Large Numbers Killed or Imprisoned as Iranian Youth Lead Protests

Sarina Esmailzadeh, a 16-year-old Iranian, once documented on her YouTube channel that she took sunny strolls at the mall in Karaj, an industrial town near Tehran. She has often used Western imagery in her videos, including clips from popular American TV shows, singing to pop music, or wearing the T-shirt of her favorite football team in Germany, Borussia Dortmund.

“We are not like the previous generation who didn’t know what life was like outside Iran 20 years ago,” he said in a YouTube video released shortly after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September. . “We ask ourselves why don’t we have fun like the teenagers in New York and Los Angeles.”

A few days later, on 23 September, Ms. Esmailzadeh became one of dozens of youths killed by Iranian police and beaten to death by security forces during protests, according to Amnesty International. Iranian officials said a neighbor died by suicide by jumping from his roof, she said.

Children under the age of 18 made up 44 of the 300 protesters killed by Iranian authorities since the unrest began, triggered by the death of Ms. Amini in police custody following her arrest for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.

The growing caseload reflects how Iranian youth are at the forefront of the movement that seeks to overthrow the country’s clergy. At least 320 more minors were imprisoned, according to a network of Iranian exiles calling themselves the Volunteer Committee for Monitoring the Condition of Prisoners.

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According to the committee, most of those killed or imprisoned were young girls who were arrested and beaten to death by the police for participating in the headscarf or protests against the headscarf.

The Oslo-based Center for Human Rights in Iran says at least three of these young detainees could face the death penalty.

Asef Bayat, a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the young people “so far have kept the protests going.”

The deaths fueled a growing movement against Iranian rulers. Women across the country, including girls and youth, protested against laws mandating women to wear hijabs, but protests have since expanded to include the fall of the Islamic Republic.

Meanwhile, the government attributed the killings to terrorists, health problems or suicide. “Iranian authorities routinely harassed and intimidated the families of child victims to force them into silence or to accept narratives that exonerate the authorities of responsibility for the death of their loved ones,” Amnesty International said in a report on the child murders. Protests released on Friday.

Another female victim, 17-year-old Nika Shakarami, was killed after she joined the protests, telling her friends she was being followed by the police. It took 10 days for his family to recover his badly injured body from a morgue in Tehran. Relatives say he died as a result of being beaten by the police. Authorities said he fell from the roof.

WSJ’s Shelby Holliday examines the history and symbolism behind three main themes that have emerged from the recent protests in Iran. Combined photo: Noah Friedman

Iran’s clerical regime has less influence on many young Iranians than their parents or grandparents. A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that, along with young Tunisians, young Iranians are by far less likely than older generations to attend weekly prayers than in any other predominantly Muslim country.

Bayat said that especially young girls are part of “the new generation that the school system of the Islamic Republic has not been able to shape”. Bayat’s views are shaped by social media and “mothers who also suffer from the regime’s structural misogyny and support girls’ protests”.

Students who understand social media have become a vital component of the movement. In the footage they released, it is seen that female students tore pictures of Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, from their school books. In one video, a group of schoolgirls force a school principal to leave.

As a result, the government took the rare step of sending riot police to high schools to quell the sometimes fatal unrest.

In mid-October, security forces raided a girls’ school in Ardabil, northern Iran, after a mandatory ceremony to celebrate Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei turned into an anti-regime protest.


What effect will the protests in Iran have on the conservative regime? Join the chat below.

According to the Iran Teachers’ Unions Coordinating Council, a teachers’ union, among the crowd was 16-year-old swimming champion Asra Panahi, who was beaten to death by police. State television later broadcast an interview in which he said his uncle died of heart failure. A local MP said he died by suicide by swallowing pills.

The Iran-based Prisoners’ Status Monitor said a high school student was arrested for tearing up a photo of the Supreme Leader and was summoned to court on charges of “insulting the leadership”.

Because of the lack of juvenile detention capacity, children often mix with adults in overcrowded cells, says Azin Mohajerin, human rights officer for the US-based, Iran-based human rights group Miaan. Others were expelled from school or denied education as punishment for participating in the protests.

Some also face possible execution by the regime. At least three young men were among a group of 15 that the government accused of killing a member of the Basij paramilitary force during protests in Karaj, near Tehran, on 3 November. According to Iran’s judicial news agency Mizan, a court in that city charged the suspects with “corruption on earth” on November 30, a charge routinely used by the regime to punish its opponents with the death penalty.

In court, the children said they had gathered to commemorate the death of a young female protester who was killed last month. While one confessed to stabbing the victim, the other to throwing stones at the security forces, the third did not take any responsibility.

The executions of minors participating in the demonstrations were not reported. At least one protester was executed on 8 December and another on 12 December.

“The Iranian government is not only shooting children in the streets, but also sending them to the gallows,” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said in a press release on Nov. 30.

Other children died in the line of fire as authorities acted to violently suppress the protests. Kian Pirfalak, 9, was killed in late November in the Arab-dominated town of Izeh, near Iran’s southwestern Iraqi border. His mother said at her funeral that she was killed by bullets fired by security forces as her family passed near a protest. Authorities described him as a “martyr”, saying he was killed by terrorists.

Protesters are using the deaths of young people as further evidence that the current government should be overthrown.

During this week’s demonstrations, protesters chanted “We don’t want this child murderer regime” at the Tehran metro station.

Write to Benoit Faucon at

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