Tehran: An aide to Iran’s supreme leader paid condolences to the family of a woman whose death in police custody has sparked days of protests and promised their rights would not be ignored, Iranian media said on Tuesday, in an apparent effort to defuse tensions.
Mahsa Amini, 22, from Iran’s Kurdistan province, fell into a coma and died after her arrest in Tehran last week by the morality police for “unsuitable attire”, sparking nationwide anger and demonstrations against the authorities in numerous areas, including the capital.
The protests spread on Monday, with the most intense in the Kurdish region. Kurdish human rights group Hengaw said three people were killed there on Monday when security forces opened fire, revising down a previous tally of five dead.
Region’s governor Ismail Zarei Koosha was quoted as saying by Fars news agency: “The three were killed suspiciously” as part of “a plot by the enemy”.
Rare criticism of ‘morality police’
The death not only triggered protests but also rare outspoken criticism by senior officials.
Amid growing controversy over the conduct of the morality police, known formally as the Gasht-e Ershad or “Guidance Patrol”, parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said Tuesday that the police unit’s conduct should be investigated.
“In order to prevent repetition of such cases, the processes and the method of implementation in guidance patrols... should be investigated,” he said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.
The state-affiliated Organisation for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, set up to encourage good behaviour and prohibit immoral activities, said the police unit should not arrest people for breaking dress regulations.
“The view of this issue should be changed,” the influential organisation said in a statement, stressing that it opposed “the arrest and trial of ordinary people” for clothing infringements.
“The criminalisation of those not wearing a headscarf and the arrest, filing of cases and the prosecution of people which will only cause social tensions... should be amended in law,” it added.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative in the Kurdistan province, Abdolreza Pourzahabi, paid a two-hour visit to Amini’s family home on Monday, the semi-official Tasnim news agency said, citing comments from Pourzahabi that were also reported by the state news agency.
Pourzahabi told Amini’s family “all institutions will take action to defend the rights that were violated” and that he was sure Khamenei was “also affected and pained” by her death.
“I hope that with this sympathy and your family’s good faith, the trauma that has been suffered in the society will be corrected,” Pourzahabi said he told the family.
“As I promised to the family of Ms. Amini, I will also follow up the issue of her death until the final result.” The police have said Amini fell ill as she waited with other women held by the morality police, who enforce strict rules in the Islamic Republic requiring women to cover their hair and wear loose-fitting clothes in public.
Protests in many cities
But her father has repeatedly said his daughter had no health problems, adding that she had suffered bruises to her legs. He held the police responsible for her death.
In the nationwide condemnations of Amini’s death, the Persian hashtag #MahsaAmini has reached over 3 million Twitter mentions.
Videos posted on social media have shown demonstrations in numerous cities, with women waving their headscarves and protesters facing off with security forces.
Protesters marched through Tehran’s Grand Bazaar on Monday chanting “Mahsa Amini, Rest in Peace”, according to a video posted by the widely-followed 1500tasvir Twitter account, which publishes footage it says it receives from the public.
In one large protest in Tehran, a crowd of demonstrators wearing black shouted “Oh the day when we will be armed”, according to another video posted by 1500tasvir overnight.
Reuters has been unable to verify the videos.
Sanam Vakil of the Chatham House think tank said the protests speak to “a deep sense of popular anger, directly connected to the very tragic death of Mahsa Amini, but also shed light on the groundswell of issues that ordinary Iranians face every day related to security, freedom”.
Though the protests were significant, she added: “I don’t think this is an existential challenge to the regime ... because the system in Iran has a monopoly of force, a well-honed security strategy that it is already implementing.”
The governor of Tehran accused protesters of assaulting police and destroying public property during the protests. In the northern province of Gilan, police arrested 22 people for destroying public property, the deputy police commander said.
In the Kurdish region of northwestern Iran, the rights organisation Hengaw said there were protests in 13 cities on Monday and that 250 people had been arrested.
Hengaw gave the names of three people who it said had been killed during protests in three different cities, including Amini’s hometown of Saqez. Hengaw said a person previously identified as dead was in fact wounded.
The United States, which is trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, condemned her death and called on the Islamic Republic to end its “systemic persecution’’ of women.
The UN Human Rights Office said Iran’s morality police have expanded their patrols in recent months, targeting women for not properly wearing the headscarf, known as hijab. It said verified videos show women being slapped in the face, struck with batons and thrown into police vans for wearing the hijab too loosely.
“Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment must be promptly, impartially and effectively investigated by an independent competent authority,’’ said Nada Al Nashif, the acting UN high commissioner for human rights.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meanwhile said Amini “should be alive today.”
“Instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest,” he tweeted.
Iranian police released closed-circuit video footage last week purportedly showing the moment Amini collapsed. But her family says she had no history of heart trouble.
Amjad Amini, her father, told an Iranian news website that witnesses saw her being shoved into a police car.
``I asked for access to (videos) from cameras inside the car as well as courtyard of the police station, but they gave no answer,’’ he said. He also accused the police of not transferring her to the hospital promptly enough, saying she could have been resuscitated.
He said that when he arrived at the hospital he was not allowed to view the body, but managed to get a glimpse of bruising on her foot.
Authorities then pressured him to bury her at night, apparently to reduce the likelihood of protests, but Amini said the family convinced them to let them bury her at 8am instead.
Amini, who was Kurdish, was buried Saturday in her home city of Saqez in western Iran. Protests erupted there after her funeral and police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators on Saturday and Sunday. Several protesters were arrested.