Raisi accuses US of seeking to destabilize Iran as protests sweep through 19 cities

Protesting schoolkids detained in ‘psychiatric center’; slogan graffitied on former US embassy, then painted over; Oslo-based group says over 200 killed

A motorcycle on fire in Iran's capital Tehran, on October 8, 2022. (A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran)
A motorcycle on fire in Iran's capital Tehran, on October 8, 2022. (A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran)

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Thursday accused the United States of resorting to a “policy of destabilization” against the Islamic Republic which is gripped by protests over Mahsa Amini’s death.

“Following the failure of America in militarization and sanctions, Washington and its allies have resorted to the failed policy of destabilization,” Raisi said at a summit in Kazakhstan, according to his office.

Iranians have “invalidated the American military option and… dealt a humiliating defeat to the policy of sanctions and maximum pressure,” he said.

Protests swept across at least 19 cities in Iran on Wednesday, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Amini after being detained last month by the country’s morality police, even as security forces targeted demonstrators in the streets, activists said.

The protests over the death of Amini have become one of the greatest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the country’s 2009 Green Movement. Demonstrators have included oil workers, high school students, and women marching without their mandatory headscarf, or hijab.

The crack of gunfire interrupted demonstrators’ chants in the cities of Isfahan and Karaj and in Amini’s hometown Saqqez, in videos shared by two Norway-based human rights organizations.

“Death to the dictator,” shouted female students who had defiantly taken off their headscarves as they marched down a Tehran street.

Those cries, referring to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can result in a closed-door trial in the country’s Revolutionary Court, with the threat of a death sentence.

Passing cars honked in support of the women despite the threats of security forces. Other women simply continued with their day, not wearing the hijab in silent protest.

A woman walks without a head scarf in the heart of the Iranian capital Tehran, on October 11, 2022. (Obtained by AFP outside Iran)

Demonstrations also occurred on university campuses in Tehran, online videos purported to show.

Lawyers also peacefully demonstrated in front of the Iran Central Bar Association in Tehran, chanting: “Woman, life, freedom” — a recurrent slogan of the demonstrations. The video corresponded to known features of the association’s building.

A 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 some two dozen arrested there, the center said.

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

The protest slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” was spray painted on the wall of the former US embassy — abandoned in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis — but later painted over.

The spray-painted slogan, ‘Woman, life, freedom,’ used by Iranians protesting over the death of Mahsa Amini’s, now painted over on a wall of the former United States embassy in the Iranian capital Tehran, on October 12, 2022, (Obtained by AFP outside Iran)

Shots were heard in Isfahan amid the “nationwide protests and strikes,” Iran Human Rights (IHR) said of a video it tweeted, and in Saqez, according to the Kurdish rights group Hengaw, which reported that later, “the security forces fled.”

Calls for protests beginning at noon Wednesday saw a massive deployment of riot police and plainclothes officers throughout Tehran and other cities, witnesses said and videos showed. Witnesses also described disruptions affecting their mobile internet services.

NetBlocks, an advocacy group, said that Iran’s internet traffic had dropped to some 25 percent compared to the peak, even during a working day in which students were in class across the country.

This was “likely to further limit the free flow of information amid protests,” NetBlocks said.

A man walks past a mural in the Iranian capital Tehran, on October 11, 2022. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The Center for Human Rights in Iran said it tracked protests in at least 19 cities across Iran.

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

Iran’s government insists that Amini was not mistreated, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beating after she was detained for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code. Subsequent videos have shown security forces beating and shoving female protesters, including women who have torn off their hijabs.

Khamenei, speaking Wednesday to the country’s Expediency Council, again claimed Iran’s foreign enemies had fomented what he dismissed as “scattered” demonstrations.

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

Iranian state television, long controlled by the country’s hard-liners, aired footage it described as women protesting in support of the mandatory hijab across Iran. Only Afghanistan and Iran mandate the hijab in law and by force.

Anger has been particularly acute in western Iran’s Kurdish regions, as 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 posted a video it said came from Amini’s hometown of Saqqez, which showed truckloads of riot police moving through the city.

While the demonstrations have focused on Amini’s death, anger has been simmering in Iran for years over the country’s cratering economy. Sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program have seen a collapse in the country’s rial currency, wiping out many people’s savings.

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

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

Numerous videos have emerged of riot police shooting into crowds, with some likely using live fire. Apparently feeling the pressure from the public, Iran’s police chief, Gen. Hossein Ashtari, claimed on state television Wednesday, without providing evidence, that “counterrevolutionary groups abroad” wore police uniforms and fired into the crowds. He claimed his officers had made arrests of some of those people.

Meanwhile, Iran’s Education Minister Yousof Nouri offered the first confirmation that school-age children had been arrested during the protests. He declined to offer a figure for those arrests, the newspaper Shargh reported, only saying those detained had been put “in a psychiatric center,” not in jail.

At least 28 children have been killed and hundreds more detained and held mostly in adult prisons, rights groups said.

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