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How Iran’s Security Forces Use Ambulances to Suppress Protests

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In early October, about a month into Iran’s anti-government protests, a Tehran resident reported seeing at least three protesters being shoved 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 grabbed people,” she said. “They put them in the ambulance, turned off the lights. There were lots of people in the back.” The ambulance then drove down the street, she said. “I didn’t see where they dropped off the people, but I saw that there were normal people inside, like young girls.”

Protests calling for widespread social and political change that erupted in September have led to a brutal crackdown 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 following the death of Mahsa Amini, known by her first Kurdish surname Jina, in the custody of Iran’s morality police and have been primarily led by women.

Part of that crackdown, according to witnesses and dozens of videos and images reviewed by The New York Times, has involved the use of ambulances by the security forces to infiltrate protests and detain protesters. Nearly all of the witnesses interviewed by The Times spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government.

Such use of ambulances, which experts say violates international norms of medical impartiality, shows the lengths to which the government has gone to try to quell the nationwide demonstrations.

“People are going to be afraid to seek health care, meaning more people will die,” said Rohini Haar, an assistant adjunct professor at the School of Public Health at U.C. Berkeley. “Health care has credibility because of the idea of impartiality. It’s the basic idea of ‘do no harm’ and misusing ambulances clearly violates that.”

In an interview over an encrypted messaging app, a 37-year-old restaurant worker described seeing ambulances entering university campuses during protests almost every day, 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 too.

Witnesses who attended protests in Tehran spoke about seeing plainclothes police officers, known as Basiji, forcing students into the back of an ambulance at a demonstration at Sharif University on Oct. 2.

One of the witnesses, in an interview over an encrypted messaging app, reported seeing Basiji beating one of the students, who was on the ground and covered in bruises, with a baton before shoving him into an ambulance along with another protester and driving away.

In the early days of the protests, protesters were on the streets in Rasht, the capital city of Gilan Province in northern Iran.

One video, whose location was mentioned by a Twitter user and independently verified by The Times, which seems to have been filmed from inside a car, shows an ambulance on fire, apparently after being targeted by protesters. Someone in the car shouts, “They’re rescuing the girls! Come out!” as the car nears the ambulance.

The video shows a man wearing what resembles the uniform of Iran’s national police force leaving 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, Calif., who focuses on Iranian national security.


What we consider before using anonymous sources. Do the sources know the information? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable in the past? Can we corroborate the information? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a last resort. The reporter and at least one editor know the identity of the source.

“That definitely looks like a NAJA officer,” Mr. Ostovar said in an interview, using the acronym for Iran’s national police force. “He’s not a paramedic. The uniform and firearm are dead giveaways.” The firearm that Mr. Ostovar refers to could be in the holster clipped to the man’s back as he runs away from the ambulance in the video.

Though the video doesn’t show who torched the ambulance, another video from a different angle shows the same ambulance being shoved and jostled by a crowd of people.

The Times analyzed and geolocated videos and photos showing ambulances entering or exiting police stations, or positioned just outside them, in at least six locations across the country (in one case the location was first mentioned by a Twitter user).

In two of the locations there are hospitals nearby according to Google Maps, but the video from one of these locations shows the ambulance clearly going into the police station.

Though the videos and photos don’t show who is being transported, a former emergency room physician said there’s no legitimate medical reason for ambulances to be at police stations.

“I can say with nearly 100 percent accuracy that this never happens,” said Dr. Amir Alishahi Tabriz, who previously worked in the 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 get care after being injured in protest.

“People don’t feel safe to go to urgent care or hospitals. They know that forces are waiting for them to capture them,” he said. “When patients need help, we send them to health centers in the middle of the night.”

The use of ambulances to detain people has outraged Iran’s medical community. A video posted on Twitter on Oct. 4 and verified by The Times shows medical workers demonstrating outside Razi University Hospital in Rasht, holding signs that read, “Basiji are not students,” and “Ambulances should be used for transporting patients.”

Another video posted on Twitter on Oct. 21, deliberately blurred to protect the identity of the subjects, shows a demonstration that appears to be at the Mashhad Medical Society building. At the demonstration, a speaker reads from a statement condemning the use of ambulance and medical symbols by security forces: “We would like it to stop in order to gain social trust.”

The Times verified that the room seen in the blurry footage matches archival footage from the Mashhad Medical Society building’s amphitheater.

Dr. Haar, with U.C. Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said that work of the medical community during protests and civil disturbances is protected under international human rights law.

“The principles of impartiality and independence, of caring for the wounded and not misusing the medical emblem for political gain, are universally accepted foundations on which the entire medical system relies,” she said. “Medical workers have the obligation to treat the wounded and sick. And the government has the obligation to help us do that.”

