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A year after Mahsa Amini’s death: Repression and defiance in Iran

A year ago, the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police sparked a popular uprising, led by women and young people, that rattled the pillars of the Islamic Republic: clerical rule, gender segregation and the security state.

In the end, the leaderless movement, clustered in pockets across the country, was no match for the keepers of Iran’s authoritarian system.

Its clerical leaders are still standing, having brutally crushed the demonstrations. More recently, they have strengthened the kind of strict social controls that gave rise to the protest movement.

The last year allowed the world to glimpse the seething anger just below the surface of a repressive society, and to document government abuses. But it also highlighted the resilience of the regime, and the limits of international accountability.

Amini’s official autopsy says she died on Sept. 16, 2022, from preexisting conditions – and not, as her family and rights groups maintain, from being fatally beaten by the morality police. She was detained for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress code for women, which includes a mandatory hijab, or headscarf.

The two female journalists who broke the news of Amini’s hospitalization and death remain jailed, on trial for treason.

In recent weeks – ahead of the anniversary of Amini’s death – authorities have fired and arrested teachers, musicians and activists for supporting the protest movement; threatened to rearrest some 20,000 demonstrators out on furlough; and detained family members of protesters killed by security forces.

Their loved ones were killed in Iran’s uprising. Then the state came for them.

But Tehran has not emerged from the uprising unscathed, according to analysts, human rights advocates and ordinary Iranians — many of whom say they are just waiting for the next spark. As some women continue to defy social restrictions, Iran’s hard-line factions are at odds, experts say, setting the stage for the next confrontation.

“The biggest win for this movement, despite all the defeats and all the losses, is that people feel they can make a change,” said Sarah, 40, an architect in Iran.

She plans to attend a covertly-planned protest Saturday to mark Amini’s death, and remains committed to the struggle — “However hard, however long and time-consuming.”

Sarah took off her headscarf in public for the first time during the protests last year, in a moment of breathless exhilaration.

She still walks the boulevards of the Iranian capital bareheaded, but the crackdown has taken its toll.

“The ambiguity and anxiety” that Iranians live with “has caused depression and mental collapses in a lot of people around me,” said Sarah, speaking to The Washington Post on the condition she be identified by her first name out of fear for her safety.

Women casting off and burning their headscarves became a prominent act of defiance in the early weeks of the protest movement. But the hijab was only one symbol among many, in an uprising that was, more deeply, about challenging state control.

Amini’s death brought together men and women, veiled and unveiled. Different classes and ethnic groups united around a Kurdish chant: “Woman, life, freedom.”

The government responded as it had during past protests, using overwhelming force to retake the streets. The crackdown was especially harsh in the historically marginalized Kurdish northwest, where Amini was from, and where protests were most widespread.

Videos show evidence of escalating crackdown on Iranian protests

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said the protesters were “instigators” and “criminals,” backed by nefarious foreign powers, and he praised Iran’s security forces who “sacrificed their lives to protect people from rioters.”

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a parallel force loyal to the supreme leader, was key to crushing the demonstrations. Over six months, security forces killed more than 500 Iranians, according to rights groups. Tens of thousands were detained. Seven protesters were executed after hasty trials.

Repression is the Islamic Republic’s “modus operandi,” said Narges Bajoghli, an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

But if the crackdown in the streets was familiar, the aftermath has been messier for the regime. One factor distinguishing these protests, Bajoghli said, “is a fracturing within the conservative and hard-line elements in power.”

Some sides are calling for relaxing unpopular policies like mandatory veiling, to pacify the public while preserving the overall system; others are saying “if we give in on this, then we can give in on anything,” she said.

Sarah says she feels this push and pull. But the more reactionary elements appear to have the upper hand.

The list of punishments for women who disobey the dress code keep intensifying. Hefty fines. Banking restrictions. Business closures. Jail time. Forced labor. Travel bans. Being diagnosed as mentality ill.

Authorities have put up cameras to catch unveiled women in their cars and on the streets. In March, Sara refused to pay a fine when a surveillance camera caught her without a headscarf. Weeks later, her car was impounded.

“This pressure has clearly increased and taken on a new form,” she said. “It is more systematic.”

