Almost 12,500 people have been arrested and nearly 250 killed since the street protests began in Iran, according to a prominent human rights group, with thousands of anxious families struggling to make contact with loved ones who have gone missing and presumed to be in jail.
The news came as the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj Gen Hossein Salami, said security forces were close to snuffing out the remaining protests. He said: “Sedition is going through its last moments.”
But protesters have insisted that defiance was continuing. One group pointed to truck drivers joining oil refinery workers on rallies, as well as demonstrations among Baloch people in Zahedan. As many as 200 refinery workers have been arrested since their protests started a fortnight ago.
The Writers Union of Iran issued a statement about the crackdown, saying: “Repression of people who protested with empty hands has been a daily occurrence in the last 40 years. But what happened to children and prisoners last week is one of the blackest pages in the record of the current government.”
The union added that “the attack of security forces on schools and prisons and the beating and killing of children and prisoners is a tragedy beyond the killing of protesters in the streets. In this stage of repression, the government, as always, denies the reality, spreads rumours, and distorts public opinion in order to thwart the efforts of people’s organisations and groups to express the truth”.
Some opposition groups say the focus of the largely leaderless social movement must shift to the plight of thousands in jail. Others say its organicnature is its strength since there are no leaders to round up.
The protests were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman who collapsed while in custody of the morality police and later died. Lawyers for Amini in a fresh statement disputed the official account that she collapsed due to a pre-existing neurological condition.
The Centre for Human Rights in Iran said 3,000 people had been arrested in Tehran province alone, 835 of whom remained in jail, including 200 university students. As many as 1,300 have been sent to Greater Tehran Central Penitentiary from Evin prison after a fire inside the facility at the weekend. The figure of 12,450 arrests has been given by HRANA, an Iranian human rights news website.
Iranian human rights groups say journalists are being especially targeted, especially if they report on individuals being detained. Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, the minister of guidance, said the number of journalists that remained under arrest was not high, but according to the International Federation of Journalists 24 have been arrested since the protests started with 11 being held in Evin prison. Reporters Without Borders says there are more than 30 journalists in jail, leaving many publications cowed and censored.
In one case seen as typical, Maryam Mazrouei, a journalist and well-known news photographer who has twice been arrested, was apparently released on Thursday after 12 days in detention.
She disappeared from public view, not responding to any of her social media and WhatsApp accounts, leaving her friends and family desperate to find out her whereabouts and appealing for her to be freed. Reza Moini, the former director of the Iran and Afghanistan for Reporters Without Borders said requests were met with silence from the legal authorities. No reason has been given for her release. In most cases, houses, phones and computers are being searched for signs of disloyalty.
Niloufar Hammadi, the reporter from Sharq newspaper which broke the story of Amini’s death, has been in Evin prison ever since.
Others such as the journalist Farkhondeh Ashoori was arrested at her house in Shiraz on 17 October and taken to an unidentified location. She has expressed support for the protests on social media. Security forces arrested the writer and journalist Mandana Sadeghi and her husband, Reza Mohammadi, at their house in Abadan.
The arrest number of 12,450 must be an estimate, partly because the government is unlikely to provide accurate figures, and the internet remains heavily restricted. Iranians who have left the country recently say the scale of the arrest is much higher than the west had presumed.
The mass arrests appear to have been sparked by an order on 22 September from the head of the judiciary, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Eje’i, that preventive detentions were necessary. The order led to the arrest of women and union activists including Maryam Karimbeigi and Golrokh Iriyaei.
Many of those arrested are given either no or minimal contact with their family.
One prominent activist, Hossein Ronaghi, was seen being bundled into a car demanding: “I want to go to the courthouse”. Since then he told his family one of his legs had been broken by prison guards. His brother Hassan said he was extremely worried about his condition.
In schools, security forces are demanding teachers identify troublemakers. They risk arrest if they refuse. One Tehran teacher reportedly died at the hands of security forces after he tried to protect his students. Some universities are also banning students from classes prior to disciplinary hearings on their involvement in the protests.
The Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Union Organizations has described the “entry of security, military and uniformed forces” into schools as a “violation of the privacy of schools and educational spaces” and “systematic repression”.
It said: “We cannot focus on the blackboard in the middle of gunpowder, fire and bullets. In these history-making days of the people, you killed a number of innocent students of this country with hearts full of hatred and hands stained with blood and boasted about it. Your drunken laughter can be heard by everyone.”
Security services have also infiltrated social media networks of young people, often by pretending to be protesters.
In one of the most high-profile confrontations, Alieh Motallebzadeh, an imprisoned women’s rights activist and photographer, was transferred to hospital on Thursday morning after her condition worsened.
Many activists are being released only if they provide large bail sums. The competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi was reportedly put under house arrest and warned this week that her family would have land seized if she did not appear on state TV to say her decision not to wear the hijab in a contest in South Korea was an accident. Many clerics are furious that she has not been punished for what they regard as open defiance.