Aside from protests in Rasht and Mashhad, other members of the medical community have voiced their concerns about the misuse of ambulances. On Oct. 22, the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the licensing and regulatory body for health care professionals, raised concerns about the use of ambulances for nonmedical transport.

For many in Iran, the use of ambulances to suppress protests adds to their distrust in the country’s medical system. There have been several reports about Iranians who have been injured at protests getting detained after receiving medical care in hospitals.

In an interview, one Tehran protester said that 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 police. But we have a new level of fear unlocked. Now we feel the worst pains when we see ambulances,” said one Tehran protester. “And every time we’re stuck in traffic, now the dilemma is, what if there’s a real patient in there? Or what if they’re going to kill us?”

Christiaan Triebert, Christoph Koettl and Malachy Browne contributed reporting. Video graphics by James Surdam. Claire Hogan contributed video editing.

Video credits: 1500 Tasvir via Twitter, avatoday_news via Twitter, Ghareebe_Ashena via Twitter, gh0lch0magh via Twitter, itsamirhis via Twitter, Mamlekate via Telegram, mrwhale52 via Twitter, ShahramRafizade via Twitter and yaamaashitaa via Twitter.



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Ukrainian long-range drone attacks expose Russian air defenses

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A third Russian airfield was ablaze on Tuesday from a drone strike, a day after Ukraine demonstrated an apparent new ability to penetrate hundreds of kilometers deep into Russian air space with attacks on two Russian air bases.

Officials in the Russian city of Kursk, located closer to Ukraine, released pictures of black smoke above an airfield in the early morning hours of Tuesday after the latest strike. The governor said an oil storage tank there had been set ablaze but there were no casualties.

It came a day after Russia confirmed it had been hit by what it said were Soviet-era drones – at Engels air base, home to Russia’s fleet of giant strategic bombers, and in Ryazan, just a few hours drive from Moscow. Kyiv did not directly claim responsibility for the strikes but celebrated them.

Ukraine never acknowledges responsibility for attacks inside Russia.
AFP via Getty Images

“If Russia assesses the incidents were deliberate attacks, it will probably consider them as some of the most strategically significant failures of force protection since its invasion of Ukraine,” Britain’s ministry of defense said on Tuesday.

“The Russian chain of command will probably seek to identify and impose severe sanctions on Russian officers deemed responsible for allowing the incident.”

Russia’s defense ministry said three service members were killed in the attack at Ryazan. Although the attacks struck military targets it characterized them as terrorism and said the aim was to disable its long-range aircraft.

The New York Times, citing a senior Ukrainian official, said the drones involved in Monday’s attacks were launched from Ukrainian territory, and at least one of the strikes was made with the help of special forces close to the base.

Ukraine never acknowledges responsibility for attacks inside Russia. Asked about the strikes, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleskiy Reznikov repeated a longstanding joke that explosions at Russian bases were caused by careless cigarette smokers.

“Very often Russians smoke in places where it’s forbidden to smoke,” he said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych went further, noting that Engels was the only base Russia has that is fully equipped for the giant bombers which Russia has used in attacks on Ukraine.

Blown out building in Ukraine.
Russian commentators fear that Ukraine may have the capability to hit Moscow.
AFP via Getty Images

“They will try to disperse (strategic aircraft) to airfields, but all this complicates the operation against Ukraine. Yesterday, thanks to their unsuccessful smoking, we achieved a very big result,” he said.

Russian commentators said on social media that if Ukraine could strike that far inside Russia, it might also be able to hit Moscow.

“The ability of the armed forces of Ukraine to reach military targets deep in the territory of the Russian Federation has a very symbolic and important meaning,” Ukrainian military analyst Serhiy Zgurets wrote on the Espreso TV website.

NEW BARRAGE

The huge Tupolev long-range bombers that Russia stations at Engels air base are a major part of its strategic nuclear arsenal, similar to the B-52s deployed by the United States during the Cold War. Russia has used them in its campaign since October to destroy Ukraine’s energy grid with near weekly waves of missile strikes.

The Engels base, near the city of Saratov, is at least 600 km (372 miles) from the nearest Ukrainian territory.

Building on fire.
Ukraine hopes that Russian attacks will calm after last month left Ukrainians in darkness and cold.
AFP via Getty Images

Russia responded to Monday’s attacks with what it called a “massive strike on Ukraine’s military control system.” Missile strikes across Ukraine destroyed homes and knocked out power, but the impact seemed to be less severe than barrages last month that plunged millions of Ukrainians into darkness and cold.

Ukraine’s air force said it had shot down more than 60 of around 70 missiles.

A missile had torn a huge crater out of the earth in the village of Novosofiivka, about 25 km (16 miles) east of Zaporizhzhia city in southern Ukraine and completely shredded a nearby house. Ambulance workers collected two bodies lying by a destroyed car.

