More than 30 Iranians were injured, some seriously, while taking to the streets to protest after the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman three days after she was arrested and reportedly beaten by morality police in Tehran.
The circumstances of Mahsa Amini’s death on Friday are hotly contested, but her family denied official reports that she suffered from epilepsy and instead claimed she was beaten by the police. She had been visiting Tehran with her brother when she was picked up by police outside a metro station and put into a van, for allegedly not complying with the country’s hijab regulations.
The controversy is now widening into a dispute not just about the enforcement of the hijab in cities, but the accountability of the morality police, as well as mistrust towards government denials of wrongdoing.
The horrific death, front page news in some Iranian newspapers, makes for a difficult backdrop for President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to New York for the UN general assembly.
His visit was already facing protests from human rights campaigners and Republicans opposed to Joe Biden taking any steps to reopen the Iran nuclear deal. Raisi has called for a report into Amini’s death.
Demonstrators initially gathered outside Kasra hospital in Tehran, where Amini died after she collapsed in the detention centre. Her body was then transported by plane to Saqqez in her native province of Kurdistan in north-west Iran for an emotional burial, which took place on Saturday.
The police tried to keep the numbers attending the funeral to a minimum, but 1,000 were reported to have been at the graveside. The protests then gathered outside the Saqqez governor’s office, where the violence occurred. Kurdish human rights groups reported that security forces deployed pepper spray against protesters, leading to more than 30 injuries.
There were also peaceful protests on Sunday at the faculty of fine arts at Tehran university, where a group of 100 students risked punishment and carried posters reading “women, life, freedom”, words that were also heard at her funeral.
The crisis has escalated partly due to the heavy-handed efforts by the authorities to deny responsibility, releasing edited video footage showing her collapsing in a police station but denying she was subjected to any beating. It was claimed by the interior ministry that she collapsed due to a heart condition, but pictures of her face in hospital showed discolouring around her ears that seemed consistent with physical blows.
Amini’s father told Ham-Mihan newspaper: “She did not have epilepsy, nor heart disease. The worst disease she had was a cold. The video they showed from the detention centre was also edited. Why didn’t they show the footage when they took my daughter out of the van? Why didn’t they show what happened in the corridors of the detention centre? It was psychologically stressful for her and it is the police that are responsible for this disaster.”
The family have formally demanded the entire CCTV is released instead of the partial footage so far shown. The hospital said that Amini was brain dead when she arrived there.
“Resuscitation was performed on the patient, the heartbeat returned and the patient was admitted to the intensive care unit. Unfortunately, after 48 hours on Friday, the patient suffered a cardiac arrest again, due to brain death. Despite the efforts of the medical team, they failed to revive her and the patient died,” they said, in a statement that was deleted from the hospital’s Instagram account an hour later.
In a sign of official government concern about the incident and the public response, the interior minister, Ahmad Vahidi, said an investigation was under way but insisted Amini had a history of medical problems stretching back to when she was five years old.
Ensieh Khazali, vice-president for women in the government, said on Twitter she had spoken directly to the family and expressed her condolences, and was urgently seeking clarification of the matter. Her intervention led to a hail of critical replies, and accounts of other incidents where women had been beaten up for not wearing the hijab.
Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi, a member of the parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, also called for MPs to investigate. Conservative politicians such as Ali Motahari have called for the medical authorities to conduct an investigation into whether she suffered concussion, since an autopsy on her body was conducted before her funeral. Two senior clerics also criticised the police’s methods.
Iranian media is now rife with debate about the accountability of the morality police, and whether their violent methods simply intimidate rather than protect women.
Article 638 of the Islamic penal code says it is a crime for women to appear in the streets and in public without an Islamic hijab. It is contested whether the police have the arbitrary right to arrest citizens under this code without a court warrant.
Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, said Amini’s death “in custody for an ‘improper’ hijab is appalling” and called on those responsible for her death to be brought to justice.
Amnesty International called for an investigation into Amini’s death. “The circumstances leading to the suspicious death in custody of 22-year-old young woman, Mahsa Amini, which include allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in custody, must be criminally investigated,” it said.