economic difficulties and deteriorating living conditions,” Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at HRW, said in a statement.
Iran is facing its worst drought in at least 50 years, a natural event exacerbated by poor water management, that has hit agriculture and left dams with little water. Parts of the country have also experienced weeks of blackouts.
The protests also come as Iran struggles through another wave of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy suffers under U.S. sanctions. Thousands of workers in its oil industry have launched strikes for better wages and conditions.
In the latest wave of demonstrations, people in dozens of towns and cities in Khuzestan, an oil-rich province that has a large ethnic Arab population, have taken to the streets every evening since July 15.
The protest movement has spread to other provinces, with video posted on social media purportedly showing street rallies taking place late on July 22 in Lorestan Province, Isfahan in the center of Iran, and Bushehr to the south.
In videos shared on social media over the past days, demonstrators can be seen blocking roads and chanting slogans against the country’s theocratic government and its head, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as security forces try to disperse crowds with tear gas. In some videos, what appears to be the sound of gunfire can be heard.
Iranian officials and state-affiliated outlets reported the deaths of one police officer and four other people during the protests, while videos shared on social media show security officials using firearms and tear gas and shooting toward demonstrators.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that the death toll may be higher.
Officials and media reports blamed the deaths on “rioters.”
"Yesterday evening, rioting broke out for several hours in some streets in Aligudarz," IRIB said in its July 23 report, adding that people had taken to the streets "on the pretext of the water problems in Khuzestan."
Clips shared on social media appeared to show protesters in Aligudarz blocking some streets by burning tires.
The authorities in the past have blamed protesters for deaths occurring during heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces.
Severe disruptions of Internet services are being reported, a disruption that Netblocks, a web-outage monitor, attributed at least in part to "state information controls or targeted Internet shutdowns."
Iran has tightened its control over the Internet in recent years in an effort to limit street protesters' ability to communicate and spread videos of the demonstrations.
In comments published on his official website, Khamenei said Iranians protesting over water shortages shouldn't be blamed, adding that “various agencies, governmental and nongovernmental, are working” to resolve the issue.
"The people have expressed their discontent, but we can't criticize them for that," Khamenei said, acknowledging that "the water problem is not a minor one, particularly in Khuzestan's hot weather."
But he also warned Khuzestan residents that "the enemy will try to use any tool" against the country's clerical establishment.
"So we must be careful not to give him any pretext."