Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Iran in revolt - A crowd disarms the riot police

In this striking video clip from Iran today (via Andrew Sullivan), a crowd of demonstrators appears to surround, overrun, and disarm a group of riot police--not kill them, but forcibly disarm them and burn their motorcycles.

(My impression is that the black-clad riot police in this video are not from the regular police, but belong to the so-called "special guards" units from the Revolutionary Guards. But I can't read the Farsi note accompanying this YouTube video, so that's just a surmise.)

Obviously, one can't be sure of either the provenance or the authenticity of any videos coming out of Iran these days. But the incident portrayed in this accords with a pattern reported very widely over the past week and a half: In many places, the protesters are losing their fear of the repressive forces, and are no longer easily intimidated by them. And both the basij storm-troopers and the regular police, for their part, are reluctant to start simply firing into the crowds and killing large numbers of people. (They have done it on a number of occasions lately, but the killings of demonstrators during the Ashura religious holiday has provoked considerable outrage, so the decision-makers within the regime are probably hesitant to cross that line completely.)

At the moment, there are many signs that the side with confidence and momentum is the popular movement opposing the regime, and not the regime and its repressive apparatus. My guess is that those in power will respond pretty soon by dramatically escalating their levels of violence and brutality (to accompany their escalating arrests of opposition figures and their relatives). But that's just a guess. We all have to stay tuned ...

=> Meanwhile, below is a report from the invaluable website Tehran Bureau about the massive protests in Tehran on Sunday and their violent suppression. It also sums up much of what has been going on during this remarkable week and a half since the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri on Sunday, December 20.

--Jeff Weintraub
Tehran Bureau
December 28, 2009
Religious holiday turns bloody
By CORRESPONDENTS in Tehran and Washington, D.C.

Iranian security forces opened fire on protesters during anti-government demonstrations on Sunday, killing at least nine people and arresting more than 300 demonstrators in what marked the largest and most violent anti-government protests in the Islamic Republic since the summer, according to witnesses, opposition websites and state media.

Thousands of Basij militia forces, police and anti-riot forces armed with guns, batons, pepper gas and tear gas clashed with protesters in squares throughout the Iranian capital. Protestors fought back fiercely, at times tearing out slabs of concrete from city sidewalks and smashing it to hurl stones at security forces, witnesses said.

Demonstrations, which took place on Ashura -- a religious holiday commemorating the death of Imam Hossein, Shi'ite Islam's most revered martyr -- spanned from northern Tehran through the central part of the city to include Azadi Square, Enghelab Square, Seventh of Tir Square, Valiasr Square, Imam Hossein Square and Karim Khan Street.

Protests also took place in south-central and south-east Tehran, and in the cities of Shiraz, Arak, Najafabad, Isfahan, Mahshad and Babol, reported witnesses and opposition websites.

Sunday also marked the seventh day of mourning for Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a prominent "Grand" Ayatollah and founding father of the Islamic Republic who later became a staunch critic of the Iranian government. Mr. Montazeri's death last Sunday sparked a fresh wave of protests throughout Iran. A Reformist website said late Sunday that state authorities declared martial law in the Grand Ayatollah's hometown of Najafabad.

Pro-opposition demonstrators throughout the country infused anti-government slogans with religious vocabulary traditionally used during Ashura mourning ceremonies. "This is the month of blood, Yazid will fall!" they shouted, likening Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with Yazid, the caliph responsible for Hossein's death. Slogans grew more radical Sunday, with shouts of "Death to Khamenei," reverbrating throughout the Iranian capital.

Lines of "Special Guards" clad in black uniforms accompanied riot police to blockade and cordon off access to Valiasr Square early Sunday afternoon, said a university student attending the protests. Witnesses said police shot at protesters by Azadi Square and bludgeoned one protester to death in central Tehran. Another protester was run over by a security van in Valiasr Square, according to witnesses.

"A riot police van ran over a guy [in Valiasr]...It just ran over him like he was a bug. I saw it and I'm shaken up real bad," a witness told Tehran Bureau in an email.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew was among the protesters killed Sunday, according to Mr. Mousavi's Kalameh website. Mousavi's international spokesman wrote on his website late Sunday that Mr. Mousavi's 43-year old nephew Seyed Ali Habibi Mousavi was assassinated in front of his home Sunday and was not shot during protests as initially reported. Mr. Mousavi was run over by a sport utility vehicle in front of his home, Paris-based Mohsen Makhmalbaf wrote on his personal website. Five men then emerged from the car and one of them shot Mr. Habibi Mousavi through the chest, he said. Security agents told Mr. Mousavi's family late Sunday that they would be taking his body to the Kahrizak medical facility and told his family that they could not have a funeral, according to Mr. Makhmalbaf.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Tehran's Najmieh Hospital had performed 17 operations on people with gunshot wounds. A doctor said the hospital was treating 60 people with serious head injuries, including three who were in critical condition, according to the newspaper.

Medical personnel in Isfahan told Tehran Bureau that Revolutionary Guard agents forcefully evacuated some patients who had come for treatment after being beaten at protests. "They brought a few of the injured today to the Al Zahra hospital in Isfahan. One man in his 30s was so severely beaten that he was unconscious and immediately taken to the resuscitation room. Minutes after his arrival, plainclothes agents turned up and ordered hospital officials to immediately transfer the man to the Sadoughi Hospital, which is run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps," a member of the hospital staff told Tehran Bureau. "As far as I know, there were no reported deaths here," the hospital staff member said.

State television said police used only anti-riot gear against protesters, and did not use guns, reporting that four people were killed Sunday -- with one individual killed by gunfire, two people killed in a car accident and one person falling off of a bridge. "In light of the fact that the police did not use arms [guns], [the death by bullet] is very suspicious and is being investigated," reported state television.

Reformist media said Sunday that some police forces refused orders to shoot at pro-opposition demonstrators during protests in central Tehran. "Police forces are refusing their commanders' orders to shoot at demonstrators in central Tehran. Some of them attempted to shoot into the air when pressured by their commanders," the Jaras website said.

Demonstrators captured and set fire to a number of police cars and motorcycles, according to witnesses and videos posted on YouTube. Dumpsters were also set on fire and protesters set fire to a police fieldpost after pulling out officers inside, according to witnesses.

"At Valiasr and Enghelab [Freedom Square], police forces attacked us. We dispersed into nearby alleys. After awhile, we heard cheering and whistling. Venturing back out, we saw that people had managed to overwhelm the police and had captured three of them, disarmed them of (their) shields and batons and let them go," a witness told Tehran Bureau by telephone Sunday. "Black smoke was rising from the direction of Karim Khan Street. Police cars had been set on fire," the witness said.