Iran has shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, blocking access to platforms like Instagram and WhatsAppin a bid to curb a growing protest movement that has relied on social media to document dissent.
The protests, which erupted on September 16 after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody, show no signs of abating. On Thursday, protesters torched police stations and vehicles in several cities.
This comes as anti-regime demonstrations spilled into cyberspace, with videos of women burning their hijabs going viral. Other women have been posting emotional videos in which cut hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was arrested on September 16 for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” manner. Activists said the woman, whose first Kurdish name is Jhina, had suffered a fatal blow to the head, a claim denied by authorities, who have announced an investigation. The police continue to maintain that she died of natural causes, but her family suspects that she was subjected to beatings and torture.
In response to his death, the United States placed Iran’s morality police on its sanctions blacklist on Thursday.
The US Treasury said the morality police were “responsible” for Amini’s death as it announced sanctions “for abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters.”
Iranian state media reported that by Wednesday street demonstrations had spread to 15 cities, with police using tear gas and making arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.
In southern Iran, video footage purportedly from Wednesday showed protesters setting fire to a gigantic image on the side of a building of General Qassem Soleimani, the revered commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who was killed in a US strike in Iraq in 2020. .
Protesters hurled stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and containers 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 the northwestern city of Tabriz, the central city of Qazvin and Mashhad in the northeast of the country.
A fourth member of the security forces was killed in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies reported, adding that a protester was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to the six deaths of protesters already announced by authorities. .
Iranian authorities have denied any involvement in the deaths of the protesters.
Amnesty International said it had recorded the death of eight people, six men, a woman and a child, with four shots by the security forces at close range with metal pellets.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since the November 2019 riots over rising fuel prices.
“Internet blackouts should be understood as an extension of the violence and repression that is happening in physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “Social networks are essential for the mobilization of protesters, not only to coordinate meetings but also to amplify acts of resistance.
“You see a woman standing without her hijab in front of the anti-insurgency police, which is very brave. If a video of this comes out, suddenly it’s not just one person doing this, women in all different cities are doing the same thing. ”.
“Women, life, freedom”, the words that were heard at Amini’s funeral, have been repeated by protesters across the country, including in a video showing young women burning their hijabs as male protesters battle security forces. The video has received more than 30,000 views on Twitter.
In another video, An Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth as she cuts her hair with household scissors.which has racked up over 60,000 views.
“[The videos] they are 100 percent valuable,” a young Twitter user from Iran told The Guardian, adding that while the protests had not reached her hometown, she had been able to engage in opposition activities online. “I am saddened that my compatriots in other parts of Iran have taken to the streets and are fighting this regime for all of our rights. And I can’t do anything except share information online.”
He added that videos showing police brutality towards protesters were motivating people in different cities to take action.
“It is very difficult for the regime to control the videos that come out. Many people do not post them on social networks, but instead circulate them within WhatsApp groups, etc. The demonstrations are happening simultaneously in cyberspace and in physical space.”
Social media has long been one of the key tools for anti-regime activity, as security forces closely monitor public spaces. “Platforms like Instagram became the virtual street, where we can gather to protest, because it was not possible to do it in real life,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian activist against gender-based violence living in exile in Spain.
Norouzi said that while he had been able to keep in touch with activists in Tehran, he feared future internet blackouts and what they might mean for activists’ safety.
“During the last protests [2017-2019], the government cut off the internet for days in a row. During that time, protesters were killed and arrested,” he said. “Protesters are also using the Internet to organize. They can call and tell each other when they are in danger or warn each other.”
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps called on the judiciary to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumours” in a statement released Thursday.
Amini’s death came amid a government crackdown on women’s rights. On August 15, Iran’s hard-line president, ebrahim raisisigned a decree that, among other measures, increased the punishment for women who post anti-hijab content online.
Speaking at a briefing with some Western reporters on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, Raisi said the circumstances of Amini’s death were under investigation.
Early signs of the investigation showed that there had been no beatings or violence leading to her death, he said. “All signs point to a heart attack or stroke,” she said, but stressed that “that is not the final determination.”
He said that deaths from police violence had occurred hundreds of times in the United States and also in the United Kingdom.
Akbari said that at the same time that it was attacking women’s rights, the Iranian government was tightening its cyber regime. She fears that continued internet blackouts could be used to facilitate an expansion of the Iranian national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.
“This is a very dangerous plan, which would see the regime completely isolate Iran from the global internet in the near future,” he said. “This would allow the regime to control cyberspace along with surveillance of physical space, and develop an all-pervasive control machinery.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour in New York
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