Iran is preparing for counter rallies as protest deaths mount

Iran is preparing for counter rallies as protest deaths mount

Internet access was heavily restricted in Iran ahead of Friday’s counter-rally, after a week of protests over the death of Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini that left at least 17 dead in police custody.

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

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

“On the 7th day of #IranProtest, officials admit at least 17 deaths with 36 independent sources,” the CHRI said in a Twitter post.

“Expect the number to rise. World leaders must pressure Iranian officials to allow protest without lethal force.”

Government-sponsored national rallies in support of the hijab and a conservative dress code for women have been announced on Friday by Iran’s Islamic Development Coordination Council, the official IRNA news agency reported.

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

In the nearby city of Babol, demonstrators were seen burning a large billboard bearing the image of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to videos shared online that could not be independently verified.

Since Amini was announced dead on September 16, three days after Iran’s morality police arrested her in Tehran, protests have spread to most of the country’s major urban centers, including the capital, Isfahan, Mashhad, Rasht and Saqez.

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

– ‘Bleeding profusely’ –

Unprecedented images showed protesters clashing or burning effigies of Khamenei and the late commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani.

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

In response, security forces have attacked the crowds with birdshot and metal pellets, while tear gas and water cannon have been deployed, Amnesty International and other human rights groups said.

Demonstrators have pelted stones, set fire to police cars and chanted anti-government slogans, IRNA reported.

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

Internet access was restricted in what web monitor NetBlocks called Thursday a “curfew-style pattern of intrusions” amid angry protests sparked by Amini’s death.

– Pro-hijab rallies –

Access to social media services Instagram and WhatsApp have been blocked since Wednesday night, and connections were severely disrupted on Friday.

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

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

He accused them of insulting the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed, as well as burning mosques and the Iranian flag and “destroying women’s hijab”, IRNA reported.

Justice chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei on Thursday called on the attorney general and the legal authorities to maintain peace and security and fight “disturbing 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 justice”.

President Ebrahim Raisi, at a news conference in New York where he attended the United Nations General Assembly, said: “We must distinguish between demonstrators and vandalism”.

The unrest comes at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, as Iran’s economy is still reeling from a crisis caused mainly by sanctions over its nuclear program.

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

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