DUBAI (Reuters) – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that Iran’s Basij militias sacrificed their lives in what he called riots, the wave of protests sparked by the death in custody of a young Iranian-Kurdish woman in September.
The protests that began after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in custody of Iran’s morality police on Sept. 16 have become one of the boldest challenges facing church leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
To question the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, protesters from all walks of life have burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the demise of the Islamic Republic.
Basij forces, allied to the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards, have been at the forefront of the state’s crackdown on the unrest in recent weeks.
“They sacrificed their lives to protect people from rioters…the presence of Basij shows that the Islamic revolution is alive,” Khamenei said in a televised speech.
Iran’s clerical establishment has blamed the country’s foreign enemies, particularly the United States, and its agents for the unrest.
On Saturday, videos posted on social media showed renewed protests at several universities in the capital Tehran and the central city of Isfahan. Reuters was unable to verify the images.
Meanwhile, a group of 140 Iranian ophthalmologists issued a statement warning that birdshot and paintball bullets used by security forces blinded many protesters in one or both eyes, according to the reformist news website Sobhema and social media posts.
Amnesty International has said Iran’s security forces used unlawful force, including live ammunition and birdshot, that killed dozens of people. Iranian authorities have blamed some of the shootings on unidentified dissidents.
The activist news agency HRANA said 448 protesters were killed on Friday, including 63 children. It said 57 members of the security forces have also been killed and an estimated 18,170 people arrested.
Authorities have not released a death toll for protesters, but a senior official said on Thursday 50 police officers were killed in the unrest.
Iran’s harsh judiciary has sentenced at least six protesters to death, officials say, and thousands have been charged for their role in the unrest.
After many Iranian fans took to social media to accuse the national football team of siding with the state’s violent crackdown on the unrest, Khamenei applauded the side for their victory in their World Cup match against Wales on Friday.
“Yesterday, Team Melli (the national team) made our people happy. May God make them happy,” said Khamenei.
The football team sang along with the national anthem of the Islamic Republic before Friday’s game, unlike their first game against England in the opening game earlier this week, when they chose not to sing, in clear support for protesters at home.
Akram Khodabandehlou, captain of Iran’s national women’s taekwondo team, said in an Instagram post on Saturday that she would be leaving the team after 12 years on the team. She said she did this out of “respect for the sad hearts of my people in these difficult days”.
(Written by Parisa HafeziAdditional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Louise Heavens and Frances Kerry)