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Counter-protests held in Iran after days of unrest over young woman’s death

A pro-government demonstrator holds a poster of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (Vahid Salemi/AP)
A pro-government demonstrator holds a poster of the late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Supporters of the Iranian government have turned out for rallies after nearly a week of anti-government protests over the death of a young woman who was being held by the morality police.

A few thousand people attended a rally in the capital, Tehran, where they waved Iranian flags, and similar demonstrations were held in other cities.

The government claimed the demonstrations of support were spontaneous. Similar rallies have been held during past periods of widespread protests.

The pro-government demonstrators chanted against America and Israel, according to state media, reflecting the official line that foreign countries are fomenting the latest unrest.

State TV, meanwhile, suggested the death toll from this week’s unrest could be as high as 26.

Anti-government protesters and security forces have clashed in several major cities in the most severe political unrest since 2019, when rights groups say hundreds were killed amid demonstrations against a hike in state-controlled fuel prices.

Iran has also disrupted internet access and tightened restrictions on popular platforms used to organise rallies like Instagram and WhatsApp.

A state TV anchor said late on Thursday that 26 protesters and policemen had been killed since the protests erupted last Saturday after the funeral of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, without elaborating on how authorities reached that figure.

He said official statistics would be released later but during past periods of unrest authorities have not provided a full account of deaths and injuries.

A tally by The Associated Press, based on statements from state-run and semi-official media, shows that at least 11 people have been killed.

Most recently, the deputy governor of Qazvin, Abolhasan Kabiri, said that a citizen and paramilitary officer had been killed in unrest that rocked two cities in the north-western province.

The crisis unfolding in Iran began as a public outpouring of anger over the the death of Ms Amini, a young woman who was arrested by the morality police in Tehran last week for allegedly wearing her Islamic headscarf too loosely.

The police said she died of a heart attack and was not mistreated, but her family has cast doubt on that account.

Ms Amini’s death has sparked sharp condemnation from Western countries and the United Nations, and touched a national nerve.

Hundreds of Iranians across at least 13 cities from the capital, Tehran, to Ms Amini’s north-west Kurdish hometown of Saqez have poured into the streets, voicing pent-up anger over social and political repression.

United Nations Iran
President Ebrahim Raisi has seen protests break out across Iran Bebeto Matthews/AP)

“The death has tapped into broader anti-government sentiment in the Islamic Republic and especially the frustration of women,” wrote political risk firm Eurasia Group, noting that Iran’s hardliners have intensified their crackdown on women’s clothing over the past year since former judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi became president.

“In the cold calculus of Iranian leaders … a more forceful response is required to quell the unrest,” the group added.

Videos on social media show protesters in Tehran torching a police car and confronting officers at close range.

Elsewhere in the capital, videos show gunfire sounding out as protesters bolt from riot police shouting: “They are shooting at people! Oh my God they’re killing people!”

In the north-west city of Neyshabur, protesters cheered over an overturned police car.

Footage from Tehran and Mashhad shows women waving their obligatory hijab head coverings in the air like flags while chanting “Freedom!”.

The scenes of women cutting their hair and burning their hijabs feed into a broader political debate over the role of religious strictures in a modern-day republic — questions that have plagued the Islamic Republic since its founding in 1979.

But the protests have also grown into an open challenge to the government. The chants have been scathing, with some calling for the downfall of the ruling clerics.

The protesters cry, “Death to the dictator!” and “Mullahs must be gone!”.

Iran’s intelligence ministry warned citizens against joining the “illegal” street rallies on Thursday, threatening prosecution.

Local officials have announced the arrest of dozens of protesters. Hasan Hosseinpour, deputy police chief in the northern Gilan province, reported 211 people detained there on Thursday.

The government of the western Hamadan province said 58 demonstrators had been arrested.