As internet restored, online Iran protest videos show chaos

Weeklong government-imposed shutdown, lifted over the weekend, left the world guessing at the true extent of the regime’s deadly crackdown against protesters

Iranians inspect the wreckage of a bus that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan on November 17, 2019. (AFP)
Iranians inspect the wreckage of a bus that was set ablaze by protesters during a demonstration against a rise in gasoline prices in the central city of Isfahan on November 17, 2019. (AFP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Machine gun fire answers rock-throwing protesters. Motorcycle-riding Revolutionary Guard volunteers chase after demonstrators. Plainclothes security forces grab, beat and drag a man off the street to an uncertain fate.

As Iran restores the internet after a weeklong government-imposed shutdown, new videos purport to show the demonstrations over gasoline prices rising and the security-force crackdown that followed.

The videos offer only fragments of encounters, but to some extent they fill in the larger void left by Iran’s state-controlled television and radio channels. On their airwaves, hard-line officials allege that foreign conspiracies and exile groups instigated the unrest. In print, newspapers offered mostly PR for the government, the moderate daily Hamshahri said, in an analysis on Sunday.

They do not acknowledge that the gasoline price hike on November 15, supported by Iran’s civilian government, came as the country’s 80 million people have already seen their savings dwindle and jobs scarce under crushing US sanctions. US President Donald Trump imposed them in the aftermath of unilaterally withdrawing America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, over Iran’s ballistic missile program and interventions in conflicts throughout the region.

A man uses a smartphone, while speaking with another riding a motorcycle in a street, in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 23, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Authorities also have yet to give any overall figures for how many people were injured, arrested or killed during the several days of protests that swept across some 100 cities and towns.

Amnesty International said it believes the unrest and the crackdown killed at least 106 people. Iran disputes that figure without offering its own. A UN office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.”

Starting November 16, Iran shut down the internet across the country, limiting communications with the outside world. That made determining the scale and longevity of the protests incredibly difficult. Some recycled days-old videos and photographs as new, making it even more difficult.

Since Saturday, internet connectivity spiked in the country, allowing people to access foreign websites for the first time. On Sunday, connectivity stood nearly at 100% for landline services, while mobile phone internet service remained scarce, the advocacy group NetBlocks said.

Iranians walk past the branch of a local bank that was damaged during demonstrations against gasoline price hikes, on November 20, 2019, in Shahriar, west of Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The restoration brought messaging apps back to life for Iranians cut off from loved ones abroad. It also meant that videos were again being shared widely.

Recently released videos span the country. One video from Shiraz, some 680 kilometers (420 miles) south of Tehran, purports to show a crowd of over 100 people scatter, as gunfire erupts from a police station in the city. One man bends down to pick up debris as a person off-camera describes demonstrators throwing stones. Another gunshot rings out, followed by a burst of machine gun fire.

In Kerman, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Tehran, the sound of breaking glass echoes over a street where debris burns. Motorcycle-riding members of the Basij, the all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Guard, then chase the protesters away.

Another video in Kermanshah, some 420 kilometers (260 miles) southwest of Tehran, purports to show the dangers that lurked on the streets of Iran in recent days. Plainclothes security forces, some wielding nightsticks, drag one man off by the hair of his head. The detained man falls at one point.

Shops that were destroyed during demonstrations against gasoline price hikes are pictured in Shahriar, west of Tehran, on November 20, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

“Look, (the agents) wear styles like the youth,” one man off-camera says, swearing at them.

On Sunday, it remained unclear how widespread any remaining demonstrations were. The acting commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Ali Fadavi, repeated the allegation that America was behind the protests, without offering any evidence to support his claim.

“Why did (the Americans) get angry after we cut off the internet? Because the internet is the channel through which Americans wanted to perform their evil and vicious acts,” Fadavi said. “We will deal with this, Islamic Republic supporters, and our proud men and women will sign up to make a domestic system similar to the internet with operating systems that (the Americans) can’t (control) even if they want.”

That likely refers to what has been known as the “halal net,” Iran’s own locally controlled version of the internet aimed at restricting what the public can see. The system known as the National Information Network has some 500 government-approved national websites that stream content far faster than those based abroad, which are intentionally slowed, activists say. Iranian officials say it allows the Islamic Republic to be independent if the world cuts it off instead.

Ali Fadavi, Deputy Chief of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), delivers a speech during Basij Week in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 24, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

But while Fadavi earlier said the protests were put down in 48 hours, he also acknowledged the scope of the unrest by comparing it to Operation Karbala-4, one of the worst military disasters suffered by Iran during its bloody 1980s war with Iraq.

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