DUBAI (Reuters) – Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday Iran’s Basij militias sacrificed their lives in so-called riots, the wave of protests sparked by the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman in custody in September.
The protests, which began after the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran’s morality police custody, have grown into one of the boldest challenges to spiritual leadership since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Citing the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, protesters from all walks of life have burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the Islamic Republic’s downfall.
The Basij troops, attached 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 address.
Iran’s clerical establishment has blamed the country’s foreign enemies, particularly the United States, and its agents for the unrest.
Videos released on social media on Saturday showed renewed protests at several universities in the capital Tehran and downtown Isfahan. Reuters could not verify the footage.
Meanwhile, a group of 140 Iranian ophthalmologists issued a statement warning that birdshot and paintball missiles used by security forces blinded many protesters in one or both eyes, according to reformist news website Sobhema and social posts Media.
Amnesty International said Iranian security forces used unlawful force, including live ammunition and bird shots, killing dozens of people. Iranian authorities have blamed some shootings on unidentified dissidents.
Activist news agency HRANA said as of Friday, 448 protesters had been killed, including 63 children. It said 57 members of the security forces were also killed and an estimated 18,170 people arrested.
Authorities have not provided a death toll for protesters, but a senior official said Thursday 50 police officers were killed in the riots.
Iran’s harsh judiciary has sentenced at least six protesters to death, officials said, and thousands have been charged with their role in the unrest.
After many Iranian fans took to social media to accuse the national football team of siding with the government’s violent crackdown on the unrest, Khamenei applauded the team for their victory in Friday’s World Cup match against Wales.
“Yesterday Team Melli (the national team) made our people happy. May God make them happy,” Khamenei said.
The soccer team sang along with the Islamic Republic’s national anthem ahead of Friday’s game, unlike in their first game against England in the opening game earlier this week, when they chose not to sing, apparently in support of protesters at home.
Akram Khodabandehlou, captain of the Iran women’s taekwondo team, said in an Instagram post on Saturday that she is leaving the team after 12 years with the team. She said she was doing so out of “respect for the sad hearts of my people in these difficult days.”
(Writing by Parisa HafeziAdditional reporting by Dubai Newsroom;Editing by Louise Heavens and Frances Kerry)