x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Hundreds arrested as protests ease

Clashes with security forces ease as reports indicate 457 people have been arrested and the Guardians Council, acknowledges vote discrepancies.

Protesters make their feelings known on the streets of Iran.
Protesters make their feelings known on the streets of Iran.

TEHRAN // The streets of Tehran remain under the shadow of a strong security presence following violence on Saturday that left at least 10 opposition protesters dead, although witnesses reported groups of demonstrators gathering at various parts of the city resulting in minor clashes with security forces. Iranian authorities have arrested at least 457 people after post-election clashes, state radio reported, as the nation's clerical leaders battled to contain the worst crisis since the Islamic revolution. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has led a wave of massive protests over what he says was a rigged presidential election, remained defiant as he urged supporters to continue demonstrating but to adopt "self-restraint." And Iran's electoral watchdog, the Guardians Council, has acknowledged vote discrepancies, saying its preliminary investigation revealed that the number of ballots cast in 50 districts exceeded the number of eligible voters.

The streets of Tehran were tense today but have remained largely quiet since Sunday and there were no immediate reports of any planned demonstrations. Footage posted on video-sharing websites showed large crowds marching on Sunday, though the videos' authenticity was impossible to verify. The Iranian government, meanwhile, claimed "terrorists" were responsible for the clashes on Saturday, which also left more than 100 injured, ostensibly referring to members of the People's Mujahideen of Iran, an Iraq- and Europe-based Iranian militant group whose members were exiled after the 1979 revolution.

The semi-official Fars news agency reported yesterday that armed members of the group had fired at security forces, and state television showed recorded confessions of alleged members who were arrested, though the reports have been met with scepticism by protesters and observers. The government also accused western powers of "manipulating" protests over the past week to undermine the regime and said biased western media coverage was fuelling the crisis. The BBC's correspondent in Tehran, Jon Leyne, was expelled for "fake and incorrect reports of Iran" in the aftermath of the elections.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said yesterday at least 23 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the protests began. Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told foreign diplomats that Britain had "plotted against the presidential election for more than two years", a claim David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, condemned and said was without foundation. A number of western governments, including Germany, France and Italy called on Iran to end violence against protesters, with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, urging the Islamic republic to recount votes.

Divisions within the regime and the country's clerical establishment were also beginning to appear: state media reported that five relatives including the daughter of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the Assembly of Experts and one of Iran's most powerful men, were arrested. The former president Mohammad Khatami, an ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, a defeated presidential candidate, came out strongly against the government's heavy-handedness, warning yesterday of "dangerous consequences". "I am worried that security and the military are gradually prevailing over the country's atmosphere," Mr Khatami said in a statement.

One dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, called for three days of mourning beginning on Wednesday for those killed in Saturday's violence. "Resisting [the] people's demand is religiously prohibited," Ayatollah Montazeri, an architect of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, said in a statement. One analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed out that only one grand ayatollah had so far congratulated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his victory last week, because many consider him a threat to the clerical establishment. Many within the Revolutionary Guard are followers of these ayatollahs, the analyst said, and if they refuse to give their blessings, members may come out against Mr Ahmadinejad.

Witnesses reported opposition crowds gathering yesterday - in defiance of a ban issued by the supreme leader - in such major squares as Vali Asr and Enghelab (Revolution), the scene of Saturday's clashes. As helicopters hovered overhead, many chanted "Neda", commemorating a girl who was caught on film being shot dead by police. Witnesses said security forces were dispersing people at 7-tir square in the downtown lighting candles for those killed.

"The Islamic regime tried so hard for so many years to make women to give up their colourful dresses, but did not succeed. Now all those young women are wearing black as a political statement," one female protester said. Many protesters also cast doubt on the televised confessions of "terrorists". "I never believe these confessions. People are forced to confess to crimes they never committed and there is a lot of precedence for that," one protester wrote on her blog.

Details of Saturday's protests also continued to emerge yesterday, with several reports claiming opposition protesters receiving treatment at hospitals were being taken away by the Basij militia and police. There were also claims water containing harmful chemicals was sprayed on protesters by water cannon. * The National, with agencies