DUBAI: Four people were killed in Iran’s Kurdish region on Monday (Sep 19) when security forces opened fire during protests over the death of a woman in police custody, a Kurdish rights group said, on a third day of turmoil over an event that has ignited nationwide anger.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old from Iran’s Kurdistan province, fell into a coma and died following her arrest in Tehran last week by the morality police, sparking demonstrations in numerous areas including the capital.
Two of the people were killed as security forces opened fire on protesters in the Kurdish city of Saqez, Amini’s hometown, the Hengaw Human Rights Organisation said on Twitter.
It said two more were killed in the town of Divandarreh “by direct fire” from security forces.
There was no official confirmation of the deaths.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
State TV said a number of protesters had been arrested but rejected “some claims of deaths on social media” by showing two injured youths who denied reports they had been killed. Their names were different to those in Hengaw’s report.
In the nationwide condemnations of Amini’s death, the Persian hashtag #MahsaAmini reached nearly 2 million Twitter mentions.
The police have said Amini fell ill as she waited with other women being held by the morality police, who enforce strict rules in the Islamic republic requiring women to cover their hair and wear loose fitting clothes in public.
But her father has repeatedly said his daughter had no health problems, adding that she had suffered bruises to her legs. He held the police responsible for her death.
The protests have been most intense in the Kurdish region, where the authorities have previously put down unrest by the Kurdish minority.
Hengaw said 15 people were injured in Divandarreh.
A video posted on Twitter earlier by Hengaw showed protesters throwing rocks while a man could be heard saying “there is a war in Divandarreh” and accusing the police of attacking.
Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video.
Internet blockage observatory NetBlocks reported “near-total disruption to internet connectivity in Sanandaj” – the provincial capital of the Kurdish region – on Monday, linking it to the protests, according to its Twitter account.
In Washington, the White House demanded accountability for Amini’s death.
“Mahsa Amini’s death after injuries sustained while in police custody for wearing an ‘improper’ hijab is an appalling and egregious affront to human rights,” a White House spokesperson said.
Tehran Police commander Hossein Rahimi said “cowardly accusations” had been made against police, that Amini suffered no physical harm, and the police had “done everything” to keep her alive.
“This incident was unfortunate for us and we wish to never witness such incidents,” Rahimi said.
A police video showed a woman identified as Amini walking into a room and sitting down alongside others, before fast-forwarding to show her on her feet talking to someone who was inspecting part of her clothing.
The woman then raised her hands to her head and collapsed.
Offenders against Iran’s sharia, or Islamic law, face public rebuke, fines or arrest. But activists have recently urged women to remove veils despite the hardline rulers’ crackdown on “immoral behaviour”.
Masoud Barzani, former president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, sent condolences to Amini’s family on Sunday, a statement said.
In Tehran, a widely-followed Iranian protest Twitter account posted footage showing what it said was a protest at a university against the paramilitary Basij, a militia.
Other videos showed police using a water cannon to disperse protesters in Tehran, and demonstrations spreading to cities such as Rasht, Mashhad and Isfahan.
Reuters could not independently verify the videos.
Vali Nasr of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said the protests reflected pent up frustrations over matters including “the ethnic issue, the hijab issue, as well as … unhappiness with the way in which authorities react and brutally handle the population”.
An official organisation that promotes Islamic morals urged reform to the way Iran implements rules on hijab wearing, calling for less policing and more encouragement for women to abide by the rules.