Head of Iran’s morality police reportedly suspended amid protests

Patrick Wintour, Weronika Strzyżyńska and agencies

The head of Iran’s morality police has reportedly been suspended from his post as protests swept across Iran for a third day over the killing of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was detained by the police after being accused of not wearing the hijab appropriately.

A number of respected Iranian news outlets reported that Col Ahmed Mirzaei, the head of the moral security police of Greater Tehran, had been suspended from his role after the death of Mahsa Amini. Tehran police denied he had been suspended or fired.

A CT scan of Amini’s head showed a bone fracture, haemorrhage, and brain edema, seemingly confirming that she died due to being struck on the head.

The scan results, if confirmed, are a huge setback not only for the morality police, but the wider Tehran police force since it published edited videos of her arrest and detention in a police centre designed to show she died due to a heart condition or epilepsy.

Her father has always denied she suffered any such condition, effectively accusing the police of a cover-up.

President Ebrahim Raisi, who since his election last year has tightened enforcement of the headscarf law, spoke to Amini’s family by phone on Sunday. “Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones. Please accept my condolences,” state media reported him as saying.

Raisi is travelling to New York where he is due to address the general assembly on Tuesday over the future of the nuclear deal with the west.

Raisi will be hoping that protests will have died down by time he speaks in New York. But disturbances continued after darkness fell on Monday night, amid reports of several deaths in the Kurdish city of Saqez.

Several hundred people marched down a central street in Tehran on Monday night, including women who took off their hijabs, the ISNA news agency reported. Police responded with baton charges and teargas.

The former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said he was ashamed by what happened to Amini.

Speaking at a press conference, the Greater Tehran police commander, Hossein Rahimi, said Amini was stopped by the morality police, known as “Gasht-e Ershad”, while walking in a park because her hijab was “inappropriate”. He claimed the police had not made mistakes and railed against the “cowardly accusations” being made against his force.

“There was no negligence on the part of the police, not even a small slip; all the words published in cyberspace about the cause of death are pure lies.”

Rahimi said “there was no argument or resistance” during Amini’s detention, claiming she was “even joking” while inside the morality police’s van. He admitted “guidance patrol officers are equipped with body cameras, but in this instance, they had no camera”.

In social media posted online, there was footage of police motorcycles in flames, and large crowds gathering to demand a relaxation of hijab rules.

Kurdish rights group Hengaw said on Twitter five people had been killed on Monday when security forces opened fire during protests. The rights group said two people were killed in the Kurdish city of Saqez, Amini’s hometown. Two others were killed in Divandarreh, and a fifth was killed in Dehgolan, Hengaw said.

There was not official confirmation of the deaths. The reports could not be immediately independently verified.

State TV said a number of protesters had been arrested but rejected “some claims of deaths on social media” by showing two injured youths who denied reports they had been killed.

Protesters threw rocks at security forces in the town of Divandarreh in Kurdistan, a video posted on Twitter Hengaw showed. A widely followed Iranian Twitter account that focuses on protests in Iran said shopkeepers had gone on strike in Kurdish cities.

Students rallied, including at the capital’s Tehran and Shahid Beheshti universities, demanding “clarification” on how Mahsa Amini died, and water cannon was seen on the streets in an attempt to quell the protests. Many women joined the protests refusing to wear the hijab.

Stepping up denials of any wrongdoing in the death, police commander Hossein Rahimi said Amini had suffered no physical harm and that police had “done everything” to keep her alive. “This incident was unfortunate for us and we wish to never witness such incidents,” Rahimi said, describing accusations of mistreatment as “cowardly”.

Amini was visiting Tehran with her family on Tuesday last week when she was detained by morality police in what Amnesty International called “an arbitrary arrest”.

Police accused her of not complying with the country’s hijab regulations and took her to a police station, telling her family she would be released after a “re-education” session.

However, she was subsequently transferred in a coma to the emergency department of a nearby hospital. Pictures of her face in hospital showed discolouring around her ears that seemed consistent with physical blows. She died on Friday.

Official police department reports say Amini died after suffering a heart attack, but her family hold police responsible.

Videos shared on Twitter late on Sunday showed protesters demonstrating in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province. A video posted by Hengaw showed security forces in riot gear running down a street in the city, at least one of them firing what appeared to be a gun.

The US called for accountability in the case. “Mahsa Amini’s death after injuries sustained while in police custody for wearing an ‘improper’ hijab is an appalling and egregious affront to human rights,” a spokesperson for the White House national security council said.

“Women in Iran should have the right to wear what they want, free from violence or harassment. Iran must end its use of violence against women for exercising their fundamental freedoms,” the official said. “There must be accountability for Mahsa’s death.”

The EU’s foreign affairs spokesperson said: “It is imperative that the Iranian authorities ensure the fundamental rights of its citizens are respected and that those who are under any form of detention are not subject to any form of mistreatment.”

Feature image: Public anger has grown since authorities on Friday announced the death of Mahsa Amini, aged 22, who had been in a coma in hospital for three days, following her arrest by Tehran’s morality police during a visit to the capital on September 13. [AFP]

Posted in The Guardian 19th September, 2022

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