Internet access remained severely restricted in Iran ahead of Friday’s counter-rallies after a week of protests over the death of Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody that have left at least 17 people dead.
Amini, 22, died after being arrested by the Islamic Republic’s feared morality police for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “inappropriate” way, and the news of her death sparked widespread outrage.
The official death toll rose to at least 17 on Thursday, including five security forces, but the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said its sources put the number much higher.
“On day 7 of #IranProtest, officials admit at least 17 deaths, independent sources say 36,” the CHRI said in a Twitter post.
“Expect the number to go up. World leaders must pressure Iranian officials to allow protests without lethal force.”
Government-backed nationwide rallies in support of the hijab and a conservative dress code for women have been announced for Friday by Iran’s Islamic Development Coordination Council, official IRNA news agency reported.
Security forces fired “semi-heavy weapons” at protesters during night-time clashes in the northern city of Oshnaviyeh, Olso-based Kurdish rights group Hengaw said.
In the nearby town of Babol, protesters were seen setting fire to a large billboard bearing the image of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to videos shared online that could not be independently verified.
Since Amini was pronounced dead on September 16, three days after she was arrested by Iran’s vice squad in Tehran, protests have spread to most of the country’s major urban centers, including the capital, Isfahan, Mashhad, Rasht and Saqez .
Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, suffered a fatal blow to the head, a claim disputed by officials who have announced an investigation.
– “heavy bleeding” –
Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of Khamenei and the late Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani.
Some protesters have defiantly removed their hijabs and burned them in bonfires or symbolically cut their hair in front of cheering crowds, according to video footage going viral on social media.
In response, security forces fired buckshot and metal balls at the crowds and used tear gas and water cannons, Amnesty International and other human rights groups said.
Demonstrators have hurled stones at them, set fire to police cars and chanted anti-government slogans, IRNA reported.
“The government has responded with live ammunition, shotguns and tear gas, according to videos shared on social media, which also showed protesters bleeding profusely,” CHRI said in a statement.
Internet access was curtailed in what web monitor NetBlocks described Thursday as a “curfew-style disruption pattern” amid angry protests sparked by Amini’s death.
– Pro Hijab Rallies –
Access to the social media services Instagram and WhatsApp has been blocked since Wednesday night, and the connections were still largely interrupted on Friday.
The measure was taken in response to “the actions carried out through these social networks by counter-revolutionaries against national security,” Iran’s Fars News Agency said.
The council responsible for organizing Friday’s pro-Hijab rallies called the protesters “mercenaries”.
She accuses them of insulting the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad, burning down mosques and the Iranian flag and “desecrating women’s hijab,” IRNA reported.
Justice chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei on Thursday urged the attorney general and judicial authorities to maintain peace and security and counter “disruptive elements and professional rioters.”
The intelligence services warned in a statement that “due to the exploitation of the situation by counter-revolutionary movements, any participation in illegal demonstrations will be punished by the courts.”
President Ebrahim Raisi said at a press conference in New York, where he was attending the UN General Assembly, “We must distinguish between protesters and vandalism.”
The unrest comes at a particularly sensitive time for the leadership as Iran’s economy remains mired in a crisis, largely caused by sanctions over its nuclear program.
Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has described the protests as a “conspiracy of the enemy”.