DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran announced Monday that the country’s Supreme Leader has pardoned more than 22,000 people arrested during the recent anti-government protests that swept the Islamic Republic. There was no immediate independent confirmation of the mass release.
The statement by the head of the Iranian judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, offered for the first time a glimpse of the full scope of the government’s crackdown that followed the demonstrations over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, who had been detained by the country’s morality police. .
It also suggests that Iran’s theocracy now feels 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 IRNA news agency quoted Ejehi as announcing the figure on Monday. Iranian 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, when the devout fast from dawn to dusk. Ramadan starts later next week.
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. His comments suggest that the actual number of detainees at the demonstrations is even higher.
In February, Iran had acknowledged that “tens of thousands” had been detained during the protests. Monday’s affirmation of Ejehi offered an even higher level than what activists had previously cited. 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.
“We also know that more than five months after the death of … Mahsa Amini in state prison, no Iranian official has been held responsible for the mass killings of street protesters, nor for the arbitrary detention of tens of thousands.”
The judiciary’s announcement also came ahead of the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, next week. On Tuesday, some in Iran also mark the nearly 4,000-year-old Persian tradition known as the Festival of Fire, which is linked to the Zoroastrian 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. Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, remains close to Russia, which used Belarusian territory to launch Moscow’s invasion of Moscow.
Lukashenko said his country and Iran would sign an unspecified series of deals worth $100 million.
Iran “resists external 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 be very useful to each other if we truly unite our efforts.”
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