Iranian official signals suspension of morality police amid protests – Reuters

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

The protest movement took off in September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s Orientation Patrol, or vice police, who detained her for alleged violation of the country’s conservative dress code for women. women. Family members and activists say she was beaten to death and have accused the government of a cover-up. The authorities deny it.

More than 400 people have been killed and more than 15,000 arrested in the crackdown on protests that have turned into calls to overthrow Iran’s religious leaders, rights groups say. Given heavy censorship and reporting limitations, the true scale of casualties is difficult to assess.

The dismantling of the force responsible for enforcing even nominal compulsory hijab would indicate a level of reaction to protesters’ demands never seen before. But experts have warned Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri’s remarks, made in response to questions at a press conference, should be taken with a dose of skepticism.

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“The morality police have nothing to do with the justice system, and they were abolished by those who created it,” Montazeri said on Saturday during a speech laden with conspiracy theories blaming Western countries for the unrest. anti-government, Iran’s state-backed media reported. reported. “But of course the judiciary will continue to monitor behavioral actions in society.”

He appeared to refer to the relative absence of vice police on the streets since protests against Iranian religious leaders erupted. An app initially used by the Iranians to track roving patrols has been used in recent weeks to monitor and evade security forces.

But Montazeri’s remarks, while asserting that morality enforcement was not within the purview of the judiciary, were not official confirmation of a dismantling, which would require approval at the highest level.

Montazeri’s “statement should not be read as definitive,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London think tank. No official announcements were made by senior law enforcement officials or religious leaders. “The Islamic Republic often tests ideas by throwing them out for discussion,” she said.

Iranian state broadcaster al-Alam reported on Sunday that Iranian officials had not confirmed the move and accused foreign media of twisting the attorney general’s comments as a “retreat” in the face of protests.

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has flatly rejected growing calls for the abolition of the compulsory headscarf for women, introduced shortly after the 1979 revolution. In setting the scenes of the ongoing uprising, women publicly rejected and burned their hijab.

With or without the morality police on patrol, Vakil said, Iran’s mandatory dress code remains in place and the state “has many other ways to suppress people” and enforce its rules. “We don’t know yet if the disbandment means they won’t be around anymore or if they leave law enforcement oversight for another entity and have other capabilities.”

Initial reactions were mixed, both abroad and among supporters of the online protest movement: some mocked the movement and others celebrated it as an apparent victory.

“They really think it makes a difference if they shut down the vice squad,” one user said. wrote on Twitter. “Haven’t they realized that our target is the whole system? »

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Experts explain what exactly Iran’s morality police do and why women are risking their lives on the front lines to fight them. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“If the regime has now responded in some way to these protests, that could be a positive thing, but we have to see how it actually happens in practice and what the Iranian people think about it,” he said. said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on CBS. “Face the Nation” from News Sunday.

Iran’s Orientation Patrol was officially established in the 1990s to eradicate and punish any violation of religious rules and strict, though sometimes arbitrarily enforced, dress codes issued by its ruling clerics. The unit’s power and state enforcement of hijab rules have fluctuated over the years, but this summer Iran’s ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi ordered increased patrols.

In response, women began to stage small-scale protests, removing their hijab. Amini’s death in September sparked such outrage in part because women across Iran were fed up with decades of authorities encroaching on their lives – and wider gender segregation and state violence. that strengthen the Islamic Republic.

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The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed sanctions on Iranian vice police for the crackdown on protesters. In announcing its sanctions, the US Treasury Department said the vice squad was “responsible” for Amini’s death.

As the sweeping intimidation and arrest campaigns continue, Iran’s justice system has begun prosecuting protesters in what rights groups say are show trials without due process. Dozens of protesters, including some minors, face the death penalty.

Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.

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