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Explainer: Mass protests rock Iran over the death of a young woman

The last week of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, after Iran’s notorious morality police arrested her because they thought she did not dress conservatively enough, sparked one of the most intense waves of popular anger the country has seen. in years, as well as a deluge of condemnations from abroad.

For a week now, protesters, mostly young women and men, have taken to the streets in dozens of Iranian cities. The scale of the demonstrations has stunned authorities, who have responded with firearms, beatings and telecommunications cut-offs in an unsuccessful attempt to quell the unrest. State television put the death toll at 17, including two security officers. One rights group says the total number of people killed could be at least double.

What will the protests mean for the country’s hardline government? And how do they compare to previous episodes of unrest?

Here’s a look at a volatile situation that some fear will lead to more bloodshed in the coming days.

Why did this death provoke so much anger?

Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northwestern city of Saqez, was visiting Tehran on September 13 when she was detained by morality police (Gasht-e Ershad, or orientation patrols), who said she was wearing tight pants and not wearing a headscarf. correctly, in violation of a law that requires women to wear hijab and loose clothing to disguise their figure in public.

Activists said she was hit on the head with a baton and suffered other injuries serious enough to put her in a coma. Three days later she was dead. Authorities deny hitting Amini and insisted in a statement that her cause of death was sudden cardiac arrest, possibly from pre-existing conditions.

“They are lying,” Amjad Amini, the girl’s father, told BBC Persian on Thursday. “She hasn’t been to any hospital in the last 22 years apart from some cold-related illnesses.”

He added that his son had witnessed his sister being beaten in the van and at the police station and that he himself had been mistreated by the officers.

Many Iranian women have long called for the abolition of so-called hijab laws, but Amini’s death struck a chord in a way few events have, perhaps because she was young, modest and an outsider visiting the capital. . Whatever the reason, they responded to the news of her death by organizing demonstrations, cutting their hair, burning her hijabs and shouting, “Death to the dictator!” in a direct barrage against Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Are the protests just because of Amini’s death?

The demonstrations have grown into a catch-all for other long-seeping grievances, including those left over from the 2019 mass protests over the collapse of Iran’s sanctions-crippled economy. Those demonstrations led to the bloodiest crackdown since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with hundreds of people — some reports say as many as 1,500 — killed.

The lack of civil liberties, dire economic conditions and haphazard negotiations with the West to restore a moribund nuclear deal and have sanctions lifted have fueled a broader sense of anger.

Iran’s 2021 presidential election, which brought hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to power as the uncontested candidate, further marginalized large sections of society. Raisi rolled back many of the reforms of the past two decades and pushed through the morality police.

In June, morality police arrested a young woman named Sepideh Rashnou, who had discussed the need for compulsory hijab with a female government supporter on a bus in Tehran. A week later, state television showed Rashnou with bruises on her face confessing that she had acted inappropriately. The confession went viral.

What is the current situation?

Over the past six days, anti-government protests have taken place in some 80 cities and towns, with some raising an open challenge to the government with slogans targeting Khamenei. Reports have emerged of protesters setting rubbish bins on fire, blocking access to streets and burning police vehicles as riot police responded with tear gas, water cannons and beatings.

Videos of protesters apparently being shot dead in different cities have gone viral, while a hashtag bearing Amini’s name has been retweeted some 30 million times, putting pressure on the government to block or reduce internet services, including messaging applications like WhatsApp.

The list of dead remains unclear, but human rights groups say at least 36 people have died. Officials have said they will release official figures later. On Thursday night, security forces launched a massive roundup of social activists and journalists, with hundreds now in custody.

Hengaw, a Norway-based Kurdish rights group, said that as of Wednesday, 15 people had been killed, along with 733 injured and another 600 arrested.

On Friday, the government staged its own counter-demonstration, with thousands of people gathering in Tehran and echoing the state line that the demonstrations were part of a foreign-backed conspiracy against Iran’s leadership. Netblocks, an internet monitoring group, reported on Friday that internet services were disrupted for the third time in the last week, with some of the most severe restrictions since the 2019 crackdown.

Amini’s death has also inspired protests abroad, including in the United States, Canada, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Lebanon, Spain and Turkey.

How does this compare to previous mass protests, and can they succeed where they failed?

Precise figures on the size of the demonstrations are hard to come by, but it is clear that the protests constitute the most serious challenge to the government since 2019. However, where those disturbances were caused by economic concerns, the immediate cause was an increase in gasoline prices, demonstrations are now more socially focused, and even religious conservatives express concern about morality police behavior.

Another important difference is that the protests have seen a more aggressive tactic by protesters more willing to fight back against security forces. The scale of the violence, at least according to clips and videos, appears to be greater.

The controversy also forced the government to weigh in. Speaking at a news conference on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Raisi said he had assured the Amini family that the incident would be investigated, even as he spoke of the West’s “double attack.” standards” when it comes to human rights.

“Our highest concern is the safeguarding of the rights of all citizens,” he said. “If his death was due to negligence, it will definitely be investigated and I promise to follow up on the matter, regardless of whether international forums rule or not.”

Other officials have resorted to the standard tactic of demonizing protesters. On Wednesday, the governor of Tehran. Mohsen Mansouri claimed in a tweet that many of the protesters “have a history of attending meetings and sometimes riots,” adding that just under half of them had “significant records and files in various law enforcement, security and judicial”.

He also claimed a day earlier that the main organizers were “trained” to create riots.

Despite that rhetoric, the protests have garnered support from artists, athletes, singers and celebrities.

“Don’t be afraid of strong women. Maybe the day will come when they will be your only army,” Ali Karimi, a famous Iranian soccer player, tweeted. Mohammad Fazeli, a prominent sociologist, said: “The responsibility to end the violence rests with the establishment that controls the media, decision-making and everything else.”

Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and editor Bulos from Amman, Jordan.

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