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Iran police break up protest over economic woes

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A handout picture provided by the office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on July 12, 2020, shows him addressing lawmakers during a virtual meeting in the capital Tehran, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by – / KHAMENEI.IR / AFP) /

Iranian police said Friday they forcefully dispersed a protest by a crowd chanting “norm-breaking” slogans in the southwest of the country over economic hardships.

“Following a call, a small number of Behbahan city’s people gathered at 9 pm on Thursday to protest the economic situation,” Behbahan city’s police chief Colonel Mohammad Azizi said, quoted by state news agency IRNA.

The police first tried to talk to the crowd “but not only did they not disperse but started shouting norm-breaking chants”, he said, a term usually used by Iranian authorities to refer to anti-system slogans.

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Security forces broke up the protest with “firmness”, the police chief said, adding that “calm” was restored without casualties or damage to properties.

Azizi did not specify if arrests were made.

Unverified social media posts showed images and videos of dozens of people apparently gathered in a street of the city in Khuzestan province.

Netblocks, a website that monitors shutdowns, said internet access was restricted and disrupted for about three hours in Khuzestan around the time of the protest.

Khuzestan is a key oil-producing region that has often complained of official neglect.

Bordering Iraq, it is one of the few areas in mainly Shiite Iran to have a large ethnic Sunni Arab community.

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The gathering in Behbahan came days after Iran upheld death sentences for three people linked to deadly protests last November sparked by a hike in petrol prices.

On Thursday, a group of UN rights experts called on Iran to overturn the sentences.

“Today we join hundreds of thousands of Iranians on social media who condemned these death sentences,” said the more than a dozen independent UN experts, on issues like arbitrary executions, freedom of assembly and torture.

The demonstrations in November broke out after authorities more than doubled fuel prices overnight, exacerbating economic hardships in the sanctions-hit country.

The protests rocked several cities and turned violent before spreading to at least 100 urban centres across Iran and being put down amid a near-total internet blackout.

Calls have spread online using the hashtag “DontExecute” for a halt to executions in the country.

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Iran’s economy has shrunk significantly since 2018, when President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposed punishing sanctions on the country.

The coronavirus epidemic has exacerbated Iran’s economic woes with a temporary shutdown of the economy and reduced exports, leading to a sharp devaluation of its currency and rising inflation.

More than 180 new COVID deaths –
Iran’s health ministry Friday raised the overall COVID-19 toll to more than 13,790 deaths, with 183 new fatalities, and over 269,400 confirmed cases.

Behbahan police chief Azizi urged Iranians “not to be influenced by the system’s enemies” aiming “to agitate the people in the current sensitive situation”.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced in separate statements that they arrested a number of “agitators” and also broke up a “terrorist group” on Thursday.

Those arrested in Mashhad city were “connected to anti-revolutionary groups” and had made calls for street protests.

In the city of Shiraz, members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK), an exiled group which Tehran considers a “terrorist cult”, were detained preventing a “subversive operation”, the Guards said.

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