DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (HPD) — Iran suffered a “major outage” in its internet connection on Wednesday, amid calls for new protests several weeks after the death of a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by police. Iranian morale, according to an activist group.
The demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Aminni have become one of the biggest challenges to the Iranian theocracy since the Green Movement protests in 2009. The marches have included oil workers, high school students and women who removed their hijab, a headscarf that covers the hair and is mandatory in Iran.
Calls for protests starting at noon prompted a massive deployment of riot police and plainclothes officers across Tehran, according to witnesses, who also described problems with their cellphone internet connections.
NetBlocks, an activist group, said internet traffic in Iran had fallen by around 25% from its peak, even on a weekday when students were attending classes.
“The incident is likely to further limit the free flow of information during the protests,” NetBlocks noted.
Despite everything, the witnesses said they saw at least one demonstration in Tehran of some 30 women who took off their hijab and chanted “Death to the dictator!” Those slogans, which allude to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could lead to a closed-door trial before the country’s Revolutionary Court, with the possibility of a death sentence.
Passing cars honked their horns in support, despite threats from security forces. Other women simply went about their daily routine without wearing the hijab in a form of silent protest, according to witnesses.
There were also demonstrations on university campuses in Tehran, videos appeared to show online.
Other videos appeared to show demonstrations on Wednesday in Baharestan, southeast of the city of Isfahan, as well as in the southern city of Shiraz and the northern city of Rasht, on the Caspian Sea. Gathering information on the demonstrations is difficult given internet restrictions and the arrests of at least 40 journalists in the country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Iranian government insists Amini was not ill-treated, but her family says her body showed bruises and other signs of beatings after she was detained for breaking the Islamic republic’s strict dress code. Subsequent videos have shown security officers beating and pushing women at protests, including some who removed their hijabs.
Speaking Wednesday at the country’s Opportunities Council, Khamenei again claimed that Iran’s external enemies fomented the demonstrations, which he downplayed and described as “scattered.”
“Some of these people are elements of the enemy, and if they are not, they are led by the enemy,” Khamenei said.
The discontent has been especially visible in the Kurdish regions in western Iran, as Amini was a Kurd. A Kurdish group called Hengaw Organization for Human Rights shared images of closed shops and empty streets in some areas on Wednesday and said there was a strike by shopkeepers. The group also shared a video it said was recorded in Amini’s hometown of Saqqez, showing riot police vans driving through the city.
Although the protests have focused on Amini’s death, simmering unrest has been growing in Iran for years due to the country’s ailing economy. Sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program have caused the Iranian currency, the rial, to collapse, decimating many people’s savings.
It remains unclear how many people have been killed or detained in the protests.
An Oslo-based group, Iran Human Rights, estimated Wednesday that at least 201 people have been killed. That includes some 90 deaths at the hands of security forces in the eastern town of Zahedan, where protests took place against a policeman accused of rape in a separate case. Iranian authorities have associated the violence in Zahedan with unidentified separatists, without offering details or evidence.
Many videos have circulated of riot police firing into crowds, in some cases probably with live ammunition. In an apparent response to public pressure, Iran’s police chief, Gen. Hossein Ashtari, claimed Wednesday on state television without presenting evidence that “foreign counterrevolutionary groups” had worn police uniforms and shot at people. He claimed that his agents had arrested some of those people.
Meanwhile, Iranian Education Minister Yousof Nouri gave the first confirmation that schoolchildren had been detained in the protests. He declined to give a number of arrests, according to the reformist daily Shargh, saying only that these minors were not in prison, but “in a psychiatric center.”
Jon Gambrell is on Twitter as www.twitter.com/jongambrellHPD.