Iran’s leader Khamenei backs police over Mahsa Amini protests, may signal tougher crackdown

Iranian students fleeing tear gas during a rally at the entrance gate to the University of Isfahan, on Oct 3, 2022. PHOTOS: AFP

DUBAI - Iran’s supreme leader on Monday gave his full backing to security forces confronting protests ignited by the death of Mahsa Amini in custody, comments that could herald a harsher crackdown to quell unrest more than two weeks since she died.

In his first remarks addressing the 22-year-old woman’s death after being arrested for wearing clothes deemed un-Islamic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said her death “deeply broke my heart” and called it a “bitter incident” provoked by Iran’s enemies.

“The duty of our security forces, including police, is to ensure the safety of the Iranian nation...The ones who attack the police are leaving Iranian citizens defenceless against thugs, robbers and extortionists,” Khamenei said.

Security forces, including police and the volunteer Basij militia, have been leading a crackdown on the protests, with thousands arrested and hundreds injured, according to rights groups, which put the death toll at over 130.

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Iranian authorities have reported many members of the security forces killed during the unrest, which has spiralled into the biggest show of opposition to Iran’s authorities in years.

Many are calling for the end of more than four decades of Islamic clerical rule.

Khamenei said security forces had faced “injustice” during the protests.

“In recent incidents, it is above all security forces including the police and Basij, as well as the people of Iran, who were wronged,” he said.

“Some people have caused insecurity in the streets,” Khamenei said, condemning what he described as planned “riots”.

He accused the United States and Israel – the Islamic Republic’s arch-adversaries – of orchestrating the disturbances.

Meanwhile, Iranian students have clashed with security forces at a top Teheran university, state media and rights groups said on Monday.

Concern grew over violence at Sharif University of Technology overnight where, local media reported, riot police confronted hundreds of students, using tear gas and paintball and carrying weapons that shoot non-lethal steel pellets.

"Woman, life, liberty," students shouted, as well as "students prefer death to humiliation", the Iranian Mehr news agency reported.

It added that the country's science minister later came to speak to the students in an effort to calm the situation.

The Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights posted video apparently showing Iranian police on motorcycles pursuing running students in an underground car park and, in a separate clip, taking away detainees whose heads were covered in black cloth bags.

In other footage, shooting and screaming can be heard as large numbers of people run down a street at night.

AFP has not independently verified the clip.

"Security forces have attacked Sharif University in Teheran tonight. Shooting can be heard," IHR said in a Twitter message on Sunday.

In another video clip, a crowd of people can be heard chanting: "Don't be afraid! Don't be afraid! We are all together!" IHR said the footage was taken at Shariati metro station in the capital Teheran on Sunday.

The New York-based group Centre for Human Rights in Iran said it was "extremely concerned by videos coming out of Sharif University and Teheran today showing violent repression of protests + detainees being hauled away with their heads completely covered in fabric".

Mehr news agency said that "Sharif University of Technology announced that due to recent events and the need to protect students ... all classes will be held virtually from Monday".

University students staged strikes on Monday after the clashes the day before. 

Since the unrest started on Sept 16, dozens of protesters have been killed and more than a thousand arrested. Members of the security forces have been among those killed. AFP, REUTERS

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