Iranian riot police deployed in large numbers in Mahsa Amini’s home town of Saqez on Wednesday, witnesses said, after activists called for protests across the country to mark 40 days since she died in detention over her “inappropriate attire”.
Demonstrations ignited by the 22-year-old’s death while in the custody of Iran’s morality police on Sept. 16 have become one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic’s clerical leadership since the 1979 revolution.
A wide range of Iranians have come out onto the streets, with some calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic and chanting “Death to (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei”.
A witness said “several dozen men and women have gathered around Amini’s grave at the Aichi cemetery in Saqez, chanting ‘Woman, Life, Freedom'”. Another witness in Saqez said the cemetery was filled with members of the volunteer Basij militia and riot police.
“But people from all around the Kurdistan province are here. We are all mourning Mahsa’s death together.”
Fearing the 40-day anniversary of Amini’s death would fuel further violent protests, security police had warned her family not to hold a memorial procession or “their son will be arrested”, rights groups said.
However, the governor of Kurdistan Zarei Kusha denied any state limitation for holding a memorial service, adding that “it was the decision of her family not to hold a gathering”, according to state media.
Videos on social media showed security forces had blocked roads leading to Saqez to prevent people from other cities to gather at the cemetery. Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the videos.
“They tried to stop us from entering the cemetery … but I managed to get in. I have not seen Mahsa’s parents yet,” the witness said.
Authorities closed all schools and universities in the Kurdistan province on Wednesday “because of a wave of influenza”, Iranian state media reported.
Videos on social media showed crowds packing streets in many cities and the bazaars of Tehran and some other cities shut down with people chanting “Death to Khamenei”.
The spread of the protests seemed to take the authorities by surprise and contrasted starkly with the establishment’s assertions that support for the Islamic system is overwhelming, a former Iranian pro-reform official said.
While some analysts said prospects for the imminent dawn of a new political order are slim, activists said a wall of fear had fallen and the path to a new revolution was not reversable.
Students have played a pivotal role in the protests, with dozens of universities on strike. Hundreds of school girls have joined in, chanting “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom,” despite fierce crackdowns by security forces.
“I am not scared of them any more. They (the establishment) should be scared of us. For years they did not let us have a normal life. Mullahs should go,” said a teenage student in the northern city of Sari.
State media and hardline officials have branded protesters “hypocrites, monarchists, thugs and seditionists”.
Some of the deadliest unrest has been in areas home to ethnic minorities with long-standing grievances against the state, including Kurds in the northwest and Baluchis in the southeast.
Rights groups said at least 250 protesters have been killed, including teenage girls, and thousands have been arrested.
The authorities, who have accused the United States and other Western countries of fomenting what they call “riots”, have yet to announce a death toll but state media have said around 30 members of the security forces have been killed.