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EU imposes sanctions on elite Iran commander over 2019 protests

BRUSSELS, Belgium: The European Union has imposed sanctions on eight Iranian militia commanders and police chiefs, including the head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, over a crackdown in November 2019, the bloc said in its official journal.

The travel bans and asset freezes are the first EU sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses since 2013.

The bloc, which also hit three Iranian prisons with asset freezes, blacklisted Hossein Salami, head of the Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful and heavily armed security force in the Islamic republic.

“Hossein Salami took part in the sessions that resulted in the orders to use lethal force to suppress the November 2019 protests. Hossein Salami, therefore, bears responsibility for serious human rights violations in Iran,” the EU said on Monday.

Iran’s foreign ministry on Monday said it strongly rejects the sanctions and will in response suspend talks with the EU on human rights and all resulting cooperation, including that on terrorism, illicit drugs, and refugees.

Foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in a statement there are political intentions behind the sanctions since the EU continues to be silent on and go along with “anti-human and illegal” sanctions unilaterally imposed by the United States since it abandoned Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran is considering reciprocal sanctions in reaction to the European Union’s move, which will be announced subsequently,” he said.

About 1,500 people were killed during less than two weeks of unrest that started on November 15, 2019, according to a toll provided to Reuters news agency by three Iranian interior ministry officials at the time. The United Nations said the total was at least 304.

Iran has called the toll given by sources “fake news”.

In November 2019 a surprise hike in fuel prices sparked a wave of protests across Iran, before they were put down amid a near-total internet blackout.

On March 9, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, presented a report saying Tehran used lethal force during the protests and chided it for failing to conduct a proper investigation or failing to hold anyone accountable.

Other individuals targeted with EU sanctions, which take effect on Monday, include members of Iran’s Basij militia, who are under the command of the Revolutionary Guards, and its head Gholamreza Soleimani.

Three detention facilities where the EU alleged torture of prisoners had taken place were put on the blacklist.

Iran has repeatedly rejected accusations by the West of human rights abuses.

The decision to target the top Iranian officials was unveiled as negotiators in Vienna try to make progress on efforts to return the United States to the 2015 nuclear deal after former President Donald Trump had Washington withdraw.The EU on Friday described the talks as “constructive”, with those involved looking to persuade Washington to drop swingeing sanctions reimposed by Trump and for Tehran to roll back breaches of the agreement.

US President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the agreement, which places limits on the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme in return for relief from the biting economic sanctions.

But Tehran and Washington each insist the other side must make the first move.

A European diplomat told news agencies that the decision on new sanctions had been in the pipeline for a long time and that it had been decided to press ahead with them despite it coinciding with the nuclear negotiations.

The EU sanctions list on rights abuses in Iran dates back to 2011 when the authorities launched a crackdown on major protests. It now contains 89 individual names and four entities.

It is separate from the sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear programme, which were dropped by Brussels as part of the 2015 deal.