Death toll rises in protests in Iran as online services are cut

At least 17 people have been killed as mob unrest erupted across Iran on Thursday over the death in custody of Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, local media reported, as online services were cut in the part of a security operation.

Amini, 22, died last week after being arrested by the Islamic Republic’s fearsome vice police for allegedly wearing a hijab scarf “inappropriately”, and news of her death sparked widespread outrage.

Protesters were heard shouting “death to the dictator” and “woman, life, freedom” in video footage shared widely online in the biggest wave of protests to rock the country in nearly three years.

The US Treasury has placed the vice squad on its sanctions blacklist, holding it responsible for Amini’s death and citing “abuse and violence against Iranian women and violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters”.

Some Iranian women have burned their headscarves and symbolically cut their hair to protest against the strict dress code, echoed in solidarity demonstrations from New York to Istanbul.

The official death toll has risen to at least 17, including five security personnel, according to local media.

But Iran Human Rights (IHR), an Oslo-based NGO, said it had counted at least 31 civilian deaths.

Iranians have come together “to obtain their basic rights and human dignity (…) and the government is responding to their peaceful protest with bullets”, said its director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.

Security forces fired into the crowd with shot and metal pellets, and deployed tear gas and water cannons, Amnesty International and other human rights groups said.

Demonstrators threw stones at them, set fire to police cars and chanted anti-government slogans, the official IRNA news agency said.

Unprecedented footage showed protesters defacing or burning images of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and late Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani.

On Thursday, authorities arrested two female photographers, Niloufar Hamedi, of the reformist newspaper Shargh, and Yalda Moayeri, who works for the local press, as well as activist Mohammad-Reza Jalaipour, Iranian media reported.

Iran International, a London-based television station, said prominent free speech campaigner Hossein Ronaghi was arrested while giving them an interview.

– ‘I am scared’ –

There were fears the violence could escalate after Iran restricted internet access and blocked messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Instagram, as in past crackdowns.

The two apps were the most widely used in Iran after authorities blocked other platforms in recent years, including Facebook and Twitter.

“Iranians are cut off from online apps and services,” tweeted Instagram chief Adam Mosseri, adding that “we hope their right to be online will be quickly restored.”

IHR said mobile internet was completely cut off in the major northern city of Tabriz.

Activists said Amini, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, was fatally shot in the head after his arrest in Tehran, a claim denied by authorities.

Iranian women on the streets of Tehran have told AFP that they now pay more attention to their dress to avoid run-ins with the morality police.

“I’m scared,” said Nazanin, a 23-year-old nurse who asked to be identified by her first name only for security reasons, adding that she thought the morality police “shouldn’t confront the people”.

Veteran CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour said a Wednesday interview with Iran’s ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi in New York was scrapped after an aide insisted she wear a headscarf.

“I politely declined. This is New York, where there is no law or tradition regarding the headscarf,” Amanpour, who was born in Britain to an Iranian father, wrote on Twitter.

– ‘Enemy conspiracy’ –

Speaking in New York, where he attended the United Nations General Assembly, Raisi complained of a “double standard”, pointing to Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories and the deaths of indigenous women in Canada.

But he then told reporters that Amini’s death “will certainly be investigated”, confirming an earlier announcement by authorities that there would be an investigation.

In a speech to the UN on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid accused Tehran’s leaders of leading an “orchestra of hate” against Jews.

He said Iranian ideologues “hate and kill Muslims who think differently, like Salman Rushdie and Mahsa Amini.”

The protests are among the most serious in Iran since the November 2019 unrest sparked by a sharp rise in gasoline prices. The crackdown then left hundreds dead, according to Amnesty.

The unrest comes at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, as Iran’s economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by sanctions against its nuclear program.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps called the protests a “plot of the enemy” and a “vain attempt doomed to failure”, while praising the “efforts and sacrifices of the police”.

A rally in support of the hijab and a conservative dress code for women was announced by Iran’s Islamic Development Coordinating Council on Friday, IRNA reported.

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