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First deaths reported from wave of massive protests in Iran

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran

The largest protests to strike Iran in nearly a decade continued unabated Sunday, despite a government move to block access to Instagram and a popular messaging app used by activists to organize, with even President Hassan Rouhani acknowledging the public’s anger over the Islamic Republic’s flagging economy.

Rouhani and other leaders made a point to warn that the government wouldn’t hesitate to crack down on those it considers lawbreakers amid the demonstrations, which began Thursday over the economic woes plaguing Iran.

“Those who misused cyberspace and spread violence are absolutely known to us and we will definitely confront them,” Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said on state television.

The outpouring of public discontent — the most widespread since protests following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election —have been fanned by messages sent on the Telegram messaging app, which authorities blocked Sunday along with the photo-sharing app Instagram, which is owned by tech giant Facebook.

Many in Iran are learning about the protests and sharing images of them through Telegram, a mobile-phone messaging app popular among the country’s 80 million people. On Saturday, Telegram shut down one channel of the service over Iranian government allegations that it encouraged violence, something its moderator denied.

On Sunday, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter that authorities had blocked all access to the app.

“Iranian authorities are blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down ... peacefully protesting channels,” he wrote.

Iran’s state TV news website, iribnews.ir, said that social media in Iran was being temporarily limited as a safety measure.

“With a decision by the Supreme National Security Council, activities of Telegram and Instagram are temporarily limited,” the report said, without elaborating.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, declined to comment.

Facebook itself has been banned in Iran since the 2009 protests that followed the re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, some in Iran access it and other banned websites using virtual private networks.

Meanwhile, authorities acknowledged the first fatalities in the protests, during clashes late Saturday in Doroud, some 325 kilometers (200 miles) southwest of Tehran in Lorestan province, where protesters had gathered for an unauthorized rally, said Habibollah Khojastepour, the security deputy of Lorestan’s governor.

“The gathering was to be ended peacefully, but due to the presence of the (agitators), unfortunately, this happened,” Khojastepour said.

He did not offer a cause of death for the two protesters, but said “no bullets were shot from police and security forces at the people.”

However, the reformist Etemad newspaper quoted Hamid Reza Kazemi, a Lorestan lawmaker, as saying police did open fire during the clashes.

“If someone comes to the street and acts like a norm breaker, what would you do?” the newspaper quoted Kazemi as saying.

Videos circulating on social media late Saturday also appeared to show fallen protesters in Doroud as gunshots sounded in the background. The Associated Press could not immediately verify the footage.

Thousands have taken to the streets of cities across Iran, beginning on Thursday in Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims.

The protests in the Iranian capital, as well as President Donald Trump tweeting about them, raised the stakes. It also apparently forced state television to break its silence about the unrest, acknowledging Saturday that it hadn’t reported on the protests on orders from security officials.

Trump, whose travel bans have blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas, again tweeted about the protests Sunday.