Olha Troshyna, 62, said the dead were her neighbors who were standing by the car seeing off their son and daughter-in-law when the missile struck. With houses now destroyed and winter setting in, she had no idea where she would go.

“We have no place to go back to,” she said. “It would be fine if it were spring or summer. We could have done something if it were a warm season. But what am I going to do now?”

Bombed out street.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that at least four people were killed in Russia’s latest strikes.
AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine warned there would be emergency blackouts once again in several regions as it repaired damage.

At least four people were killed in Russia’s latest strikes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

“In many regions, there will have to be emergency blackouts,” he said in a late Monday video address. “We will be doing everything to restore stability.”

Russia, which calls the invasion a “special military operation” to root out nationalists, claims a military justification for its attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Kyiv says the attacks have no military purpose and are intended to hurt civilians, a war crime.

“They do not understand one thing – such missile strikes only increase our resistance,” Ukraine’s defense minister Reznikov said. “Moreover, they increase the desire of our partners to support us.”

The United States said it would convene a virtual meeting on Thursday with oil and gas executives to discuss how it can support Ukrainian energy infrastructure, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Russia would fail in its “current gambit of trying to, in effect, get the Ukrainian people to throw up their hands”.

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A Clash of Rights

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The Supreme Court is struggling to draw a line between two kinds of rights: those afforded to gay people and protections for free speech.

Yesterday, the justices heard a highly anticipated case about whether a Colorado website designer who opposes same-sex marriage should be compelled to serve gay couples.

The designer, Lorie Smith, said she wanted to expand her business to offer wedding sites. But she did not want to peddle her wedding services to gay clients, based on her religious beliefs. She worried that she would run afoul of Colorado state law, which prohibits businesses from discriminating based on sexual orientation. So she sued state officials, claiming that forcing her to provide services to gay couples amounted to endorsing their marriages and violated her free speech rights.

Both sides argue that the case could have big consequences. Smith’s supporters say a decision against her would allow the government to compel speech the speaker does not agree with — a First Amendment violation. Her opponents say that a ruling in her favor would effectively legalize all kinds of discrimination currently prohibited against certain classes, including races or disabilities, under the guise of free speech.

The court heard a similar case in 2017, about a bakery that, by happenstance, is also in Colorado. But the justices then were more closely divided than the current court, and they issued a narrow ruling that did not settle the bigger issues. Now that the court is controlled by a 6-to-3 conservative majority, it seems more likely to take decisive action — and rule in favor of Smith, said my colleague Adam Liptak, who covers the court.

Under Colorado’s law, businesses serving the public cannot turn away customers based on their race or sexual orientation, among other protected characteristics. A baker can refuse to make doughnuts for anyone at all. But if a baker says he will make doughnuts only for white people, that is illegal discrimination.

But what if the business’s work is meaningfully expressive, as a website can be? Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, pointed to one example: A site creator may be comfortable with a design that says “God bless this union” for straight couples but not for gay couples. If the law compels her to offer that design to gay couples, it could amount to forcing her to express views that she disagrees with.

That example gets at a core issue in the case: Is Smith discriminating against gay people or is she refusing to support same-sex marriage in any way? The answer is the difference between a case more about nondiscrimination laws or one more about free speech rights.

The problem for Smith’s supporters is that a similar free speech argument could be used to allow other kinds of discrimination. A white wedding photographer who refuses to serve Black or mixed-race couples could say that they are against interracial marriage. A Black videographer could do the same to white or mixed couples. Or a band could turn away couples with disabilities because of eugenic views.

At yesterday’s hearings, the conservative justices especially struggled with the risk of a ruling that allows other kinds of discrimination. No clear solution emerged on how to draw the line. “It’s genuinely a difficult problem for them,” Adam told me.

It is possible that the court punts on the issue, as it did in the Colorado bakery case. Justice Clarence Thomas, a conservative, began yesterday’s hearings by asking whether the case was truly “ripe,” or ready for the court to weigh in, given that Smith had not actually started her wedding website business yet.

But a punt by the justices is unlikely, Adam said: “They knew those issues were in the case before they took it.”

The question, then, could be how the conservative majority draws a line between all the thorny issues that a ruling in Smith’s favor would present.

  • The court’s conservative majority seems prepared to rule that Smith has a right to refuse to create websites celebrating same-sex weddings.

  • Two justices joked about hypothetical scenarios involving dating websites and a Black mall Santa Claus.

  • Justices will hear arguments tomorrow in a case that could drastically increase the power that state legislatures have over voting issues.

The facilitator: Rodrigo De Paul understands his role for Argentina — do what it takes to let Messi be Messi.

Local traditions: An expert can tell a country by its corner kicks.

The last round of 16 matches: Morocco faces Spain at 10 a.m. Eastern today, and Switzerland plays Portugal at 2 p.m.

