The death in custody in Iran of a Kurdish woman that has sparked widespread protests must be “steadfastly” investigated, Iran’s president has said, even as he lamented what he claimed were western “double standards” on human rights.
Ebrahim Raisi told a news conference on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York that the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s morality police “must certainly be investigated”.
“I contacted her family at the very first opportunity and I assured them we would continue steadfastly to investigate that incident … Our utmost preoccupation is the safeguarding of the rights of every citizen.”
Of Amini’s death, he said authorities were doing what they needed to do and that responsibility now lay in the hands of the judiciary. He claimed the initial coroner’s investigations into the death of Amini show she died from heart failure or a brain stroke, and not a physical beating by the morality police.
But he said: “If her death was due to negligence, it will definitely be investigated, and I promise to follow up on the issue regardless of whether the international forums take a stand or not.”
Protesters reject the state’s conclusions, pointing to reports that officers beat Amini’s head with a baton and banged her head against one of their vehicles.
At least 36 people are feared by rights groups to have died in six days of protests, sparked by the death on 16 September of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman.
On Thursday, protesters torched police stations and vehicles in several cities, and Iran shut off the internet in parts of Tehran and Kurdistan, and blocked access to platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, in an attempt to curb a growing protest movement. Iranian women have taken to the streets and the internet to burn their headscarves and cut their hair.
Amini was detained for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an “improper” way. Activists said the woman, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, had suffered a fatal blow to the head, a claim denied by officials, who have announced an investigation. Police continue to maintain she died of natural causes, but her family suspect she was subjected to beating and torture.
Raisi, a former hardline head of the judiciary accused of sending hundreds to their death in the past, said Iran would not tolerate “acts of chaos”, referring to the six nights of protests over her killing, but said his country accepted lawful protest.
The judiciary has ordered the courts to take a tough line with protesters, claiming the protests are now being led by foreign agents and stirred by anti-Iranian social media, a familiar regime accusation when dissent breaks out.
He sought to turn the tables on the country he was visiting by asking about police shootings in the US. “Did all these deaths get investigated?” he asked.
“Every day, in different countries, including the United States, we see men and women dying in police encounters, but there is no sensitivity about the cause and dealing with this violence,” he added.
The scope of Iran’s ongoing unrest, the worst in several years, still remains unclear as protesters in more than 12 cities – venting anger over social repression and the country’s mounting crises – continue to encounter security and paramilitary forces. The Iranian army said on Friday it would “confront the enemies” to ensure security, the toughest warning yet to the protesters.
Raisi, who addressed the general assembly formally on Wednesday, said bad things happened to people at the hands of authorities everywhere, making vague references to the US and the UK. He called for the “same standard” around the world in dealing with such deaths at the hands of authorities.
Raisi’s comparison reflects a common approach by Iranian leaders, who when confronted with accusations of rights violations often point to western society and its “hegemony” and demand that those nations similarly be held accountable.
The protests have grown into an open challenge to the government, with some Iranians calling for the downfall of the Islamic Republic itself. They are the most serious demonstrations since 2019, when protests erupted over a government hike in the price of gasoline.
While not outright condemning the protests, Raisi said: “What is occurring, having demonstrations … of course these are normal and fully accepted … We must differentiate between demonstrators and vandalism. Demonstrations are good for expressing specific issues.”
The US imposed sanctions on the morality police and leaders of other Iranian security agencies on Thursday, saying they “routinely employ violence to suppress peaceful protesters”. US officials promised to take further measures in the coming days.
Erfan Mortezaei, Amini’s cousin, told the IranWire website that the dead woman’s family were still under pressure to publicly back the regime’s version of events: namely that she did not die due to head injuries sustained in custody, but from complications from a historic brain surgery.
At the weekend Mahsa’s nephew Arkan, 17, was taken into custody. He was released yesterday morning on a 500m toman (US$16,000) bail. The judiciary told the family it was because he had gone to the offices of a news agency based in the city, presumably intending to speak to them about his aunt.
“The goal of this pressure,” Erfan said, “is to obtain a forced statement from Mahsa’s family in view of stopping the nationwide protests.”
Nasser Kanani, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic, wrote in a tweet without referring to the nationwide protests in Iran: “The real violators of human rights do not have the necessary moral competence to comment on human rights.”
In an index of the scale of the riots the mayor of Tehran, Alireza Zakani, claimed damage had been inflicted on 43 buses, 54 bus stations and 23 fire engines.
The protests have no organised leadership and although the focus initially has been on the right of women not to wear the hijab in public or be harassed by the morality police, there have been broader calls for freedom, or overthrow of the regime.
Iranian officials have been trying to drive a wedge into popular support for the protests by emphasising its anti-Iranian violence.
US-based human rights groups had been trying to serve a writ on Raisi on behalf of former political prisoners including Kylie Moore-Gilbert, the British-Australian dual national kept in jail for two years.