Iranian official signals suspension of morality police amid protests

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Iran’s so-called morality police unit, whose actions sparked months of protests, has been suspended, a top Iranian official said Sunday – but the status of the force remains uncertain.

The protest movement began in September after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s Guide Patrol, or morality police, who detained her for violating the country’s conservative dress code for women. Family members and activists say she was beaten to death and accuse the government of a cover-up. The authorities deny it.

More than 400 people have been killed and more than 15,000 arrested in a crackdown on the protests, which has led to widespread calls for the ouster of Iran’s clerical leaders, according to rights groups. Given heavy censorship and reporting limitations, it is difficult to estimate the full number of casualties.

The disbanding of the force responsible for enforcing the mandatory hijab, albeit nominal, shows a level of responsiveness to the demands of the demonstrators that has yet to be seen. But experts cautioned that Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri’s statement in response to questions at a news conference should be taken with a dose of skepticism.

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“The moral police has nothing to do with the judiciary, it was abolished by those who created it,” Montessori said during a conspiracy-theory speech on Saturday, blaming anti-government unrest on Western countries and Iranian state-backed media outlets. has been reported. “But of course the court will continue to monitor the conduct of society.”

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He appeared to be referring to the relative absence of moral policing on the streets since protests erupted against Iran’s clerical leaders. An app originally used by Iranians to track roaming patrols has been used in recent weeks to track and evade security forces.

But Montessori’s statements, while confirming that the moral police are not under the purview of the courts, are not an official confirmation of dissolution, which requires a higher level of approval.

Montazeri’s “statement should not be read as final,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London think tank. No formal announcement has been made by top law enforcement officials or clerical leaders. “The Islamic Republic often negotiates ideas by throwing them into the discussion,” she said.

Iranian state broadcaster Al-Alam reported on Sunday that Iranian officials had not confirmed the move and accused foreign media outlets of misrepresenting the attorney general’s remarks as a “backtrack” in the face of protests.

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Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has flatly rejected growing calls to abolish the mandatory headscarf for women, instituted shortly after the 1979 revolution. In defining scenes of the ongoing rebellion, women have publicly discarded and burned their hijabs.

With or without patrolling morality police, Iran’s mandatory dress code remains in place and the state has “many other ways to repress people and enforce its laws,” Vakil said. “We don’t know yet if the disbandment means they’re no longer there or if they’re moving from law enforcement oversight to another agency and given a different capacity.”

Initial reactions were mixed, both abroad and online among protest movement sympathizers: some derided the move, while others celebrated it as an apparent victory.

“They think it will make a difference if they shut down the moral police,” one user said wrote on Twitter. “Don’t they understand that our target is the entire system?”

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Experts explain what exactly Iran’s morality police are doing and why women are risking their lives to fight it. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“If the regime has now responded in some way to those protests, that might be a positive thing, but we have to see how that actually plays out in practice and how the Iranian people think,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CBS. “Face the Nation” on Sunday News.

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Iran’s Guided Patrol was formally created in the 1990s to root out and punish violations of the Islamic Republic’s strict, sometimes arbitrarily enforced, religious laws and dress codes issued by its ruling clerics. The unit’s powers and enforcement of the state’s hijab laws have fluctuated over the years, but this summer Iran’s ultraconservative President Ibrahim Raisi ordered patrols to be stepped up.

In response, women took off their hijabs and started holding small-scale protests. Amini’s death in September sparked such outrage as women across Iran grew weary of decades of authorities infringing on their lives — and the widespread gender segregation and state violence that underpins the Islamic republic.

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The US, EU and UK have imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police for cracking down on protesters. In announcing its sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department said the moral police “must be held accountable” for Amini’s death.

Widespread campaigns of intimidation and arrests continue, and Iranian courts have begun prosecuting protesters in what rights groups say are trials without due process. Dozens of protesters, some minors, face the death penalty.

Karim Fahim contributed to this report.


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