Iranian authorities block internet in attempt to stymie growing protests

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iranians suffered an “almost complete” internet blackout on Wednesday amid days of mass protests against the government over the death of a woman detained by the country’s morality police for allegedly violating a strict dress code.

An Iranian official had hinted earlier that such measures might be taken out of security concerns. The loss of contact will make it more difficult to organize protests and share information about the government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Iran has seen protests across the country over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for allegedly wearing the mandatory Islamic headscarf loosely. Protesters clashed with police and called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic itself, even during Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday.

The protests continued for the fifth day, Wednesday, including in the capital, Tehran. The semi-official Fars news agency reported that police fired tear gas at the protesters, who chanted “Death to the dictator” and “I will kill whoever killed my sister.”

London-based Amnesty International said security forces used batons, birdshot, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters. She spoke of eight deaths related to the unrest, including four who were killed by the security forces. She added that hundreds of others were injured.

Iranian officials reported three deaths, which they blamed on unnamed armed groups.

Eyewitnesses in Iran, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said late Wednesday that they could no longer access the internet using mobile devices.

Demonstrators set fire and block the street during a protest against the death of a woman held by morality police in downtown Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2022. The photo was taken by a person who does not work for the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran. (AP Photo)

Doug Madhuri, Director of Internet Analysis at Kentik, Inc. , a network intelligence firm, said late Wednesday: “We are seeing internet service, including mobile data, being blocked in Iran for the past few hours.”

“This is most likely an action by the government given the current situation in the country,” he said. “I can confirm the near-total collapse of Internet connectivity for mobile phone service providers in Iran.”

NetBlocks, a London-based group that monitors internet access, previously reported widespread disruptions to both Instagram and WhatsApp. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, which owns both platforms, said it understands that Iranians are being denied access to online services. “We hope to quickly restore their right to internet access,” she said in a statement.

Earlier on Wednesday, state media quoted Iran’s Communications Minister Issa Zaribour as saying that certain restrictions might be imposed “due to security issues”, without elaborating.

Iran already blocks Facebook, Telegram, Twitter and YouTube, although senior Iranian officials use public accounts on such platforms. Many Iranians avoid bans by using virtual private networks, known as VPNs, and proxies.

Women run from riot police during a protest over the death of a young woman who was detained for violating the country’s conservative dress code, in central Tehran, Iran, September 19, 2022 (AP Photo)

In a separate development, several official websites, including those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the presidency and the central bank, were taken down at least for a brief period as hackers claimed to have launched a cyber attack on state agencies.

Hackers linked to the mysterious Anonymous movement have said they have targeted other Iranian government agencies, including state television.

Central Bank spokesman, Mustafa Qarifafa, denied that the bank itself had been hacked, and only said that the site was “unreachable” due to an attack on a server hosting it, in statements carried by the official Islamic Republic News Agency of Iran. The site was later restored.

Iran has been the target of numerous cyber attacks in recent years, many by hackers expressing criticism of its theocracy. Last year, a cyber attack paralyzed gas stations across the country, leaving long lines of angry motorists unable to get subsidized fuel for days. The messages accompanying the attack appeared to refer to the Supreme Leader.

Amini’s death sparked protests across the country. Police say she died of a heart attack and was not abused, but her family disputed this account, saying she had no previous heart problems and they were prevented from seeing her body.

In a telephone interview with BBC Persian on Wednesday, her father, Amjad Amini, accused the authorities of lying about her death. Every time he was asked how he thought she died, the line was mysteriously cut.

The UN human rights office says the morality police have ramped up their operations in recent months and have resorted to more violent tactics, including slapping, hitting women with batons and pushing them into police cars.

US President Joe Biden, who also spoke at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, expressed his support for the protesters, saying, “We stand with the brave citizens and brave Iranian women, who are now demonstrating to secure their basic rights.”

The UK also issued a statement on Wednesday calling for an investigation into Amini’s death and for “the right to peaceful assembly to be respected”.

Raisi called for an investigation into Amini’s death. Iranian officials blamed the protests on unnamed foreign countries, which they said were trying to foment unrest.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, center, is guarded after arriving at United Nations Headquarters, Wednesday, September 21, 2022 (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Iran has faced waves of protests in recent years, particularly due to a protracted economic crisis exacerbated by Western sanctions linked to its nuclear program.

The Biden administration and its European allies are working to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, under which Iran limited its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, but talks have been deadlocked for months.

In his speech at the United Nations, Raisi said Iran was committed to reviving the nuclear deal, but questioned whether it could trust America’s commitment to any agreement.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. It began ramping up its nuclear activities after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 2015 agreement, and experts say it likely now has enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb if it chose to do so.

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