Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Clashes between Iranian security forces and protesters angry over the death of a 22-year-old woman in police custody have killed at least nine people since violence erupted over the weekend, according to an Associated Press tally on Thursday.
The extent of the ongoing unrest in Iran, the worst in several years, still remains unclear as protesters in at least a dozen cities – venting anger at the country’s social repression and growing crises – continue to meet with security forces and paramilitaries.
Widespread disruptions to Instagram and WhatsApp continued on Thursday, which protesters use to share information about the government’s crackdown on dissent. The authorities also appeared to cut off Internet access to the outside world, a tactic that rights activists say the government often uses in times of unrest.
In a country where radio and television stations are already controlled by the state and journalists are regularly threatened with arrest, the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on Thursday urged the judiciary to prosecute “anyone who spreads false news and rumors” on social media about the riots.
The demonstrations in Iran began as emotional outbursts for the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman detained by the country’s moral police for allegedly violating her strictly enforced dress code. Her death has drawn harsh condemnation from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.
Police say she died of a heart attack and was not mistreated, but her family questioned this. Independent experts affiliated with the United Nations said Thursday that reports suggested she had been severely beaten by the moral police, offering no evidence. They called for an impartial investigation to hold the authors accountable.
The protests have over the past four days become an open challenge to the government, with women taking off and burning state-imposed veils in the streets and Iranians setting fire to garbage cans and calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic itself.
“Death to the dictator!” it was a common cry in the protests.
Demonstrations shook the university campuses of Tehran and western cities as far away as Kermanshah. Though widespread, the riots seem distinct from previous rounds of nationwide protests triggered by portfolio problems as the Iranian economy falters under heavy US sanctions.
The riots that broke out in 2019 over the government’s sharp rise in the price of gasoline mobilized the masses of the working class in small towns. Hundreds were killed as security forces repressed, according to human rights groups, the deadliest violence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
This week, Iranian state media reported on demonstrations by hundreds of people in at least 13 cities, including the capital Tehran. Online videos show security forces firing tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protests. London-based Amnesty International reported that officers also fired bird bullets and metal shot and beat protesters with batons.
Social media footage from the northern city of Tabriz shows a young man allegedly shot by security forces bleeding on the street as protesters screamed for help.
At least nine people died in the clashes, according to an AP tally based on statements by Iranian state and semi-official media. In a statement on Thursday, the Guard blamed the riots of “Iran’s enemies”, saying their “sedition will fail”.
In the home province of Amini in northwestern Kurdistan, the provincial police chief said four demonstrators were killed by live fire. In Kermanshah, the prosecutor said two protesters were killed by opposition groups, insisting that the bullets were not fired by Iranian security forces.
Some demonstrators appear to have targeted the security forces. Three men affiliated with the Basij, a volunteer force under the Guard, were killed in clashes in the cities of Shiraz, Tabriz and Mashhad, semi-official media reported, bringing the death toll recognized by officials to at least nine on both sides. .
In Mashhad, the state agency IRNA reported that a policeman was hospitalized with severe burns after demonstrators tried to set him on fire.
Independent experts with the UN said the clashes killed at least eight people according to their tally, including a woman and a 16-year-old boy, with dozens of others injured and arrested.
The clashes have left a trail of destruction. In Mazandaran province along the Caspian Sea coast, angry mobs damaged or set fire to more than 40 government properties and injured 76 security officers, Deputy Governor Rouhollah Solgi said Thursday.
As protests spread, authorities shut down the internet in parts of the country, according to NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors internet access, describing the restrictions as the most severe since the November 2019 mass protests.
Iran has been grappling with waves of protests in the recent past, mainly over a protracted economic crisis exacerbated by Western sanctions linked to its nuclear program. The Iranians also blame government corruption and mismanagement for the soaring prices of basic necessities, the value of the currency withers and unemployment remains high.
The Biden administration and European allies are working to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, in which Iran curbed its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions, but talks have been stalled for months.