According to human rights groups, more than 400 people have been killed and more than 15,000 arrested in the crackdown on demonstrations that have turned into widespread calls to overthrow Iran’s cleric leaders. It is difficult to assess the full extent of the casualties given heavy censorship and restrictions on reporting.
Disbanding the troops responsible for enforcing the mandatory hood, even in name, would signal the extent of the response to demonstrators’ demands, which has yet to be seen. But experts warn that remarks made by Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri in response to questions at a news conference should be met with a degree of skepticism.
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“The morality police has nothing to do with the judiciary, it was abolished by those who created it,” Montazeri said Saturday in a conspiracy-theory-laden speech, blaming Western, Iranian state-backed media outlets for the anti-government riots report. “But of course the judiciary will continue to look at the behavior of the community.”
He seemed to be referring to the relative absence of morality police on the streets since the outbreak of protests against Iran’s cleric leaders. The app that Iranians originally used to track roaming patrols has been used in recent weeks to spy on and evade security forces.
But Montazeri’s remarks, while affirming that the ethics police are outside the judiciary’s purview, are not formal confirmation of the dissolution, which would require higher-level approval.
Sanam Wakir, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House, said Montazeri’s “statement should not be considered final”. No official announcement has been made by senior law enforcement officials or civilian leaders. “The Islamic Republic often test-runs ideas by throwing them out for discussion,” she said.
Iran’s state broadcaster al-Alam reported on Sunday that Iranian officials had not confirmed the move and accused foreign media of misrepresenting the justice minister’s remarks as a “retreat” in the face of protests.
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Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rebuffed growing calls to abolish the mandatory female hijab established shortly after the 1979 revolution. In defining the scene of the ongoing uprising, women publicly shed and burned their headscarves.
Iran’s mandatory dress code remains in place with or without morality police patrols, and the state “has many other ways to suppress people” and enforce its rules, Wakir said. “We don’t yet know if the dissolution means they will cease to exist, or if they are moving from oversight of law enforcement to another entity and gaining other capabilities.”
The initial reaction was mixed, both abroad and among sympathizers of the protest movement online: some scoffed at the move, others celebrated it as an apparent victory.
“They really think it would be different if they shut down the morality police,” one user said wrote on twitter“Don’t they realize we’re targeting the whole system?”
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U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on CBS: “If the Iranian regime responds to these protests in some way now, that may be a positive thing, but we have to see how it actually works in practice and Iran. People’s Thoughts,” Sunday News’ “Face the Nation.”
Iran’s Guiding Patrols were formally established in the 1990s to root out and punish any violations of the Islamic Republic’s strict religious rules and dress codes issued by the ruling clergy, though they are sometimes enforced arbitrarily. The unit’s powers and the state’s enforcement of hijab rules have ebbed and flowed over the years, but this summer Iran’s ultra-conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, ordered increased patrols.
In response, women began holding small protests and removing their headscarves. Amini’s death in September sparked such outrage in part because women across Iran have had enough of decades of authorities invading their lives — and broader gender segregation and state violence in support of the Islamic Republic.
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The US, EU and UK have imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police over its crackdown on protesters. In announcing the sanctions, the U.S. Treasury Department said the morality police were “responsible” for Amini’s death.
As a wide-ranging campaign of intimidation and arrests continues, Iran’s judiciary has begun prosecuting protesters in what rights groups say is a show trial without due process. Dozens of protesters, some of them minors, face the death penalty.
Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.