‘Woman, life, freedom’: At least 16 dead in Iran unrest over morality police

The official death toll from Iran’s wave of popular unrest shot up Thursday to at least 17 as popular anger has flared over the death in custody of the young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini.

However, the Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights said at least 31 civilians had been killed in a crackdown by the Iranian security forces in six nights of violence.

Iranians have taken to the streets “to achieve their fundamental rights and human dignity… and the government is responding to their peaceful protest with bullets,” charged its director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.

Amini, 22, died last week after she had been arrested by the Islamic Republic’s feared morality police for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” way, sparking widespread outrage.

“Death to the dictator” and “Woman, life, freedom,” protesters could be heard shouting in video footage shared online, during the biggest wave of protests to rock the country in almost three years.

Among those killed in clashes have been police and militia officers, state TV reported, while overseas-based human rights groups reported many more deaths, which could not be independently verified.

Nasibe Samsaei, an Iranian woman living in Turkey, cuts her ponytail off during a protest outside the Iranian consulate in Istanbul on September 21, 2022, following the death of an Iranian woman after her arrest by the country’s morality police in Tehran. (Yasin AKGUL / AFP)

Security forces have fired at crowds with birdshot and metal pellets, and also deployed tear gas and water cannon, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps called on the country’s judiciary to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumors” Amini’s killing, Reuters reported.

The IRGC expressed sympathy to Amini’s family but said those “who endanger the psychological safety of society” should be dealt with “decisively.”

Iranian officials have claimed that Amini’s death was the result of a heart attack, but her family has insisted that she did not have any heart problems. “They are lying. It’s all lies,” Amini’s father Amjad told the BBC on Wednesday, adding that Iranian authorities have refused to allow him to see his daughter’s body.

There were fears violence could escalate further after Iranian authorities restricted internet access and blocked messaging apps including WhatsApp and Instagram, as they have done before past crackdowns.

Some women have burnt their scarves and symbolically cut their hair in protest at the strict dress code, in defiant actions echoed in solidarity protests abroad from New York to Istanbul.

Activists have said that Amini, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, after her detention in Tehran suffered a fatal blow to the head — a claim denied by officials, who have announced an investigation.

‘I’m frightened’

Iranian women on the streets of Tehran told AFP they were now more careful about their dress to avoid run-ins with the morality police.

“I’m frightened,” said Nazanin, a 23-year-old nurse who asked to be identified by her first name only for safety reasons, adding she believed the morality police “shouldn’t confront people at all”.

US President Joe Biden in an address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday said that “we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”

Photos showing victims of Iran’s 1988 massacre of political prisoners are displayed during a protest against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi outside of the United Nations on September 21, 2022 in New York City. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Iran’s ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi, speaking later in the same forum, complained of a “double standard” and pointed to Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories and the deaths of indigenous women in Canada.

The protests come at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership, as the Iranian economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by sanctions over its nuclear program.

Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and late Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani.

The wave of unrest “is a very significant shock, it is a societal crisis,” said Iran expert David Rigoulet-Roze of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran on September 21, 2022, shows Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody. (AFP)

Internet curbed

The protests are among the most serious in Iran since November 2019 unrest sparked by a sharp rise in gas prices. The crackdown then killed hundreds, according to Amnesty.

Demonstrators have hurled stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and garbage bins, and chanted anti-government slogans, the official IRNA news agency said.

On Thursday, Iranian media said three militiamen “mobilized to deal with rioters” were stabbed or shot dead in northwestern Tabriz, central Qazvin and northeastern Mashhad.

Protesters chant slogans during a rally over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police, in downtown Tehran, Iran September 21, 2022 (AP Photo)

UN human rights experts condemned the “use of physical violence against women” and the “state-mandated internet disruptions,” which they said were usually part of larger efforts “to stifle… free expression… and to curtail ongoing protests.”

Iran’s Fars news agency reported that “in accordance with a decision by officials, it has no longer been possible to access Instagram in Iran since (Wednesday) evening and access to WhatsApp is also disrupted.”

The two apps were the most widely used in Iran after the blocking of other platforms in recent years, including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, YouTube and TikTok.