HERAT -- The Afghan government is investigating claims that migrants attempting to enter Iran drowned after Iranian border guards tortured and forced them into a river.
The incident happened on May 1, local media reported.
On May 2, the Afghan Foreign Ministry said a probe had been launched into the reports.
Afghan officials on May 3 began an operation to locate and retrieve the bodies, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
Herat District Hospital received the bodies of five Afghan migrants, four of whom had drowned, said Aref Jalali, director of the hospital.
Twelve Afghans swam to safety, while searchers have recovered seven bodies from the Harirud River in Herat Province, said Herat Provincial Council member Ahmad Karokhi.
The Iranian consulate in Herat dismissed the reports and said no Afghan nationals had been arrested in the area.
"The incident occurred on Afghanistan's soil, and Iran's border patrol has denied anything related to this happened on our country's territory," said the Iranian Foreign Ministry in a statement.
The killing of Afghans by the Iranian military was "a tragedy" and is under investigation, said the Afghan embassy in Tehran.
'All of us were crying'
A number of Afghans who survived the incident spoke to Salaam Times about the violent behaviour of Iranian soldiers.
"When we entered Iran, the Iranian border forces arrested us and took us to a checkpoint," said Abdul Salaam, 57. "There, they made us lie on the ground and kicked us in the back. The Iranian police whipped and beat us with shovels."
"They took us to the river while beating us with whips and told us to throw ourselves into the river," he said. "Then they ... threw us into the water and fired a few shots."
"Most of my friends drowned," Salaam said, adding that his companions were between 11 and 50 years old.
Shir Aqa Taheri, another survivor, recounted similar torture and beating.
"They did not spare anyone and even severely tortured an 11-year-old child who was with us," he said.
"Some Afghans who were on the other side of the river tried to save us but Iranian soldiers fired at them and did not allow them to rescue us," Taheri said.
"We were 57 people, and 23 drowned," said Shah Wali, another survivor. "All of us were crying and begging the Iranian forces not to throw us into the water, but they did it anyway."
One of the victims was a 13-year-old child who drowned, said Wali.
Crime against humanity
The Iranian military violated all human-rights principles and international laws in the incident, said officials.
Abdul Qadir Rahimi, director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), demanded the culprits be held accountable through international tribunals.
"Iranian forces have no right to kill civilians when they enter their country without weapons, and this is against human-rights principles and internationally accepted immigration laws," he said.
"They [the Afghan migrants] should have been handed over to the judiciary and prosecuted through legal channels," he said..
"The Iranian military has committed murder, and this is not forgivable," Rahimi said. "The AIHRC is working to bring the crime to light with international institutions so that those responsible for this horrific event can be punished."
The AIHRC in a statement expressed "deep concerns over such cruel, shocking and catastrophic treatment of Afghans".
It called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Human Rights Council and other international bodies to work with the Afghan and Iranian governments to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the incident.
Iran claims friendship and neighbourliness with Afghanistan, but in practice it does not show mercy even to poor Afghan workers, said Muhammad Sardar Bahaduri, a member of the Herat Provincial Council.
"These people only wanted to put food on the table for their families, but they were brutally killed," he said.
Between 1.5 million and 3 million Afghans live and work in Iran, most of them as wage labourers on construction projects.
Tens of thousands returned to Afghanistan after the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Iran, but as restrictions ease in the badly hit country, many are again seeking work there.
The Iranian government's denials of the drownings of the migrant workers were met with derision from Afghans on social media.
"The Iranian government rejected claims that they have thrown Afghans into the water. They are right because they also didn't shoot down the [Ukrainian] aircraft," Musadiq Parsa wrote on Twitter, referring to Tehran's initial denial that it was responsible for downing a Ukrainian passenger jet in January that killed all 176 people aboard. Tehran admitted its guilt several days later.