Nearly five months after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, died in the custody of the country’s “morality police” after being arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab “improperly,” sparking outrage and nationwide demonstrations, Iranian state news media reports the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has approved a proposal to “pardon or commute” sentences for tens of thousands of prisoners as part of an annual amnesty. The decree is a rare acknowledgment from the government of the sheer volume of people it has detained, but it comes with conditions that will likely exclude protesters, CNN reports.
Despite talks of amnesty, Iranian authorities continue to crack down on demonstrators with lethal violence. As of January, the government has executed at least four prisoners over crimes it claims they committed during the demonstrations, underlining the speed at which Iranian authorities are carrying out the death sentences of detainees. News of the executions, which included a public hanging, arrived shortly after a senior Iranian official suggested the morality police had been “abolished by the same authorities who installed it,” which the Iranian government neither confirmed nor denied. For weeks, videos have shown police beating protesters — many of whom are women and teenagers — with batons and spraying tear gas and bullets into crowds. According to Human Rights Activists News Agency, over 500 people, including 70 children and at least 29 women, have been killed, though widespread internet blackouts have made it difficult to confirm the fatalities. Hundreds of people have been injured, and according to the activist group, more than 19,600 have been arrested.
Since Amini’s death, Iranian forces’ brutal attempts to quell protests have garnered international outrage, with the U.N. voting to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women in response to the regime’s repression. Meanwhile, many Iranians are calling for the end of Islamic Republic rule itself. Here’s what we know.
Mahsa Amini died in police custody on September 16.
On September 13, 2022, while visiting family in Tehran, Amini was reportedly arrested for “improper hijab” — a violation of Iran’s mandatory dress code that requires women, regardless of religious affiliation, to conceal their hair and necks with headscarves. After her arrest, Amini’s family struggled to find where she’d been taken. “We tried by every means to reach her, but the Iranian authorities did not let us,” her cousin Irfan Mortezai told the Associated Press. “I couldn’t reach her.”
Police claim Amini suffered a heart attack on September 16 while in custody at the Vozara detention center, where she had been taken to be “educated,” though many question this account. Following Amini’s death, photos began circulating of her lying incapacitated in a hospital bed with tubes and wires all over her body and blood pooling from one ear. Amini’s family believes she was beaten by officers in a police van following her arrest. “They have to explain for what crime, for what reason did they do this?” Amini’s mother said in an interview with the Iranian news media, according to the New York Times. “I am her mother, and I am dying from grief.” Amini’s father told BBC Persia he believes authorities are lying about his daughter’s death. “They’re lying. They’re telling lies. Everything is a lie … no matter how much I begged, they wouldn’t let me see my daughter,” he said.
Following Amini’s death, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi ordered the interior minister to investigate the case and reportedly called Amini’s family to assure them that action would be taken. “Your daughter is like my own daughter, and I feel that this incident happened to one of my loved ones,” he said.
Amini’s death set off a wave of protests across the country.
Following news of Amini’s death, protests spread across the country with women at the forefront. In Amini’s hometown of Saqqez, in the Kurdistan Province, women took their hijabs off and chanted, “Death to the dictator.” In Tehran, they ripped off their headscarves and waved them in the air; one protester climbed atop a car and set fire to her hijab. Women followed suit in Sari with a mass burning, tossing their headscarves into a large fire and dancing as they watched them go up in flames.
In Kerman’s Azadi Square, a woman disposed of her headscarf, took scissors to her hair, and chopped nearly all of it off as the crowd around her cheered. Women around the world have been cutting their own hair in protest of Amini’s death — including Abir Al-Sahlani, an Iraqi-born Swedish member of European Parliament, who chopped off her hair during a speech at the E.U. assembly.
For Muslim women, the choice to wear a headscarf is intended to be a deeply personal one, and Iran’s overarching dress code has been a point of contention since its adoption after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Women have long been arrested for pushing back against modesty laws — including in 2018, when 29 women were arrested for going without their hijabs in public.
The protests have been met with a deadly crackdown from the Iranian government.
Across the country, growing protests have been met with violent suppression from Iranian forces, which have have killed more than 500 protesters. According to the New York Times, Iranian forces have said that the average age of protesters is 15. Amnesty International has called for “global action” in response to the deadly crackdowns.
Growing protests at universities across Iran have been met with police violence. In October, riot police reportedly confronted hundreds of students at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran with tear gas, paintball guns, and nonlethal steel-pellet guns and CNN reported that Iranian officials confirmed they were detaining student protesters in mental-health institutions to “reform them.” The New York Times has documented “raids on high schools in cities across Iran, where plainclothes militia and intelligence agents interrogated, beat and searched students or where school authorities threatened or attacked students.”
