Iranians keep up protests against downing of airliner after arrests announced

Angry demonstrators at universities in Tehran slam regime for initial denials; security forces separate protesters from pro-government counter-demonstrators

Iranian students gather for a demonstration over the downing of a Ukrainian airliner at Tehran University on January 14, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Iranian students gather for a demonstration over the downing of a Ukrainian airliner at Tehran University on January 14, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Protests in Iran over the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane entered their fourth day on Tuesday.

Iranian social media accounts shared footage said to be of demonstrators, especially in universities in the capital Tehran, protesting the country’s theocratic regime and demanding accountability after officials initially concealed the cause of the crash, which killed all 176 people on board, including several children and an infant.

Iran at first dismissed allegations that a missile had brought down the plane, but in the face of mounting evidence officials acknowledged on Saturday — three days after — that its Revolutionary Guard had shot down the plane by mistake as the force braced for a possible military confrontation with the United States.

AFP correspondents said around 200 mainly masked students gathered at Tehran University on Tuesday, where they were locked in a tense standoff with youths from the Basij militia loyal to the regime.

“Death to Britain,” women clad in black chadors chanted as Basij members burned a cardboard cutout of the British ambassador to Tehran, Rob Macaire, after his brief arrest for allegedly attending a demonstration Saturday.

The British ambassador had said he went to a candlelight vigil to pay his respects for the victims of the Ukrainian plane shoot down and left as soon as the chanting began and it turned into a protest.

Kept apart by security forces, the groups eventually parted ways.

The shoot down of the plane and the lack of transparency around it has reignited anger in Iran at the country’s leadership. Online videos appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests in the streets.

Also Tuesday, Iran’s judiciary said that 30 people had been detained in the protests, and that some were released, without elaborating further. An Iranian film director who had called for protests in Tehran’s Azadi, or Freedom, Square is among those released.

The protests have been much smaller than the nationwide demonstrations against fuel price hikes that turned deadly in November.

But one commentator said the latest rallies showed there was a “real rift between the people and the authorities.”

“I hope that [police restraint] will continue and that no lives are lost, because this could be a catalyst for more protests,” Mehdi Rahmanian, director of reformist daily Shargh, told AFP.

In another sign of growing dissent, a group of artists canceled their participation in the Fajr festival, held each year on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to Hamshahri newspaper, which is owned by Tehran City Hall.

Iranian officials said Tuesday arrests had also been made in the investigation into the downing of the Ukrainian airliner.

Iran’s Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said “some individuals” were arrested after “extensive investigations.” His statement on the judiciary’s website did not say how many people had been detained or name those arrested.

The plane, en route from Tehran to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was carrying 167 passengers and nine crew members from several countries, including 82 Iranians and 57 Canadians, many of whom were Iranians with dual citizenship. There were several children among the passengers, including an infant.

Supporters of the Basij, a militia loyal to the Islamic Republic regime, attend a memorial for the victims of the Ukraine plane crash at the University of Tehran on January 14, 2020. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iran’s president on Tuesday called for a special court with “a ranking judge and dozens of experts” to be set up to probe the incident.

“The responsibility falls on more than just one person,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech, adding that those found culpable “should be punished.”

“There are others, too, and I want that this issue is expressed honestly,” he said, without elaborating.

Rouhani called the incident “a painful and unforgivable” mistake and promised that his administration would pursue the case “by all means.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech at the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

“This is not an ordinary case. The entire the world will be watching this court,” he said.

Tensions have been escalating since US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, then reimposed sanctions that had been lifted under the accord.

The deal has quickly unraveled since then, with Iran steadily breaking away from limits on its nuclear program and Europe unable to find ways to keep Tehran committed.

The US sanctions have devastated Iran’s economy.

Smoke rises during a protest after authorities raised gasoline prices, in the central city of Isfahan, Iran, November 16, 2019. (AP Photo)

On Tuesday, Britain, France and Germany triggered the so-called dispute mechanism action that paves way for possible further sanctions in response to Iran’s moves.

Tensions sharply escalated further after January 3, when a US airstrike killed Iran’s most powerful military commander, Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad.

In response, Iran launched ballistic missiles on military bases housing US troops in Iraq to avenge Soleimani’s killing. The Ukrainian plane was shot down in Tehran as Iranian forces were on alert for possible US retaliation.

While Rouhani pointed to mistakes and negligence, he also repeated the government’s line that the plane tragedy was ultimately rooted in US aggression.

Iranians walk past a poster honoring the victims of a Ukrainian passenger jet accidentally shot down in the capital last week, in front of the Amirkabir University in the capital Tehran, on January 13, 2020. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)

“It was the US that made for an agitated environment. It was the US that created an unusual situation. It was the US that threatened and took our beloved [Soleimani],” he said.

Rouhani called the government’s admission that Iranian forces shot down the plane a “first good step.”

He added that Iranian experts who retrieved the Ukrainian plane’s flight recorder, the “black box,” have sent it to France for analysis.

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Guard’s aerospace division, said over the weekend his unit accepts full responsibility for the shoot down. He said when he learned about the downing of the plane, “I wished I was dead.”

In this January 9, 2020 photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, attends a mourning ceremony for general Qassem Soleimani a day after his forces shot down a Ukrainian airliner, in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The incident raised questions about why Iran did not shut down its international airport or airspace the day it was on alert for US military retaliation.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador on Sunday to protest what it said was his presence at an illegal protest. Britain, in turn, summoned Iran’s ambassador on Monday “to convey our strong objections” over the weekend arrest.

Iran’s top prosecutor, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, was quoted in local media Tuesday saying the British ambassador must be expelled from the country as soon as possible.

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