It’s dinner party season — nights for intimacy, wine and perhaps a bit of chaos. T Magazine dropped into 12 dinners, hosted by creative people from London to Gapyeong, South Korea, to discover how people are gathering. Here are tips from the hosts:

Conversation: “I force everyone to reveal a secret about themselves,” said the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who hosted a party in Lagos, Nigeria. “Invariably, I want it to be about their sex lives. It doesn’t always work.”

Music: French jazz and bossa nova tracks played at the visual artist Nadia Lee Cohen’s dinner in Los Angeles. (Listen to the playlist, which includes “The Girl From Ipanema.”)

Party game: Tomo Koizumi, a fashion designer, has guests list the names of stations on a Tokyo train line. “If you make a mistake, you have to drink,” he said.

Credit…Mark Weinberg for The New York Times

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Georgia Runoff: What a Walker or Warnock Victory Would Look Like

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Maybe it’s because I’m a former high school debater, but every few weeks I try to go through the mental exercise of imagining what I would write the day after an election — if either side won.

It can be an illuminating exercise. I did this every few weeks before the 2016 general election, and I was always struck by how easy it was to write a plausible post-election story explaining how and why Donald J. Trump would win the election. This year, it was also fairly easy to imagine how Democrats would fare well. In each case, it made it straightforward to explain the eventual result, even though each case seemed less likely than not.

Today’s Georgia runoff is a very different case. The election seems about as close — or even closer — than those other contests. But if the Republican Herschel Walker wins, I don’t know how I would explain it. I would have to shrug my shoulders.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t win. Surprises happen. Sometimes, a football team with a great record loses to a team that hasn’t won a single game, even though there’s no good reason to expect it.

And in some ways, a “surprise” in the runoff wouldn’t take anything especially unusual. The polls show a close race, with the incumbent Democrat, Raphael Warnock, leading by about three percentage points. Similarly, Mr. Walker trailed by less than a percentage point in the Nov. 8 election results, and historically, the runoff electorate has sometimes been more conservative. By those measures, it wouldn’t take much at all for Mr. Walker to win.

But it’s hard to come up with good reasons that Mr. Walker would do better in the runoff than he did a month ago, even if on any given Tuesday any candidate can win.

The core issue for Mr. Walker is simple: He is a flawed and unpopular candidate, while Mr. Warnock, by contrast, is fairly popular. And unlike in the November election, the two are the only candidates on the ballot in most of the state. This poses a much greater challenge to Mr. Walker in the runoff election than it did in the general election.

It’s easy to imagine several kinds of voters who backed Mr. Walker in November but who won’t be showing up this time. There’s the Republican who didn’t like Mr. Walker, but who showed up to vote for another Republican — like Brian Kemp in the governor’s race. There’s the Republican who might grudgingly vote for Mr. Walker if the Senate were on the line — as it appeared to be in November — but doesn’t think the stakes are high enough to support someone who 57 percent of voters said does not have strong moral values, according to the AP VoteCast survey.

Worse for Mr. Walker, there’s reason to think these challenges have gotten worse since the Nov. 8 election. Mr. Warnock has outspent him by a wide margin on television. The polls now show Mr. Warnock doing even better than in the pre-election polls in November.

The final turnout data from the November election also raises the possibility that it will be challenging for Mr. Walker to enjoy a more favorable turnout than he did last month. Turnout among previous Republican primary voters outpaced Democratic turnout, in no small part because the Black share of the electorate dipped to its lowest level since 2006. Indeed, Republican candidates won the most votes for U.S. House and the other statewide offices.

In other words, there’s an argument that the electorate last month represented something more like a best-case scenario for Mr. Walker in a high-turnout election. He still didn’t win. Conversely, the early voting estimates raise the possibility that there’s some considerable upside for Mr. Warnock if the electorate looks a bit more like the ones in recent cycles. According to our estimates, the electorate is arguably consistent with one that’s a few points better for Democrats than in November.

Despite a curtailed early voting window, nearly two million Georgia voters cast ballots ahead of today’s election. By our estimates, Mr. Warnock won these voters in November, 59-41, probably giving him a lead of nearly 400,000 votes.

Black voters represented 32 percent of the early vote, up from 29 percent in November.

But it’s hard to read too much into the early voting numbers. The restricted one-week voting period makes it impossible to directly compare the results with those of prior years. And there’s not any hard, factual basis to assert that Mr. Walker can’t overcome his deficit on Election Day.

In fact, early voting and Election Day results are highly correlated — in the opposite direction. The better a party does in early voting, the worse it does on Election Day. But there’s no doubt that these numbers surpass any reasonable set of expectations that Democrats might have had. To the extent it offers any signal, it’s a good one for Mr. Warnock.

The race may be close, but it’s hard to think of a good signal for Mr. Walker.

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