Iran’s Supreme Leader has praised the country’s Basij paramilitary force for its role in the deadly crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
Meeting with Basij personnel in Tehran on Saturday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the popular protest movement as “rioters” and “thugs” backed by foreign troops, and praised “innocent” Basij fighters for protecting the nation.
The Basij is a wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that has taken to the streets as protests have intensified since September.
The protest movement was initially sparked by the death of 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police.
Amnesty International says the Basij have been ordered to “ruthlessly confront” protesters.
“When they faced the enemy on the battlefield, the Basij always showed courage, not afraid of the enemy,” the Supreme Leader said on Saturday.
“You saw in the most recent events that our innocent and oppressed Basijis became targets of oppression so that they would not allow the nation to be targeted by rioters and thugs and those on the run. [enemy] payroll, knowingly or unknowingly. They gave themselves to free others,” Khamenei said.
Khamenei’s words come a day after Volker Turk, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that Iran is in a “full-fledged human rights crisis” due to the crackdown on anti-regime dissidents.
At a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday, Turk called for “independent, impartial and transparent investigation processes” into human rights violations in Iran.
He told the Council of 47 Member States in Geneva that security forces reportedly responded to protests by using deadly force against unarmed demonstrators and bystanders who “posed no threat”.
More than 14,000 people, including children, have been arrested in connection with the protests, Turk said. He said at least 21 of them are currently facing the death penalty and six have already received the death penalty.
Those arrested include two well-known Iranian actors, Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi, who have been detained on several occasions for publicly supporting nationwide protests, according to the semi-official Tasnim News Agency.
The Islamic Republic has been gripped by a wave of anti-government protests sparked by Amini’s death, allegedly because she was not wearing her hijab properly.
Authorities have since unleashed a deadly crackdown on protesters, using reports of forced detentions and physical abuse to attack the country’s minority Kurdish group. In a recent CNN investigation, secret testimony revealed sexual assaults against protesters, including boys, in Iran’s detention centers since the unrest began.
The unprecedented national uprising has gripped more than 150 cities and 140 universities in all of Iran’s 31 provinces, according to Turk.
Iran’s security forces’ violent response to demonstrators has shaken diplomatic ties between Tehran and Western leaders.
The White House imposed its latest round of sanctions on three officials in Iran’s Kurdish region on Wednesday after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “deeply concerned that Iranian authorities reportedly escalated violence against protesters.”
During an interview with Indian broadcaster NDTV on Thursday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani said foreign powers were meddling in Iranian internal affairs and creating “misleading narratives”.