A new hijab bill under discussion in Iran’s parliament proposes up to ten years in prison for improper attire and fines up to $1,000 – an impossible sum in Iran, where the economy is in free-fall. A U.N. panel of human experts said the law would be tantamount to “gender apartheid.”

Human rights lawyer Sara Hossain has a monumental task ahead of her. Based in Bangladesh, she leads the United Nation’s first independent fact-finding mission to investigate human rights violations related to the protests in Iran, with a focus on women and girls.

It’s a slow process: The mission’s final report isn’t due until March.

“We’re trying to do our best to do this independently and to get at what has happened, to find the truth,” Hossain told The Post.

Throughout the uprising, the U.N., U.S., and E.U. issued statements condemning the crackdown on demonstrators. New Western sanctions targeted Iranian officials and IRGC businesses connected to the violence, deepening Iran’s international isolation.

But it was a notable first when the U.N. Human Rights council established the mission in November by a vote of 25 to 6, with 16 abstentions.

Tehran swiftly rejected the mission and barred its investigators from the country.

From their main office in Geneva, 16 full-time employees rely on open-source material and remote interviews with victims and eyewitnesses inside the country. They collect and verify evidence of torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and executions.

‘Bloody Friday’: Witnesses describe the deadliest crackdown in Iran protests

The biggest challenge, Hossain said, is ensuring the safety of interviewees inside the country: Iran tightly censors communication and retaliates against Iranians who speak up. Basic phone calls can be compromised. VPNs used to circumvent online censorship are costly and imperfect.

“Here we are so many months in, still nowhere inside the country,” said Hossain, and “still having great difficulty reaching people inside the country.”

Those they do reach, she said, want their stories to be known.

In May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi set up his own committee to investigate “the unrest,” the state’s official term for the protest movement.

Hossain’s team has sent detailed letters to the Iranian committee asking, “what steps they are taking to ensure that they can operate independently” and in accordance with international human rights law, she said.

This month, the committee finally sent a reply. Hossain declined to comment on its contents.

The long path to accountability

In March, Raisi used his speech marking the Iranian new year to declare victory over the protests, and to project an image of national unity: “The government does not belong to any faction,” he said.

But the last year made Iran’s divisions undeniable, and the authorities’ claims of public support more tenuous.

From exile in Sweden, lawyer Moein Khazaeli works with Dadban, a global network offering Iranians free legal aid. He has watched “the full decline” of any pretext of rule of law.

“Even the ones who used to support [the government] have now lost any belief in this system,” he said.

Iran protesters released from prison wrestle with fear and trauma

As the abuse continues, more officials could face possible charges abroad, human rights advocates say.

In recent years, some 150 countries have adopted a form of universal jurisdiction, a legal principle that some crimes are so grave that territorial restraints on prosecutions shouldn’t apply.

Last July, a Swedish court convicted Iranian Hamed Nouri, 61, of war crimes and murder over his role in mass killings in Iran in 1988 – the first time an Iranian was tried and convicted using universal jurisdiction. Nouri has appealed.

Across Europe, lawyers and prosecutors are building cases that they hope could be used to try Iranian officials if they come to the continent, said Kaveh Moussavi, a U.K.-based Iranian human rights lawyer. He is also seeking an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Khamenei – a precedent set earlier this year when the court issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine.

While U.S. sanctions limit the movement of many high-ranking officials, Iranian authorities at all levels could be at risk, said Nassim Papayianni, a senior campaigner for the Iran team at Amnesty International.

“Authorities in Iran [need] to know that even if they are not being held accountable for their crimes inside Iran, that there is a path for them to be held accountable on a global stage,” she said.

“The entire apparatus of Iran’s intelligence and security apparatus perpetuates this entire systemic structure of violations against people,” she added.

Two previous U.N. fact-finding missions — one on killings and forced disappearances in Syria, the other on state violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar — have been used in universal jurisdiction and ICC cases in Europe.

Back in Iran, Sarah has no — “in capital letters” — expectation that any Iranian official will be held to account.

But she says the last year has shown “the real face of this regime … encouraging women to become braver than ever in battling this misogyny.”

On Saturday, she will walk unveiled with like-minded Iranians. She will breath in, she said, and keep trying to change her world.

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