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People gather in protest against the death of Mahsa Amini along the streets on Sept. 19, in Tehran, Iran. 22-year-old Mahsa Amini fell into a coma and died after being arrested in Tehran by the morality police, for allegedly violating the countries hijab rules.Getty Images/Getty Images

Protests that broke out over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody have spread to scores of Iranian cities and clashes with authorities have resulted in at least two dozen deaths, according to a United Nations official.

Anti-government demonstrations over the Sept. 16 death of Ms. Amini – she was detained apparently over her improper wearing of the hijab – have brought out thousands of protesters, with no immediate end in sight. The country hasn’t seen women take up a front-and-centre role of this magnitude against the morality police since the hijab law first came into effect in 1981. Women are risking arrest, imprisonment and even death for demonstrating against the state and also violating the law.

Reaction to Ms. Amini’s death and revolts against the hijab laws are unfolding under the watch of hardliner Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who stiffened the hijab law just this past July. Human-rights groups are suggesting that the country is witnessing the makings of a revolution.

Jeremy Laurence, a spokesman from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, says that the OHCHR is concerned about the violent response to the protests. The UN has reported that peaceful protests have been met with excessive force, including the firing of birdshot and other metal pellets by Iranian security forces.

On Friday, a spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Iranian authorities to respect the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly as well as women’s rights. He also called for an investigation by an independent authority into Ms. Amini’s death.

State TV has suggested the death toll from this week’s unrest could be as high as 26.

On Sept. 13, Mahsa Amini was with her brother when the government’s morality police detained her for what they called her immodest clothing and wearing her hijab too loosely. Two hours after they detained Ms. Amini, her family was notified that she was at a hospital and had fallen into a coma. A few days later she was declared brain-dead and subsequently died of what the authorities said was a heart attack.

In an interview with Rouydad24, a semi-independent news outlet, Ms. Amini’s father, Amjad Amini, accused authorities of lying about her death, and said that she had no pre-existing heart conditions. Amjad Amini also said the state refused to give him an autopsy report.

CCTV footage released by Iran’s state media appeared to show her collapsing at a “re-education” centre where she had been taken by the morality police to receive “guidance” on her attire. “It’s edited and blurry and shows a woman falling to the ground,” Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), told The Globe from New York. “There’s no proof that it’s Ms. Amini,” she said.

Demonstrations over Ms. Amini’s death have unleashed anger not just about the hijab crackdown but over other curtailed freedoms in the Islamic Republic. Women have played a prominent role in the mass protests, which have gone on for a week, waving and burning their hijabs, with some cutting their hair in public. They have also grown into an open challenge to the government, in which “death to the dictator” has become a common cry in these protests.

“These are all life-threatening acts,” Ms. Ramsey said. “When you speak out against the government narrative in Iran you subject yourself to persecution and harassment by Iran intelligence agencies with arrests, persecution and imprisonment, so it’s amazing courage and resiliency that we’re witnessing in the streets.

“We’re also seeing men and women stand side by side in the streets calling for women’s rights and liberty. Calls against the government have happened before but it’s more charged this time. Couple that with people within the political elite who are calling for the morality police to be disbanded – this time feels different.”

Iran is one of two Islamic countries that has laws that require women to wear hijabs in public (the other country is Afghanistan) and has expanded its morality police in recent months. Mr. Raisi came to power in 2021 in a virtually uncontested election. “He is very much a representative of the old guard in Iran and just last month he called on all government entities to more strictly enforce hijab laws so we’re seeing more forces on the streets and people being forcibly taken into vans to be re-educated,” Ms. Ramsey said.

Persian media outlets have shown videos depicting the use of tear gas, water cannons, and heavily armed state security forces shooting where people are standing and walking, Ms. Ramsey added.

The UN’s acting high commissioner for human rights, Nada Al-Nashif, condemned the reported disproportionate use of force against protesters, and called on Iran – as party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – to respect the right to peacefully exercise freedom of expression, assembly and association, Mr. Laurence said.

With no sign of the widespread discontent easing and images of the large-scale protests circulating on social media, the government has restricted internet access and the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard has ordered the judiciary to prosecute “anyone who spreads fake news and rumours” on social media about the protests.

The OHCHR is also calling for a prompt, impartial and effective investigation by an independent competent authority into Ms. Amini’s death and allegations of torture.

“Her family must have access to justice and truth,” Mr. Laurence said.

Ms. Ramsey, however, is doubtful that an independent investigation will take place. “There have been other cases of people dying in state custody in Iran and the same pattern of the government trying to conceal what actually happened.”

She pointed to the case of Kavous Seyed-Emami, the Iranian-Canadian who ran a non-governmental environmentalist group in Iran and was detained in 2018. “Like Amini, he also suddenly died while held in prison under interrogation and his family was forced to bury him immediately. There was no independent autopsy report and they took away the family’s passports. So there is no confidence in this government.” She added that Ms. Amini’s family was coerced into burying her right away, making it much more difficult to conduct an independent autopsy.

With reports from The Associated Press and Reuters

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