Ongoing protests over death of woman in custody become threat to Iranian regime

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Protests in Iran over the death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the country’s vice squad have dragged on for a third week, even after authorities shut down the internet, deployed riot troops and attacked suspected enemies abroad.

This playbook of repression has worked before, but the spontaneous protests over the death of Mahsa Amini persist and continue to change. In a recent incident, high school students chased away a hardliner while politicians and famous actresses abroad now cut their hair with scissors, following female protesters in Iran who did the same.

The longevity and metamorphosis of the protests poses a new threat to Tehran, one not seen since the 2009 Green Movement protests that took millions to the streets.

The seemingly spontaneous, leaderless protests – largely fueled by the middle and upper classes – share some of the same strengths and weaknesses as those of more than a decade ago. The Iranian theocracy eventually crushed them over time. Whether the same is true now remains uncertain.

Getting a true picture of what is happening in Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people two and a half times the size of the US state of Texas, is difficult even in times of calm given government restrictions.

Now it is even more difficult. Authorities have detained at least 35 reporters and photographers since the protests began on September 17, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Most of the information comes from video clips of just a few seconds that activists manage to upload to the Internet.

The protests began at the burial site of Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman detained by the roving forces of the Iranian vice squad. Since the election of hardline chairman Ebrahim Raisi last year, morality patrols have become more aggressive, with videos circulating of officers manhandling young women over their clothes or loose compulsory headscarves, known as the name of hijabs.

Protesters sing in the Iranian city of Saqez, after the burial of Mahsa Amini (right), who died after her arrest by so-called vice police, on September 17, 2022. (Screen capture: Twitter; with the courtesy)

The Iranian government insists Amini was not abused, with state television showing footage of her collapsing in a police station and receiving treatment. However, no video of him being arrested or transported to the police station has emerged even as Tehran began equipping police with body cameras five years ago. That, along with a speedy burial reportedly demanded by security officials, fueled anger in his hometown of Saqqez, some 460 kilometers (285 miles) west of Tehran.

At this and subsequent demonstrations across the country, women protesters twirled their headscarves and shouted in Farsi: “Death to the dictator! referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

It’s a dangerous cry in a country where accusations of being a “mofsed-e-filarz” or a “corruptor of the Earth” by political dissent can result in a death sentence in Iran’s revolutionary court behind closed doors.

The scale of the protests and repression remains unclear. A tally of Associated Press reports in state-run and state-affiliated media shows there have been at least 1,900 protest-related arrests. Demonstrations were reported in at least 50 cities and towns.

State television last suggested that at least 41 people were killed in the September 24 protests. For the next two weeks, there was no update from the Iranian government.

An Oslo-based group called Iran Human Rights estimates that at least 154 people have been killed, although that includes around 63 people killed in violence in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan. Iranian authorities have described the Zahedan violence as involving anonymous separatists, although Iran Human Rights said the incident began as a protest against allegations of rape against a local policeman.

A photo obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022 shows Iranian protesters taking to the streets of the capital Tehran in a demonstration for Mahsa Amini, days after her death in police custody. (AFP)

Meanwhile, Iran has also launched cross-border attacks on Kurdish separatists in Iraq and insisted the protests were a foreign plot – all apparently designed to distract from widespread anger over compulsory hijab. from Iran.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the chaotic years that immediately followed, protests have been commonplace across the country. Many focus on local issues rather than nationwide political change, such as farmers upset over the country’s water supply drying up, teachers wanting higher salaries, or retirees angry after having lost their savings in widely criticized privatization campaigns.

Student protests hit Tehran in 1999. Economic protests swept the country in late 2017 and early 2018. And in 2019, anger over the government’s removal of gasoline subsidies also sparked protests. nationwide protests.

Unlike those three previous waves, this time hardliners control all the levers of power in Iran’s presidency, its judiciary and its parliament, which means they have no one else to blame. The same happened during the 2009 Green Movement protests, sparked by the re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amid widespread allegations of electoral fraud.

The 2009 protests also focused on urban areas and saw mainly middle and upper class protesters. The current protests have seen similar groups of people take part, with witnesses saying they have not heard any of the economic chants from the past rounds of protests. Iranian celebrities and football stars also spoke out.

However, there are still clear differences between 2009 and today. The 2009 protests saw millions take to the streets. So far, the current protests have not galvanized such large crowds all at once.

The 2009 protests also lasted for months before slowing down, finally ending in 2011 when authorities arrested their leaders amid Arab Spring protests. The current protests have yet to reach the four-week mark

In this file photo from June 15, 2009, hundreds of thousands of supporters of the main opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has claimed responsibility for electoral fraud, turn out to protest the result of the election during a mass rally in Azadi (Freedom) Square in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

Crucial moments await us. Iran appears to be gearing up for Saturday, the start of Iranian week, when university students are expected to resume in-person classes. Last Sunday, security forces fired tear gas and pellet guns at students protesting at the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. This university and others took classes online for the rest of the week.

If protests continue in classrooms and streets across Iran, Iran’s hardline government will have to decide what to do next. So far, there is no indication that they will back down.

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