Iran braces for counter-demonstrations as protest death toll rises

Iran braces for counter-demonstrations as protest death toll rises

Internet access in Iran has been severely restricted ahead of counter-demonstrations on Friday, following a week of protests against the death in police custody of Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, which left at least 17 dead.

Amini, 22, died after her arrest by the Islamic Republic’s feared vice squad for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “inappropriate” manner, and the news of her death sparked widespread outrage.

The official death toll rose to at least 17 on Thursday, including five security personnel, but Iran’s New York-based Center for Human Rights said its sources estimate the figure much higher.

“On the 7th day of #IranProtest, officials admit at least 17 people were killed, while independent sources say 36,” the CHRI said in a Twitter post.

“Expect numbers to rise. World leaders should pressure Iranian officials to allow protest without deadly force.”

Government-backed nationwide demonstrations in support of the hijab and a conservative dress code for women were announced for Friday by Iran’s Islamic Development Coordination Council, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Security forces fired “semi-heavy weapons” at protesters during nighttime clashes in the northern city of Oshnaviyeh, Olso-based Kurdish rights group Hengaw said.

In the nearby town of Babol, protesters were seen setting fire to a large billboard depicting Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to videos shared online that could not be independently verified.

Since Amini was pronounced dead on September 16, three days after she was arrested by Iran’s vice squad in Tehran, protests have spread to most major urban centers in the country, including the capital, Isfahan, Mashhad, Rasht and Saqez.

Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, received a fatal blow to the head, a claim denied by officials who have announced an investigation.

– ‘Profuse bleeding’ –

Unprecedented footage has shown protesters daubing or burning statues of Khamenei and the late Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani.

Some female protesters have defiantly removed their hijabs and burned them in bonfires or symbolically cut their hair before cheering on the crowd, according to video footage that went viral on social media.

In response, security forces have fired bird and metal bullets into crowds, deploying tear gas and water cannons, Amnesty International and other human rights groups said.

Protesters have thrown rocks at them, set fire to police cars and chanted anti-government slogans, IRNA reported.

“The government has responded with live ammunition, shotguns and tear gas, according to videos shared on social media that also show protesters bleeding profusely,” CHRI said in a statement.

Internet access has been restricted in what web monitor NetBlocks on Thursday called a “curfew-like pattern of disruptions” amid angry protests sparked by Amini’s death.

– Pro Hijab Rallies –

Access to social media services Instagram and WhatsApp has been blocked since Wednesday evening and connections were still largely disrupted on Friday.

The measure was taken in response to “actions carried out by counter-revolutionaries against national security through these social networks,” according to Iran’s Fars news agency.

The council responsible for organizing Friday’s pro-hijab rallies called the protesters “mercenaries”.

It has accused them of insulting the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as setting fire to mosques and Iran’s flag, and “desecrating the women’s hijab,” IRNA reported.

Chief Justice Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei on Thursday called on the Attorney General and judicial authorities to maintain peace and security and deal with “disrupting elements and professional rioters”.

The intelligence services warned in a statement that “due to the exploitation of the situation by counter-revolutionary movements, any participation in illegal demonstrations will be punished by the judiciary”.

President Ebrahim Raisi said at a press conference in New York where he attended the UN General Assembly: “We must distinguish between protesters and vandalism”.

The turmoil comes at a particularly sensitive time for leaders as Iran’s economy remains mired in a crisis largely driven by sanctions over its nuclear program.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps labeled the protests a “conspiracy of the enemy”.

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