January 16, 2020
Students in Iran have protested against their Islamist rulers for a fifth day, with dozens staging a sit-in at a central university as police surrounded other universities in Tehran to block more rallies at those sites.
Photos obtained by VOA appeared to show at least 100 students staging Wednesday’s sit-in next to a campus restaurant at Isfahan University of Technology in the central city of Isfahan. The protest seemed to be a silent one, with many of those gathered wearing surgical white masks over their faces with black “X” marks to symbolize their voices being silenced.
Signs held up by the demonstrators indicated that their grievances were directed toward the Iranian government, which has faced daily protests since its Saturday admission that Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane mistaken for an enemy threat as it departed Tehran for Kyiv Jan. 8.
The crash killed 82 Iranians and 57 Canadians, many of them students with dual Iranian citizenship who were flying to Kyiv en route to Canada to resume university studies after the winter break.Several students at the Isfahan sit-in held a sign saying “1,500 + 176”, referencing the number of people the U.S. government has accused Iran of killing in a crackdown on nationwide protests last November, plus the number of people killed in the crash of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 jet.
Iran has rejected allegations that it killed hundreds of people in the November crackdown as exaggerated without providing its own official death toll.
Another sign held by one of the protesters at the Isfahan sit-in read, “We are not seditionists.”
There was no word on whether Iranian security forces responded to the apparent silent protest.
VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of the sit-in photos because of Iran’s tight restrictions on reporting in the country.
It was a different scene in Tehran, where video clips obtained by VOA appeared to show unusually high police deployments at entrances to Amirkabir University and Tehran University on Wednesday.
VOA could not independently verify the authenticity of the Tehran images, either.
Hundreds of students had staged noisy anti-government protests at several university campuses in the Iranian capital in the prior four days and had planned to do so again Wednesday, according to a widely shared social media posting seen by VOA.
But a video clip filmed by a citizen journalist showed about 20 police motorcycles and several officers stationed at the eastern entrance to Amirkabir University after nightfall, with the narrator saying the officers had blocked the entrance.
In a message to VOA, an alumnus of the university who asked to remain anonymous said he went to the campus Wednesday and saw Iranian police blocking all of its entrances and exits.
“They were all over the campus in plain clothes or in riot gear,” he said. “Basiji militiamen helped them to kick everyone out of the campus by 5:30 p.m. to prevent any demonstration from forming.”
A nighttime video clip by another citizen journalist appeared to show security agents standing at an entrance of Tehran University. The narrator said they had shut down the entire campus.
A report by VOA sister network Radio Farda said pro-government students were able to hold gatherings and freely express their views at several Iranian universities Wednesday. It said some social media users criticized the gatherings as attempts to overshadow the anti-government student protests of the previous four days.
Iran’s judiciary has said police detained 30 people at those earlier protests in Tehran and several other cities and acted leniently in breaking up the demonstrations.
But in a report released Wednesday, London-based rights group Amnesty International said verified video footage, photographs and testimonies from victims and eyewitnesses showed that Iranian security forces used “unlawful force” against peaceful demonstrators in the first two days of the protests.
Amnesty said the evidence indicated that the security forces fired pointed pellets from airguns usually used for hunting at peaceful protesters, causing bleeding and painful injuries. It said those forces also used rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse protesters, as well as kicking and punching them, beating them with batons and making arbitrary arrests.
“The use of unlawful force in the latest demonstrations is part of a long-standing pattern by Iranian security forces,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East research director.
Amnesty has said it verified the killings of at least 300 protesters, mostly by gunfire, in Iran’s crackdown on the November 2019 protests.