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Iranian protesters defiant in the face of 'worst' crackdown in a decade

Vida Movahedi stands on a telecoms box on a Tehran street after removing her headscarf and holding a stick to protest against the country's compulsory hijab rules.
When Sina Ghanbari took to Tehran's streets during nationwide demonstrations at the beginning of 2018, he was speaking out against corruption, a sluggish economy and soaring fuel and food prices, CNN reported in Monday.

Ghanbari was detained during the protests. After being held in the so-called quarantine ward of Tehran's Evin prison for five days, he died on his 22nd birthday.
Prison authorities told his mother, Fatemeh Malayan Nejad, that her son had taken his own life. "My son called me from prison. He told me they had beaten him up," Nejad said. "It's a big lie that he committed suicide, and I won't rest until the truth comes out." Ghanbari's mother says she believes he was murdered.

Fatemeh Malayan Nejad holds a picture of her son Sina, who was detained for protesting and died after five days in custody. Courtesy of Fatemeh Malayan Nejad/Masih Alinejad
Ghanbari is one of nine protesters who died under "suspicious circumstances" after being detained by the Iranian authorities in 2018, according to a report by Amnesty International released on January 24. The rights group also says that at least 26 protesters were killed on the streets, and more than 7,000 dissidents of the regime were arrested throughout the year. Of that figure, 11 lawyers, 50 media professionals and 91 students were detained arbitrarily.

But Iran's protest movements show little sign of abating. As security forces step up their crackdown, dissidents have continued to stage demonstrations. Rather than quashing dissent, experts say, Iran's repression may have emboldened activists.

"Protesters feel they have nothing to lose," says Mansoureh Mills, Amnesty International's Iran researcher. "In the past year, we've seen thousands of workers across the country in anguish because they haven't been paid for months and are struggling to feed their families."
"You only have to watch videos of these protests on social media and listen to workers calling out, 'We do not fear prison because we have nothing more to lose' to understand how emboldened they have become," Mills added.

The wave of protests in 2018

The economic protests of December 2017 and January 2018 were the largest display of public discontent in Iran since the 2009 Green Movement, when millions took to the streets to demonstrate against alleged election fraud.

But while the Green Movement attracted far larger numbers, the geographic scope of the 2017 and 2018 protests caught authorities by surprise. The demonstrators were largely from outside the capital. They gathered in major northeastern cities -- such as the conservative stronghold of Mashhad -- and in the provinces. They also largely hailed from the country's working class. Both demographics were long considered centerpieces of the regime's popular base.

"What was noteworthy was their geographical spread," says Mohammad Ali Shabani, Iran Pulse editor at Al-Monitor. "Equally noteworthy was the lack of elite backing: beyond general statements of sympathy for demands such as more jobs and lower consumer prices, no major political camp sided with the protesters."

Despite the regime's violent response to the initial 2017 and 2018 demonstrations, individuals and coordinated groups of dissidents continued to publicly demand political and social reforms throughout 2018.

As Iran's economic crisis deepened, peaceful demonstrations were held during July and August which authorities dispersed by using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons, according to Amnesty.

Teachers in Tehran held protests in October and November which resulted in 23 arrests and eight prison sentences. By the end of the year, 467 workers, including truck drivers, factory workers and teachers, had been questioned by authorities or subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

"(The crackdown) is the worst we have witnessed over the past decade," Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International's Iran researcher, said.

A few brave women

Perhaps the highest-profile social movement to gain momentum during 2018 were the protests against Iran's compulsory hijab law.

On December 27, 2017, Vida Movahedi, a 31-year-old Iranian mother, climbed atop a utilities box on one of Tehran's most crowded streets and silently waved a white headscarf on a stick. She stood unveiled, her long hair flowing in the breeze.

Movahedi was arrested a few hours later, but a photograph of her solitary act went viral. The image helped galvanize exiled Iranian Masih Alinejad's "White Wednesdays" social media campaign. The movement encourages people to protest against the mandatory headscarf law by wearing white on Wednesdays or going out unveiled.