Iranians say ‘nothing left' to lose one year after Mahsa Amini protests

Regime 'shaken to its core' but protesters say they will continue to fight against authorities

People take part in a protest at Trafalgar Square after marching through London in the lead-up to the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. Getty Images
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Iran was rocked by its largest ever anti-regime movement after the death in police custody one year ago of a young woman who was arrested after wearing her hijab "inappropriately".

In protests in the capital Tehran and across the country, various sectors of society took to the streets to denounce the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16 last year, and against decades of hardline rule under the country's clerical leadership.

Around the world, thousands more demonstrated in solidarity as Iranians continued to protest in the face of mass arrests and a violent state crackdown.

“These were the biggest protests, it so many different ways,” Firuzeh Mahmoudi, co-founder and executive director of United For Iran, told The National.

“It was the longest-lasting, it was the most widespread, with every section of society [involved]. It was woman-led, which was unique. The youths were involved, the labour unions were involved, minority groups were involved.”

“We haven't seen a government topple, but we've seen them shake to their core. There's no doubt about that. There’s no going back from this.”

Over the past year, people inside Iran and others forced into exile have spoken to The National of enduring constant surveillance and intimidation, house arrest, the loss of loved ones and in some cases even being blinded for their involvement in the protests.

Despite all this, demonstrations have continued weekly in some parts of the country, and people have vowed to take to the streets once again.

“They are saying and doing things under even more oppression than before, that they would never do before because they're, like, 'We're clear: ‘we want out of this, we want this government out,” Ms Mahmoudi said.

In the days leading up to the first anniversary of Ms Amini's death on Saturday, people across Iran have been distributing flyers on the streets, in metro stations and even in hospitals, calling for protests this weekend despite a wave of pre-emptive arrests.

Demonstrations have already begun in the Kurdish-majority west, where Ms Amini was from.

On Wednesday, a Kurdish man was killed in the city of Karaj, near Tehran, reportedly shot dead by security forces while calling on locals to protest.

“I will definitely join,” a protester in Tehran told The National. “I am not scared. We have no escape, we have nothing left to lose. We must overthrow this criminal regime.

“I don’t think anything special will happen on Mahsa’s anniversary, but I am preparing anyway. We're going to work harder, to gather all in one place so we are irrepressible.”

Residents of Iran's Kurdish regions said security forces began arriving in droves three days ago.

“The situation is very bad. There are security forces stationed everywhere, particularly in Saqqez and Sanandaj. They are all across the city,” Azad, who would only give his first name, told The National.

The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights organisation said more than 551 people were killed in the protests. Most of the dead were killed in the west, south-east and near Tehran, according to a map published on Friday.

Footage published by rights groups showed tanks from the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps surrounding the Aichi cemetery in Saqqez where Ms Amini is buried. Authorities have previously tried to move her grave and defaced her tombstone.

In Sanandaj, security forces were filmed threatening residents with “deadly force” if they protest, according to the Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights, which also reported IRGC forces stationed outside the Amini family home in Saqqez.

Thousands defied the threat of death to visit Ms Amini's grave last year to commemorate 40 days since her death as her family members were confined to their home under house arrest.

“When Zhina was martyred, I was full of hatred and wanted to take revenge,” Azad said, using Ms Amini’s Kurdish birth name.

“I was full of hope when the rest of Iran started to protest, as it showed the regime had failed to divide us by religion.”

This time, however, he is unsure if he will protest.

“Unless people go out across Iran, people in the east will only be wounded and arrested. We should not lose our youth so easily.”

Access to the internet has been cut off in many areas, a common tactic used by Tehran during protests to stifle grassroots movements and conceal crackdowns on demonstrators.

NetBlocks, a watchdog that monitors global cyber security and access to the internet, said Iran was the leading country for internet shutdowns in the first half of this year.

“Every conversation around diplomacy should include the people of Iran, how are they being treated, the release of the political prisoners and improving rights but also safe and secure, unfettered access to internet,” said Ms Mahmoudi.

“It's a complete change of dynamic. It's not a coincidence that they shut down the internet in ethnic minority areas right before the bloodshed happens.”

She added the bloody crackdown on the protests brought people together in brave acts of solidarity despite the risk of being arrested, or worse.

“There’s so much heartbreak, but so much love that is interconnected. People were marching to the house of the family whose son was executed. They were under house arrest, so they went to the grave for him,” she said.

After Kian Parfalak, 9, was shot dead during the demonstrations, videos of the boy addressing the “God of the Rainbows” went viral online, “and all over the country, we’re drawing rainbows”.

Young people especially still have the will to fight.

“They have nothing to lose. They see their older kids, siblings and cousins. And it's like, this is not a life, this is only going to get worse.”

Updated: September 18, 2023, 8:36 AM