The Iranian government brought its supporters to the streets of cities across the country on Friday to stage pro-regime rallies after blocking WhatsApp, Instagram and local phone networks to dampen dissent sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody.
The death of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died after being arrested by Iran’s feared “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly, has triggered nightly protests.
Security services have cracked down, leaving at least 17 people confirmed dead, although the real number is likely much higher with rights groups estimating that more than 30 people have been killed in the last seven days.
Tehran, the capital city, saw hundreds of pro-government protesters staging a limp demonstration after Friday prayers. The crowds of mostly men held the Iranian flag, and pro-government placards with slogans in support of the authorities, a classic move used by the regime over the last four decades to curb popular protest. Similar events were held in other cities in the country.
The gatherings were arranged by local bureaus of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which has accused the “enemies of the Islamic Revolution” of being behind the past week’s demonstrations and spreading “false information” about Amini’s death.
The IRGC had even printed placards in English, presumably to try to convince the international community that the regime is popular domestically.
The group also urged the country’s judiciary to crack down on "those who pose a threat to society.” The Iranian Intelligence Ministry has stepped in and threatened protesters with prosecution and long prison sentences.
Amini died after being arrested last week in Tehran by the morality police, and taken to a police station for “re-education”. Police said she died after having a heart attack while in custody, but her family says she was hit over the head before falling into a coma.
The government also disrupted internet access in the areas that have seen the biggest protests, mostly in the Kurdish-populated west. The areas near Amini’s home town, Saqqez, have seen the most violent clashes between the protesters and riot police since her burial, with chants of “death to the dictator” ringing through the streets and snowballing into nationwide anti-government demonstrations.
NetBlocks, an internet-monitoring group, said these represented “the most severe internet restrictions” seen in the country since the last mass anti-regime demonstrations of 2019 that left more than 1,500 people dead.
The backlash over Amini’s death has put the morality police under the spotlight and created a serious challenge to the government as demonstrations picked up overwhelming support across the country. The US imposed sanctions against people connected with the morality police, known as “Ershad”, and also against people involved in the crackdown on the mass protests.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi has promised an inquiry into Amini’s death, but the public is unconvinced and fed up with generic statements by senior figures of the country that never finds the government responsible for any wrongdoing.
In July, Raisi launched a campaign to crack down on “improper hijab” and increased Ershad patrols with vans roaming crowded public places and rounding up women deemed to be violating the dress code outlined by the Islamic regime.
Ultra-conservative figures have repeatedly voiced concern about women skirting the rules by wearing bright colours and not fully covering their hair, and the religious establishment of the country complains that the people are acting in an “un-Islamic” way. Increased patrols have created resentment among many Iranians, and it has prompted a backlash against creeping religious conservatism among the country’s youth.
Iranian riot police have cracked down on the angry protesters and used shotguns, tear gas, and batons to disperse crowds throwing stones and burning trash cans in different towns and cities in Iran.
Iranian students in different universities held gatherings and chanted anti-government slogans. Today, Tehran university announced that classes will be held online only until September 29.