Protests reach 19 cities in Iran despite internet disruptions

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Protests swept through at least 19 cities across Iran on Wednesday, sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman detained by the country’s vice squad last month, even as security forces targeted protesters in the streets, activists said. .

Protests over the death of Mahsa Amini have become one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the green movement of 2009. Among the protesters were oil workers, high school students and women who marched without their compulsory headscarves or hijab.

Calls for protests from midday Wednesday saw a massive deployment of riot police and plainclothes officers across Tehran and other cities, witnesses and videos said. Witnesses also described disruptions affecting their mobile Internet services.

NetBlocks, an advocacy group, said Iranian internet traffic fell about 25% from peak, even during a workday when students were in class across the country.

“The incident is likely to further limit the free flow of information amid the protests,” NetBlocks said.

Despite the disturbances, witnesses saw at least one demonstration in Tehran by around 30 women who had taken off their headscarves while chanting: “Death to the dictator!” The cries, referencing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may result in a closed trial in the country’s Revolutionary Court with the threat of a death sentence.

Passing cars honked their horns in support of the women despite threats from security forces. Other women simply went about their day without wearing the hijab in silent protest, witnesses said. Demonstrations have also taken place on university campuses in Tehran, online videos purport to show.

Lawyers also protested peacefully outside Iran’s Central Bar Association in Tehran, chanting: “Woman, life, freedom” – a slogan of the protests so far. The video matched known features of the association’s building. Later video showed them fleeing after security forces fired tear gas at them, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said.

At least three lawyers were among the roughly two dozen arrested there, the center said.

“Lawyers ready to defend detainees arrested for peaceful protest are the last lifeline for citizens under attack by the Iranian government,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the center’s executive director. “Protests must be allowed without the threat of deadly state violence or arbitrary arrest.”

The center said it tracked protests in at least 19 cities across Iran.

Gathering information about the protests remains difficult amid internet restrictions and the arrests of at least 40 journalists in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Iranian government insists Amini was not abused, but her family say her body showed bruises and other signs of beatings after she was arrested for violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code. Later videos showed security forces beating and shoving protesters, including women who ripped off their hijabs.

Khamenei, speaking to the country’s Opportunity Council on Wednesday, again claimed that Iran’s foreign enemies had fomented what he called “scattered” protests.

“Some of these people are elements of the enemy and if they are not, they are in the direction of the enemy,” Khamenei said.

Iran’s state television, long controlled by the country’s hardliners, aired footage it describes of women demonstrating in support of compulsory hijab wearing across Iran. Only Afghanistan and Iran impose the hijab by law and by force.

The anger was particularly strong in the Kurdish regions of western Iran, because Amini was Kurdish. On Wednesday, a Kurdish group called the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights showed images of closed shops and empty streets in some areas, describing it as a strike by shopkeepers.

The group also released a video it said came from Amini’s hometown of Saqqez that showed riot police trucks moving through the city.

While the protests have focused on Amini’s death, anger has been simmering in Iran for years over the country’s cratered economy. Sanctions against Tehran’s nuclear program led to a collapse of the country’s currency, the rial, wiping out the savings of many.

It remains unclear how many people have been killed or arrested in the protests so far.

An Oslo-based group, Iran Human Rights, estimated on Wednesday that at least 201 people were killed. This includes around 90 people killed by security forces in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan during protests against a police officer accused of rape in a separate case. Iranian authorities have described the Zahedan violence as involving anonymous separatists, without providing details or evidence.

Numerous videos have emerged of riot police firing into crowds, some likely using live fire. Apparently feeling public pressure, Iran’s police chief, General Hossein Ashtari, claimed on state television on Wednesday without providing evidence that “counter-revolutionary groups abroad” were wearing police uniforms and fired into the crowd. He claimed that his officers had arrested some of these people.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Education Minister Yousof Nouri offered the first confirmation that school-aged children had been arrested amid the protests. He declined to give a figure for those arrests, the Shargh newspaper reported, saying only that those detained had been placed “in a psychiatric centre”, not in prison.

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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