Iran has shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, in a bid to curb a growing protest movement that has relied on social media to document dissent.
The protests, sparked 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 towns.
It comes as anti-regime protests spread across cyberspace, with videos of women burning their hijabs going viral. Other women have posted emotional videos in which they cut their hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.
Mahsa Amini was arrested on September 16 for allegedly wearing the hijab in an “inappropriate” manner. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, had been fatally hit in the head, a claim denied by officials, who announced an investigation. Police continue to claim she died of natural causes, but her family suspects she was beaten and tortured.
In response to his death, the United States on Thursday placed Iran’s vice squad on its sanctions blacklist.
The US Treasury said the vice squad was “responsible” for Amini’s death as it announced the sanctions “for abuse and violence against Iranian women and violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters.”
Iranian state media reported that on Wednesday street rallies 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 giant image on the side of a building of General Qassem Soleimani, the revered commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who was killed in a 2020 US strike in Iraq.
Demonstrators threw stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and garbage cans and chanted anti-government slogans, the official Irna news agency reported.
On Thursday, Iranian media said three militiamen “mobilized to deal with rioters” were stabbed or shot dead in the northwest city of Tabriz, the central city of Qazvin and Mashhad in the northeast of the country.
A fourth member of the security forces has died in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies reported, adding that a protester was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to the six protester deaths already announced by authorities. .
Iranian authorities have denied any involvement in the deaths of protesters.
Amnesty International said it recorded the deaths of eight people – six men, a woman and a child – four of whom were shot dead by security forces at point-blank range with metal balls.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since the November 2019 unrest over rising fuel prices.
“Internet shutdowns should be understood as an extension of the violence and repression happening in physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a cybersurveillance researcher at the University of Twente, the Netherlands. “Social media is key to mobilizing protesters, not only to coordinate rallies but also to amplify acts of resistance.
“You see a woman standing without her hijab in front of the counter-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 could be heard at Amini’s funeral, were repeated by protesters across the country, including in a video showing young women burning their hijabs while male protesters battle security forces. The video received over 30,000 views on Twitter.
In another video, an Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth while cutting her hair with household scissorswhich has amassed over 60,000 views.
“[The videos] have one hundred percent value,” a young Iranian Twitter user told the Guardian, adding that while the protests had not reached her hometown, she had been able to participate in opposition activities online. “I am sad that my compatriots in other parts of Iran have taken to the streets and are fighting against this regime for all our rights. And I can’t do anything but share information online.
She 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. A lot of people don’t post them on social media but post them in WhatsApp groups etc. Manifestations are taking place simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space.
Social media has long been one of the main tools of anti-regime activity, as public spaces are closely guarded by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram have become the virtual street, where we can come together to protest, because it was not possible to do so in real life,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian activist against gender-based violence who lives in exile in Spain.
Norouzi said that while she was able to keep in touch with activists in Tehran, she was afraid of future internet blackouts and what they might mean for activists’ safety.
“During the last demonstrations [2017-2019], the government shut down the internet for days. During this time protesters have been killed and arrested,” she said. “Protesters are also using the internet to organize. They can call each other and say 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 hardline President Ebrahim Raisi signed an executive order that, among other measures, increases penalties for women who post anti-hijab content online.
Speaking at a briefing with Western journalists on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, Raisi said the circumstances of Amini’s death were being investigated.
Early signs from the investigation showed there had been no beatings or violence leading to his death, he said. “All signs point to a heart attack or stroke,” he said, but he stressed “it’s not the final decision.”
He said deaths from police brutality have happened hundreds of times in the US, as well as in the UK.
Akbari said that while targeting women’s rights, the Iranian government was strengthening its cyber regime. She worries that the continued internet outages could 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 would see the regime completely cut Iran off from the global internet in the near future,” she said. “This would allow the regime to control cyberspace while monitoring physical space and developing ubiquitous control machinery.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour in New York
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