TEHERAN - State-organised demonstrations took place in several Iranian cities on Friday to counter anti-government unrest triggered by the death of a woman in police custody, with marchers calling for the execution of protesters.
The demonstrations followed the strongest warning from the authorities yet when the army told Iranians it would confront “the enemies” behind the unrest – a move that could signal the kind of crackdown that has crushed protests in the past.
Demonstrators condemned the anti-government protesters as “Israel’s soldiers”, live state television coverage showed. They also shouted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, common slogans the country’s clerical rulers use to try and stir up support for authorities.
“Offenders of the Quran must be executed,” the crowds chanted.
Iranians have staged mass protests over the case of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died last week after being arrested by the morality police for wearing the hijab, or headscarf, in an "improper" manner.
The morality police, attached to Iran’s law enforcement, are tasked with ensuring the respect of Islamic morals as described by the country’s clerical authorities.
Amini’s death has reignited anger over issues including restrictions on personal freedoms in Iran, strict dress codes for women and an economy reeling from sanctions.
Iran has been rocked by street violence that has claimed the lives of at least 17 people since Amini's death last week.
State news agency IRNA said thousands of people took to the streets of Teheran on Friday after the main weekly prayers, in response to a call from Iran's Islamic Development Coordination Council.
"The great demonstration of the Iranian people condemning the conspirators and the sacrileges against religion took place today," Iran's Mehr news agency said.
Imam Seyed Ahmad Khatami set the tone for the rallies in his sermon at Tehran University, calling for law enforcement bodies to punish those behind the unrest.
"I strongly urge the judiciary to act quickly against the rioters who brutalise people, set fire to public property, and burn the Quran," he said. "Punish these criminals with the weapon of the law."
Those in attendance held up signs thanking the security forces and condemning women who burnt their hijabs.
"To support the end of the veil is to do politics the American way," they chanted.
State television aired footage of the pro-hijab demonstration showing people holding banners marching along streets of central Teheran, nearly all of them men.
Demonstrations in support of the security forces also took place in several cities across the country including Ahvaz, Isfahan, Qom and Tabriz.
Amini died on Sept 16, three days after she was hospitalised following her arrest by the morality police.
Activists said the 22-year-old suffered a blow to the head in custody but this has not been confirmed by the Iranian authorities, who have opened an investigation.
Internet access had remained severely restricted in Iran ahead of Friday's counter rallies, in what web monitor NetBlocks on Thursday called a “curfew-style pattern of disruptions” amid the angry protests sparked by Amini’s death.
Access to social media services Instagram and WhatsApp have been blocked since Wednesday night, and connections were still largely disrupted on Friday.
On Friday, Washington announced it was easing export restrictions on Iran to expand access to Internet services.
Teheran's move to cut off the Internet was a bid to "prevent the world from watching its violent crackdown on peaceful protesters", the US Treasury said.
The new measure will allow technology companies to “expand the range of internet services available to Iranians”, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.
The US Treasury Department also accused the morality police of violating the rights of peaceful protesters and said it had imposed sanctions on seven senior Iranian military and security officials, including the chief of the Iranian army’s ground forces. AFP, REUTERS