Iran’s Supreme Leader has praised the country’s paramilitary Basij force for its role in the deadly crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
In a meeting with Basij staff in Tehran on Saturday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called the popular protest movement “rioters” and “thugs” backed by foreign forces and praised the “innocent” fighters of the Basij for protecting the nation.
The Basij is a wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards deployed in the streets as protests escalate since September.
The protest movement was initially sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in the custody of Iran’s morality police.
Amnesty International says the Basij have been ordered to “confront protesters without mercy”.
“When confronting the enemy on the battlefield, the Basij has always shown courage and is not afraid of the enemy,” the Supreme Leader said on Saturday.
“You have seen in the most recent events, our innocent and oppressed Basijis have become the targets of oppression so that they do not allow the nation to become the target of rioters, thugs and [enemy] pay, consciously or not. They gave themselves to free others,” Khamenei said.
Khamenei’s words come a day after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, warned that Iran was in a “full-fledged human rights crisis” due to repression against anti-regime dissidents.
Turk called for “independent, impartial and transparent investigative processes” into human rights abuses in Iran during a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday.
He told the Council of 47 member states in Geneva that security forces reportedly responded to protests by using lethal force against unarmed protesters and bystanders who posed “no threat”.
More than 14,000 people, including children, have been arrested in connection with the protests, according to Turk. He said at least 21 of them are currently facing the death penalty and six have already been sentenced to death.
Among those arrested are two well-known Iranian actors, Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi, who have been repeatedly arrested for publicly supporting the nationwide protests, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
The Islamic Republic has been gripped by a wave of anti-government protests sparked by Amini’s death allegedly for not wearing her hijab properly.
Authorities have since unleashed a deadly crackdown on protesters, with reports of forced detentions and physical abuse being used to target the country’s Kurdish minority group. In a recent CNN investigation, secret testimony revealed sexual violence against protesters, including boys, in Iranian detention centers since the unrest began.
The unprecedented nationwide uprising has gripped more than 150 cities and 140 universities across Iran’s 31 provinces, according to Turk.
The violent reaction of Iranian security forces towards the demonstrators has undermined diplomatic relations between Tehran and Western leaders.
The White House on Wednesday imposed its latest round of sanctions on three officials from Iran’s Kurdish region, after US Secretary Antony Blinken said he was “deeply concerned that Iranian authorities would escalate violence against demonstrators”.
In an interview with Indian broadcaster NDTV on Thursday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani said foreign powers were intervening in Iranian internal affairs and creating “false narratives”.