The BBC reports that Iranian authorities have used threats of sexual assault to subdue protesters. In September, an anonymous protester told the BBC that she and at least 60 other women had been detained in a police-station room so crowded they couldn’t move or sit down. “They said we could not use the bathroom, and that if we got hungry we could eat our stools,” said the woman, who alleged that authorities threatened the group with violence. “After almost a day, when we shouted and protested inside the room, they started threatening us that if we didn’t keep quiet, they would rape us.” A viral video verified by the BBC shows an officer forcing a woman toward a bike as another officer approaches her from behind and puts a hand on her buttocks. Tehran’s Police Public Relations office is reportedly investigating the incident.
Anger has erupted around the deaths of protesters Nika Shakarami, 16, and Hadis Najafi, 22, who were killed by Iranian forces. Shakarami’s family claims that security forces stole their daughter’s body and improperly buried it. Sources close to Najafi’s family told the BBC that officials had refused to return her body until her father agreed to say she had died of a heart attack.
The BBC identified 45 of the confirmed casualties — including 16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh, a YouTuber who was beaten to death in Tehran in September by security forces armed with batons. Individuals from Iranian ethnic minorities have been targeted: Mohammad Rakhshani, a 12-year-old from Sistan Baluchistan, home to the Baluch ethnic group, is the youngest victim the outlet has identified so far. The government reportedly denies killing “peaceful” protesters and claims that more than 20 security personnel have died.
The reporter who broke Amini’s story has been arrested and charged.
Since protests broke out, at least 48 journalists, including 18 women, have reportedly been detained and only one known to be released so far. According to the New York Times, Niloufar Hamedi, a journalist who was the first to bring attention to Amini’s story, was arrested in September. She and fellow journalist Elaheh Mohammadi, who has reported on Amini’s case, have been charged by Iran’s judiciary with “colluding with the intention of acting against national security and propaganda against the state.” Hamedi is reportedly being held in solitary confinement.
Journalist Christiane Amanpour was slated to sit down with President Raisi in September but said an aide told her the interview wouldn’t happen unless she wore a headscarf. “I politely declined,” Amanpour wrote in a Twitter thread. “We are in New York, where there is no law or tradition regarding headscarves. I pointed out that no previous Iranian president has required this when I have interviewed them outside Iran.”
Amanpour said she told his aide that she “couldn’t agree to this unprecedented and unexpected condition.” She continued, “The interview didn’t happen. As protests continue in Iran and people are being killed, it would have been an important moment to speak with President Raisi.”
In an interview with state television, Raisi said that the “chaos is unacceptable” despite his being “saddened by this tragic incident.” He added, “One cannot allow people to disturb the peace of society through riots.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has blamed the U.S. and Israel for the unrest. “This rioting was planned,” he said. “These riots and insecurities were designed by America and the Zionist regime and their employees.”
More than 19,000 protesters are reportedly in detention, and at least 100 are estimated to have been sentenced to death
CNN reports that Iran has charged at least 1,000 people for their alleged involvement in the protests and that trials are ongoing. Iranian lawmakers urged the judiciary to “show no leniency” toward detained protesters. Last November, Iran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced a protester to death, and five others were sentenced to five to ten years in prison. U.N. experts have urged Iran “to stop using the death penalty as a tool to squash protests,” as international worry mounts that more death sentences could follow. According to Iran Human Rights, at least 100 Iranians, including five women, are currently facing charges punishable by death.
Iranian public figures are risking severe consequences to show solidarity with protesters.
Several Iranian public figures are showing solidarity with anti-government protesters at extreme risk to themselves. While in Spain for a youth tournament, Hossein Soori, the head of the country’s boxing federation, announced that he would not return to Iran as a show of support for demonstrators. Before their opening match against England at the World Cup in Qatar, the Iranian national football team stood in silence as their national anthem played while fans cheered Amini’s name. Speaking to reporters before the game, team captain Ehsan Hajsafi shared his condolences for “all the bereaved families in Iran” and expressed his team’s support for those who have lost loved ones in the protests. “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” Hajsafi said, according to the BBC. Adding that the team players “cannot deny the conditions” in Iran and know they are “not good,” he continued, “We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice … I hope the conditions change to the expectations of the people.” Meanwhile, hard-line Iranian newspapers have blamed Iran’s 6-2 loss to England on the protests and accused foreign enemies, including the United States, of sparking a “political media current” that “[damaged] the spirit of Iran’s team.”
In early November, award-winning Iranian actresses Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were arrested for removing their headscarves at protests and during public appearances. The country’s state news media reported that both women stand accused of collusion and acting against national authorities. “How many children, teenagers, and young people have you killed — is it not enough with the bloodshed? I hate you, and your historical reputation,” Ghaziani wrote prior to her arrest in a since-removed social-media post denouncing the government, according to the New York Times, adding, “This may be my last post.” In one of the government’s most high-profile detentions, actress Taraneh Alidoosti was arrested in December over posts expressing support for anti-government protests; her Instagram and Twitter were subsequently deleted and suspended. Iranian state news media claims Alidoosti was arrested for “unsubstantiated comments about recent events” and “the publication of provocative material.” After three weeks of imprisonment, Alidoosti was released on bail.
