Iran has said it has pardoned more than 22,000 people arrested during the anti-government protests that have swept the country — offering a glimpse of the scale of the crackdown on dissent.
There was no immediate independent confirmation of the mass release, announced in a statement by the head of Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi. The demonstrations began in September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country’s vice squad.
It does suggest that Iran’s rulers now feel safe enough to admit the magnitude of the unrest, which has posed one of the most serious challenges to the establishment since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Tens of thousands were also detained during the purges that followed the revolution.
However, anger still reigns in the country as it grapples with the collapse of the national currency, the rial, economic woes and uncertainty over its ties to the rest of the world following the collapse of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2015.
The state-run news agency IRNA quoted Mr Ejehi as announcing the figure on Monday. Iran’s state media had previously suggested that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei could forgive many people joining the demonstrations ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that begins next week.
Mr Ejehi said a total of 82,656 prisoners have been pardoned. Of those, some 22,628 had been arrested during the demonstrations, he said. Those pardoned had not committed theft or violent crimes, he added. He did not specify over what period the pardon was granted or if or when the people had been charged.
Mr Ejehi’s comments suggest that the actual number of detainees at the demonstrations is even higher. However, no mass release of prisoners has been documented by Iranian media reports or activists in recent days.
More than 19,700 people have been arrested during the protests, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that tracks the crackdown. According to the group, at least 530 people were killed when authorities violently suppressed demonstrations. Iran has not announced a death toll in months.
“From day one there was no transparent accounting of who was arrested and imprisoned – before or after the mass protests of the last few months – and so there is no way to check how many are now being released,” said Jasmin Ramsey, the deputy director of the US-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
The judiciary’s announcement also came ahead of the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, next week. On Tuesday, some in Iran also celebrate the nearly 4,000-year-old Persian tradition known as the Festival of Fire, which is linked to the Zarathustra religion. Hardliners discourage such celebrations, viewing them as pagan relics. There were calls for anti-government protests around both events. Although mass demonstrations have cooled in recent weeks, late-night chants against Iran’s theocracy can still be heard in some neighborhoods of Tehran, Iran’s capital.
The announcement followed a major development last week when Iran and Saudi Arabia said on Friday they agreed with China’s brokerage to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies after a seven-year freeze on relations. The deal could help end Yemen’s years-long war, in which a Saudi Arabian-led coalition is battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa. It has also contributed to the rise of the rial against the dollar in recent days.
Meanwhile, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited Tehran and met with his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, on Monday. Iran has supplied the bomb-carrying drones that Russia is now using in its war against Ukraine. Mr. Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, remains close to Russia, which used Belarusian territory to launch part of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mr Lukashenko said his country and Iran would sign an unspecified series of deals worth $100m (£82m). Iran “resists outside pressure, attempts to impose someone else’s will,” Lukashenko said in a speech to his hosts. “And how you develop modern technologies and nuclear energy despite everything. And as we decided today with the president of Iran, we can really benefit each other if we really join forces.”