Thousands demonstrated across Iran on Friday in government-backed anti-hijab rallies, after a week of bloody protests over the death of a woman arrested for “improperly” wearing the Islamic headscarf.
Iran has been rocked by street violence since the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish man who spent three days in a coma after being arrested by morality police.
The official death toll from the clashes remains at least 17, including five security personnel, but the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) put the number at 36 and said it expected it to rise.
As part of the crackdown, Iran has imposed harsh restrictions on internet use in an attempt to prevent protesters from gathering and stop the flow of images of the reaction from reaching the outside world.
The United States announced on Friday that it was easing export restrictions on Iran to expand internet services, days after SpaceX owner Elon Musk said he would seek an exemption from sanctions to offer his company’s Starlink satellite service. in the Islamic Republic.
The new measure will allow technology companies to “expand the range of Internet services available to Iranians,” Deputy Finance Minister Wally Adeyemo said.
On Friday, thousands of people took to the streets to support the hijab and conservative dress code in government-sponsored counter-rallies in Tehran and other cities including Ahvaz, Isfahan, Qom and Tabriz.
“The great demonstration of the Iranian people condemning conspirators and sacrileges against religion was held today,” Iran’s Mehr news agency reported.
State television broadcast footage of pro-hijab protesters in central Tehran, many of them men as well as women dressed in black chadors.
– Overnight Clashes –
Amini died on September 16, three days after being hospitalized after being arrested by the morality police, a unit responsible for enforcing the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code for women.
Activists said he suffered a blow to the head in detention, but this has not been confirmed by Iranian authorities, who have launched an investigation.
After her death was confirmed, angry protests broke out and spread to major urban centers, including the capital, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz and Tabriz.
In the latest violence, security forces fired “light weapons” at protesters during clashes in the northern town of Oshnaviyeh, the Oslo-based Kurdish rights group Hengaw said on Friday. The report could not be independently verified.
In nearby Babol, protesters were seen burning a large billboard bearing the image of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in videos shared online.
Some female protesters have defiantly removed their hijabs and burned them on bonfires or symbolically cut their hair before cheering crowds, according to videos that have gone viral on social media.
Security forces have arrested activists, including Majid Tavakoli, who has been jailed repeatedly in recent years, even after the disputed 2009 election.
– “Bleeding a lot” –
Protesters threw stones at them, set fire to police cars and shouted anti-government slogans, IRNA reported.
“The government responded with live ammunition, firearms and tear gas, according to videos shared on social media that also show protesters bleeding profusely,” CHRI said.
Internet access has been curtailed in what web monitor NetBlocks called a “curfew-style outage pattern” amid angry protests sparked by Amini’s death.
“Online platforms remained limited and connectivity is intermittent for many users and mobile internet was down for a third day on Friday,” NetBlocks said.
Access to social media services Instagram and WhatsApp have been blocked since Wednesday night and connections were still largely disrupted on Friday.
The measure was taken in response to “actions carried out through these social networks by counter-revolutionaries against national security,” Iran’s Fars news agency reported.
President Ebrahim Raisi, at a press conference in New York where he attended the UN General Assembly, said: “We must distinguish between protesters and vandalism.”
The turmoil comes at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, as Iran’s economy remains mired in a crisis caused largely by sanctions over its nuclear program.