Iran blocks capital’s internet access as Amini protests grow | Iran

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Iran has shut down the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, blocking access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsAppin an attempt to curb a growing protest movement that has relied on social media to document dissent.

The protests, sparked on September 16 following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody, show no signs of abating. On Thursday, protesters burned police stations and vehicles in several cities.

This comes as anti-regime demonstrations have spilled into cyberspace, with videos of women burning their hijabs going viral. Other women have posted emotional videos where they cut their hair in protest under the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini.

Mahsa Amini was detained on 16 September for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” manner. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, had suffered a fatal blow to the head, a claim rejected by officials 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 her death, the United States on Thursday placed Iran’s morality police on its sanctions blacklist.

The US Treasury Department said the morality police were “responsible” for Amini’s death as it announced the sanctions “for the abuse and violence against Iranian women and the violation of the rights of peaceful Iranian protesters”.

Iranian state media reported that the street rallies on Wednesday 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 reportedly from Wednesday showed protesters setting fire to a giant effigy on the side of a building of General Qassem Soleimani, the revered Revolutionary Guard commander who was killed in a US strike in Iraq in 2020.

Protesters threw stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and trash cans and shouted anti-government slogans, the official Irna news agency said.

On Thursday, Iranian media said three militiamen “mobilized to deal with insurgents” were stabbed or shot dead in the northwestern city of Tabriz, the central city of Qazvin and Mashhad in the northeast.

A fourth member of the security forces died in the southern city of Shiraz, Iranian news agencies reported, adding that a protester was stabbed to death in Qazvin, adding to the death toll of six protesters already announced by officials.

The Iranian authorities have denied any involvement in the deaths of protesters.

Protesters flood a street in Tehran.
Protesters flood a street in Tehran. Photo: EPA

Amnesty International said it had recorded the deaths of eight people – six men, a woman and a child – with four shot by security forces at close range with metal bullets.

The protests are among the most serious in Iran since November 2019 unrest over fuel price increases.

“The internet shutdowns have to be understood as an extension of the violence and oppression that is happening in the physical space,” said Azadeh Akbari, a cyber surveillance researcher at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands. “Social media is existential for the mobilization of protesters, not only to coordinate gatherings but also to amplify acts of resistance.

“You see a woman standing without her hijab in front of the riot police, who are very brave. If a video of this comes out, suddenly it’s not just one person doing this, women in all the different cities are doing the same thing.”

“Women, life, freedom”, the words heard at Amini’s funeral, have been echoed 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 over 30,000 views on Twitter.

A woman cuts off her ponytail in front of Iran's embassy in Istanbul, Turkey
A woman cuts off her ponytail in front of Iran’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey. Because of social media, anger has spread to cities around the world. Photo: Erdem Şahin/EPA

In another video, an Iranian woman sings a hymn to fallen youth while cutting her hair with household scissorswhich has accumulated more than 60,000 views.

“[The videos] are one hundred percent valuable,” a young Twitter user from Iran told the Guardian, adding that although the protests had not reached her hometown, she had been able to participate in opposition activities online. “I am saddened 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 do nothing but share information online.”

She added that videos showing police brutality against protesters motivated people in various cities to take action.

“It is very difficult for the regime to control the videos that come out. Many do not post them on social media, but circulate them in WhatsApp groups, etc. The demonstrations take place simultaneously in cyberspace and in physical space.”

Social media has long been one of the most important tools for anti-regime activity, as public spaces are closely monitored by security forces. “Platforms like Instagram became the virtual street where we can gather to protest because it was not possible to do so in real life,” said Shaghayegh Norouzi, an Iranian campaigner against gender-based violence who has been living in exile in Spain.

Norouzi said that while she had been able to stay in touch with activists in Tehran, she was afraid of future internet blackouts and what they could mean for activists’ safety.

“During the last protests [2017-2019], the government cut off the internet for days at a time. During that time, protesters were killed and arrested,” she said. “Protesters also use the Internet to organize themselves. They can call each other and say when they are in danger or warn each other.”

Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard called on the judiciary to prosecute “those who spread false news and rumours” in a statement released on Thursday.

Amini’s death came amid a government crackdown on women’s rights. On August 15, Iran’s hardline president, Ibrahim Raisisigned a decree which, among other measures, increased penalties for women who post anti-hijab content online.

Speaking at a briefing with some Western journalists on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Raisi said the circumstances surrounding Amini’s death were under investigation.

Early signs from the investigation showed there had been no beating or violence that led to her death, he said. “All signs point to a heart attack or stroke,” he said, but he stressed “it is not the final decision”.

He said that deaths from police violence had happened hundreds of times in the US and also in the UK.

Akbari said that while targeting 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 Iran’s national internet, which is cut off from the rest of the world.

“This is a very dangerous plan that would see the regime completely cut off Iran from the global internet in the near future,” she said. “This would allow the regime to control cyberspace alongside policing physical space and develop an all-pervasive control machinery.”

Additional reporting by Patrick Wintour in New York

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