Protesters in Tehran Met With Force Near Iran's Parliament

After a hotly contested election pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, the government declared Ahmadinejad the winner on June 13. Mousavi's supporters took to the streets to protest the results, and were met with harsh security crackdowns.
By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 25, 2009

TEHRAN, June 24 -- Riot police and pro-government militiamen used clubs and tear gas to break up an opposition demonstration in front of the Iranian parliament Wednesday after the nation's supreme leader denounced what he described as pressure tactics aimed at overturning the recent disputed presidential election and warned that "lawlessness" would not be tolerated.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's ultimate political and religious authority, told a group of lawmakers that "neither the system nor the people will submit to bullying" over the election. In televised remarks, he called for the "restoration of order," adding that breaking the law would lead to "dictatorship."

"Everyone should respect the law. Once lawlessness becomes a norm, things will be complicated and the interests of people will be undermined," Khamenei said. "We will not step an inch beyond the law: our law, our country's law, the Islamic Republic's law."

Hours later, large numbers of security personnel, some riding motorcycles, used baton charges, beatings, tear gas and arrests to disperse several thousand people attempting to protest the proclaimed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, witnesses said. The demonstrators were trying to gather in front of the parliament building to show support for opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who says fraud in the June 12 election cheated him of victory.

Security forces -- including regular police from across Tehran, helmeted riot police and members of a force dubbed the Robocops for their full body armor and special equipment -- converged on Baharestan Square, blocked streets and beat people to head off a planned demonstration. They were supported by members of the pro-government Basij militia and plainclothes agents who infiltrated the protesters, witnesses said.

As a helicopter circled overhead, Robocops riding motorcycles fired large handguns into the air while charging up and down Republic Street and other nearby avenues, one witness said. He said it was unclear whether they were firing bullets or blanks. Some of the police officers carried paintball guns, which have been used in recent demonstrations to mark protesters for arrest.

"When people started to gather, [security forces] chased them into alleys and arrested anybody they could," the witness said. In one alley, police caught up with three men and started beating them, then attacked bystanders who tried to intervene, he said.

In one confrontation between protesters and Basij members, a middle-aged woman wearing a light-blue headscarf and a black coat angrily refused orders to leave. "I'm going to stay here and see how many people you kill today," she defiantly told the Basij. A plainclothes agent emerged from the crowd, cursed the woman and took out a pair of handcuffs to arrest her. Other people tried to stop the agent, but Basij members rushed them and beat them with clubs, the witness said.

In an unusual exchange, he said, a child walked up to a regular police colonel and, gesturing toward truckloads of riot police, asked him, "Who are those guys?" The colonel replied with apparent disdain, "They're cows."

Bystanders and protesters alike were caught up in the violence.

Near a corner of Republic Street known for its printing shops, a young engaged couple fled into an alley to escape a charge by club-wielding security forces. "Why are they attacking me?" the woman cried. "I only came here to print my wedding cards!"

The situation appeared to grow more violent as dusk fell, witnesses said.

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