Iran has shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, in an effort 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 sign of abating. On Thursday, protesters set fire to police stations and vehicles in several cities.
This comes as anti-regime demonstrations have spread to cyberspace, and videos of women burning their headscarves have spread. Emotional videos posted on other women They cut their hair in protest Under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was detained on 16 September for allegedly wearing a headscarf “inappropriately”. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Gina, was fatally hit in the head, a claim denied by officials who announced an investigation. Police still maintain that she died of natural causes, but her family suspects she was beaten and tortured.
In response to her death, the United States put 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 “mistreatment and violence against Iranian women, and for violating the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters”.
Iranian state media reported that by Wednesday, street rallies had spread to 15 cities, with police using tear gas and arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.
In southern Iran, video footage allegedly taken on Wednesday showed protesters setting fire to a giant photo on the side of a building for General Qassem Soleimani, the venerable commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who was killed in a US raid in Iraq in 2020.
The official IRNA news agency said protesters threw stones at security forces, set cars and police boxes on fire, and chanted anti-government slogans.
And Iranian media said, on Thursday, that three militia members “assembled to deal with rioters” were stabbed or shot in the northwestern city of Tabriz, the city of Qazvin and Mashhad in the center of the country in the northeast of the country.
Iranian news agencies reported that a fourth member of the security forces was killed in the southern city of Shiraz, adding that a demonstrator was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to the killing of six protesters already announced by officials.
The Iranian authorities denied any involvement in the killing of protesters.
Amnesty International said it had recorded the killing of eight people – six men, a woman and a child – and four shot by security forces at close range with metal pellets.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since the November 2019 unrest over high fuel prices.
“Internet shutdown should be understood as an extension of the violence and oppression that takes place in physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, an internet monitoring researcher at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. “Social media is essential to mobilize protesters, not only to coordinate rallies but also to amplify acts of resistance.
You see a woman standing without her veil in front of the counter-insurgency police, and that’s very brave. If a video of this comes out, suddenly it’s not just one person doing it, women in all different cities are doing the same thing.”
“Women, life, freedom,” the words that could have been heard at Amini’s funeral, were repeated by protesters across the country, including at Video showing young women burning their headscarves While male protesters are fighting security forces. The video has garnered more than 30,000 views on Twitter.
in a different video, An Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth while she cuts her hair with household scissorsWhich has garnered more than 60,000 views.
“[The videos] One young Twitter user from Iran told the Guardian, adding that although the protests did not reach her hometown, she was able to engage in opposition activity online. I am sad that my countrymen in other parts of Iran have taken to the streets and are fighting against this regime for all our rights. And I can do nothing but share information online.”
She added that videos showing police brutality towards protesters motivate people in different cities to take action.
“It is very difficult for the regime to control the videos that are being broadcast. Many people do not post them on social media, but circulate them within WhatsApp groups, etc. Demonstrations are taking place simultaneously in cyberspace and in physical space.”
Social media has long been one of the main tools of anti-regime activism, with public spaces under strict control by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram have become the virtual street, where we can gather to protest, because it was not possible to do that in real life,” said Shagig Norouzi, an Iranian activist against gender-based violence living in Spain.
Norouzi said she was able to keep in touch with activists in Tehran, but was afraid of future internet outages and what that could mean for the activists’ safety.
During the recent protests [2017-2019]The government cuts off the internet for days at a time. During that time, protesters were killed and arrested. “Protesters also use the internet to organize themselves. They can call each other and talk when they are in danger or warn each other.”
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, in a statement published on Thursday, called for the prosecution of “those who spread false news and rumors.”
Amini’s death came amid a government crackdown on women’s rights. On August 15, Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, signed a decree that, among other measures, increased the penalty for women who post anti-hijab content on the Internet.
In a press briefing with some Western correspondents on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Raisi said that the circumstances of Amini’s death are under investigation.
He said the first signs from the investigation showed that there was no beating or violence that led to her death. “All indications point to a heart attack or stroke,” he said, but stressed that “this is not the final decision.”
He said deaths at the hands of police violence have occurred hundreds of times in the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom.
Akbari said that at the same time as targeting women’s rights, the Iranian government was tightening its electronic system. She fears that the ongoing internet outages will be used to facilitate the expansion of Iran’s national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.
“This is a very dangerous plan, which will make the regime completely isolate Iran from the global Internet in the near future,” she said. “This will allow the system to control cyberspace as well as adjust the physical space, and develop a comprehensive control mechanism.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour in New York