Iran’s attorney general says the morality police was abolished, sewing uncertainty.
At a conference in December, Iran’s attorney general, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, said the country’s morality police force has “nothing to do with the judiciary” and has been abolished, a declaration that was met with silence by the rest of the government and swiftly downplayed by state media. Though Iranian state television channel Al-Alam said Montazeri’s comments had been misinterpreted, the country’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, did not deny them at a news conference in Serbia, where he stated that “everything is moving forward well in the framework of democracy and freedom.”
For many Iranians, talk of abolishment is nominal, with Montazeri adding that the judiciary will continue to enact restrictions on “social behavior.” Even as Iranians report seeing decreased morality-police presence since the protests broke out, videos continue to show other security forces beating and arresting women who go out without their hijabs. Montazeri has previously said the country’s mandatory hijab law was under review, though an outcome has yet to be determined. The Times reports that the abolishment of the morality police is unlikely to assuage the larger demands of protesters, which include sweeping reform of gender-discrimination laws and calls to end the regime’s authoritarian rule altogether. “The protests started with the murder of Mahsa Amini by the morality police,” London-based human-rights lawyer and Justice4Iran co-founder Shadi Sadr tweeted last week. “But Iranians won’t rest until the regime is gone.”
The Iranian government has executed at least four prisoners involved in the protests.
On December 12, the Iranian government publicly executed Majidreza Rahnavard, a prisoner who’d been convicted of fatally stabbing two members of the Basij — volunteer members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who have been deployed across major Iranian cities and who have reportedly attacked and detained protesters — and allegedly wounding four others in an act of retaliation. The Los Angeles Times reported that Rahnavard was hung from a construction crane as a warning to other protesters, a tactic that was commonly used during the Green Revolution that followed the 2009 presidential election.
After Rahnavard’s execution, state news media published images of his hanging body along with a highly edited courtroom video of him saying he had come to hate the Basijis after seeing social-media footage of them beating and killing protesters. Iranian state news reported that he had been convicted on the charge of moharebeh, a Farsi word meaning “waging war against God,” which carries a death sentence in the Revolutionary Court in Mashhad — one of many tribunals that have been internationally criticized for not allowing the accused to see the evidence against them.
The government said it had executed Mohsen Shekari, who Iranian state news reported was convicted of moharebeh in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court for allegedly blocking a street in the capital city and attacking a security-personnel member with a machete. The outlet claimed Shekari had been bribed by an acquaintance to carry out the attack. Per the AP News, Shekari’s lawyer attempted to appeal his death sentence but was denied, and after the execution, which was not public, state news television aired another highly edited package of courtroom footage from the trial. In January, the government also reported that it had executed two more men, Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Mohammad Hosseini, who were convicted of allegedly killing a paramilitary volunteer during a demonstration. The executions have stoked fear over the fates of other imprisoned protesters. CNN reports that soccer player Amir Nasr-Azadani is among the detained protesters currently facing the possibility of execution.
The world is responding with sanctions, and the U.N. has ousted Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women.
Following Rahnavard’s execution, the European Union approved a round of sanctions against Iranian individuals and organizations over protest repression, with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stating that the E.U. stands “beside innocent people in Iran.” Meanwhile, judges on Iranian courts already face U.S. sanctions with Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeting that he was “appalled” after Shekari’s execution. “Our message to Iran’s leadership is clear,” he wrote. “End this brutal crackdown.”
On December 14, the U.N. voted to adopt a U.S.-drafted resolution to remove Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women through the remainder of the 2022–26 term. Per Reuters, 29 countries voted in favor of ousting Iran, while eight voted against and 16 abstained, with the U.S. ambassador stating that Iran’s inclusion had been “an ugly stain on the commission’s credibility.”
The government says it will offer pardons to eligible prisoners who express their regret.
Per the BBC, news of the proposed pardons arrived after Khamenei reviewed a letter from the country’s head of judiciary alleging that a number of remorseful protesters had been misled by foreign propaganda and were asking for forgiveness. But it remains unclear how many protesters the pardons will actually help: The country’s deputy judiciary chief says those charged with “more serious offenses,” such as spying for foreign agents, murder, or destruction of state property, will not be eligible for pardons, while those who do qualify must pledge their regret in writing. The decree is an about-face for Khamenei, who had previously called protesters “traitors” influenced by foreign governments. Though Iranian state news media hasn’t offered further explanation for the decree, NBC reports that the country’s prisons and detention centers have faced overcrowding from past protests.
On Twitter, Iran Human Rights has denounced Khamenei’s pardons as more propaganda. “We see this every year: a PR stunt that results in no change for the country’s countless political prisoners,” the organization wrote in a statement.
This post has been updated.