Death toll in Iran protests reaches 31

Death toll in Iran protests reaches 31

Internet curbed as public anger mounts nationwide after death of woman after arrest by morality police

People light a fire during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic’s “morality police”, in Tehran on Wednesday. (West Asia News Agency via Reuters)
People light a fire during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic’s “morality police”, in Tehran on Wednesday. (West Asia News Agency via Reuters)

At least 31 civilians have been killed in crackdowns by Iranian security forces on protests that have erupted over the death of a young woman after her arrest by the morality police, an Oslo-based NGO said Thursday.

“The people of Iran have come to the streets to achieve their fundamental rights and human dignity … and the government is responding to their peaceful protest with bullets,” Iran Human Rights (IHR) director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said in a statement.

IHR said it had confirmed protests taking place in over 30 cities and other urban centres, raising alarm over “mass arrests” of protesters and civil society activists.

The world in recent days has seen images of women setting their headscarves ablaze and chanting anti-regime slogans. Pictures of the leadership are being defaced and burned. Vehicles belonging to the security forces set on fire.

In another remarkable video, a man who ran up to a woman and slapped her before calmly striding back to his motorbike was subsequently set upon and beaten by half a dozen other men.

The images of the protests in Iran are indicative of the taboo-breaking nature of the movement that erupted after the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, following her arrest by the notorious morality police.

The authorities appear to have resorted to the familiar tactic of restricting access to the internet in a bid to prevent dramatic images of protests as well as violence against protesters from being shared, activists say.

The monitoring group Netblocks said access to Instagram — the only major social network that is not blocked in Iran — was severely restricted from Wednesday.

A new mobile internet disruption was also noted on Thursday, the group said.

Protests first erupted over the weekend in the northern province of Kurdistan, from where Masha Amini originated, but have now spread across the country.

IHR said its death toll as of Thursday included the deaths of 11 people killed on Wednesday night in the town of Amol in the northern Mazandaran province on the Caspian Sea, and six killed in Babol in the same province.

Meanwhile, the major northeastern city of Tabriz saw its first death in the protests, IHR said.

“Condemnation and expression of concern by the international community are no longer enough,” Amiry-Moghaddam said.

Earlier, the Kurdish rights group Hengaw said 15 people had been killed in Kurdistan province and other Kurdish-populated areas of the north of Iran, including eight on Wednesday night.

A country where street dissent is tightly controlled, Iran has seen bursts of protest in recent years, notably the 2009 “Green Movement” that followed disputed elections, protests in November 2019 over fuel price rises, and rallies this year over the cost of living.

But analysts say the latest protests present a new challenge to the Islamic system under supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 83, as they are now taking place nationwide, have support across social classes and ethnic groups and were instigated by women.

Amini, also known by her Kurdish first name of Jhina, was visiting Tehran with her family last week when she was arrested for purportedly violating Iran’s strict dress code rules for women, in place since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

She fell into a coma hours after her arrest and died in hospital on Sept 16.

Activists contend she was ill-treated in detention and could have suffered a blow to the head. While this is not confirmed by the authorities, the anger fuelled the protests that started from her funeral last Saturday.

“These are the biggest protests since November 2019,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, Iran expert at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

“While the last two nationwide uprisings were led by the lower classes and were triggered by socio-economic degradation, this time the trigger was socio-cultural and political, comparable to the 2009 Green Movement,” he told AFP.

‘Outrage shared’

The 2009 movement had been driven by demands by the middle class for fair elections and the 2019 protests by the anger of the lower classes, he said.

“Current conditions in Iran suggest that there may be a tendency toward unifying both groups. The outrage over Amini’s death is shared by both the middle and lower classes,” said Fathollah-Nejad.

The protests also come at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, when the Iranian economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by international sanctions over its nuclear programme.

Despite repeated warnings from Europe that time is running out, there is also no indication that the sides are on the verge of agreeing a deal to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord (JCPOA) that would see sanctions eased.

The protests have featured chants of “death to the dictator” as well as other anti-regime slogans and the emergence of a new rallying cry, “Zan, zendegi, azadi” (“Woman, life, freedom”).

Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of Khamenei or, on one occasion, setting fire to a giant image of Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani, who is presented by the authorities as a near mythical figure after his 2020 killing by the United States in Iraq.

Protesters have also been seen directly resisting security forces, with women refusing to put their headscarves back on in front of the police and vehicles belonging to the security forces torched.

Saeid Golkar, senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, described the protests as a “turning point” and predicted that moral policing — “an ideological cornerstone of the Islamic republic” — would be weaker in future.

“This cannot be solved until the regime implements a series of reforms. Since the Islamic republic is both an ideological regime, inefficient and corrupt, it cannot solve its own created problems,” he told AFP.

“Even if the regime can successfully suppress these protests by brutal force, the situation will be very different from the past.”

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