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Deadly protests spread, demonstrators burn hijabs in Iran after 22-year-old woman dies in custody of "morality police"

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Protests have spread across Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini after the young woman was arrested by morality police, with at least eight people killed in a crackdown, according to a combined toll.

Public anger has flared in the Islamic republic since authorities on Friday announced the death of 22-year-old Amini, who had been held for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an "improper" way. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, had suffered a fatal blow to the head, a claim denied by officials who have announced an investigation.

Some women demonstrators have defiantly taken off their hijabs and burned them in bonfires or symbolically cut their hair before cheering crowds, video footage spread virally on social media has shown.

In this Sept. 20, 2022, photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, a trash bin is burning as anti-riot police arrive during a protest over the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country's conservative dress code, in downtown Tehran, Iran.  AP

"No to the headscarf, no to the turban, yes to freedom and equality!" protesters in Tehran were heard chanting in a rally that has been echoed by solidarity protests abroad, including in New York and Istanbul.

Iranian state media reported on Wednesday that, in a fifth night of street rallies that had spread to 15 cities, police used tear gas and made arrests to disperse crowds of up to 1,000 people.

London-based rights group Article 19 said it was "deeply concerned by reports of the unlawful use of force by Iranian police and security forces" including the use of live ammunition.

Demonstrators hurled stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and garbage bins and chanted anti-government slogans, the official IRNA news agency said, adding that rallies were held in cities including Mashhad, Tabriz, Isfahan and Shiraz.

"Death to the dictator" and "Woman, life, freedom," protesters could be heard shouting in video footage that spread beyond Iran, despite online restrictions reported by internet access monitor Netblocks.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke publicly on Wednesday, but without mentioning the spreading unrest, and the ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi was to address the UN General Assembly in New York later in the day.

Exiled Iranians of the National Council of Resistance of Iran gather in front of the embassy of Iran in Berlin, Germany, September 20, 2022 after the death of an Iranian woman held by the country's "morality police."  Michael Sohn/AP

"Societal crisis"

The wave of protests over Amini's death "is a very significant shock, it is a societal crisis," said Iran expert David Rigoulet-Roze of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

"It is difficult to know the outcome but there is a disconnect between the authorities with their DNA of the Islamic revolution of 1979 and an increasingly secularized society," he said.

"It is a whole social project that is being called into question. There is a hesitation among the authorities on the way forward with regard to this movement."

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran described her death as a "preventable tragedy."

"Mahsa Amini is one among countless victims of the Islamic Republic's war on women," said Hadi Ghaemi, the group's executive director. "She was arrested under the guise of the state's forced-hijab law and died shortly after. The government is responsible for her death and decades of women being harassed, detained and otherwise harmed under the guise of this discriminatory, inhuman law."

Protests first erupted Friday in Amini's home province of Kurdistan, where governor Ismail Zarei Koosha said Tuesday three people had been killed in "a plot by the enemy."

Kurdistan police commander Ali Azadi on Wednesday announced the death of another person, according to Tasnim news agency.

Two more protesters "were killed during the riots" in Kermanshah province, the region's prosecutor Shahram Karami was quoted as saying by Fars news agency, blaming "counter-revolutionary agents."

Additionally, the Norway-based Kurdish rights group Hengaw said two protesters, aged 16 and 23, had been killed overnight in West Azerbaijan province.

An additional 450 people had been wounded and 500 arrested, the group said – figures that could not be independently verified.

Video spread online showing security forces opening fire on protesters in the southern city of Shiraz, where protests continued into the early hours of the morning.

Amini's death and Iran's response to the protests have sparked condemnation from the United Nations, United States, France and other countries. The protests are among the most serious in Iran since November 2019 unrest over fuel price rises.

Foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani on Tuesday condemned what he called "foreign interventionist positions."

"It is regrettable that some countries try to take advantage of an incident under investigation as an opportunity to pursue their political goals and desires against the government and people of Iran," he said.

Iran's Telecommunications Minister Issa Zarepour on Wednesday warned of internet restrictions, citing the "security issues of these days," ISNA news agency said.

Article 19 said it was "alarmed by the local internet shutdowns," recalling that in 2019 authorities had "used the darkness of a shutdown to kill, maim and arrest protesters and bystanders with impunity."

In this Sept. 19, 2022 photo, taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, women run away from anti-riot police during a protest of the death of a young woman who had been detained for violating the country's conservative dress code, in downtown Tehran, Iran. AP
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