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.
In Twitter feeds, people who said they witnessed the crackdown described protesters with broken limbs and cracked heads, saying there was "blood everywhere" from the beatings. One said many people had been arrested. Another said people were being beaten "like animals."
Speaking on state television, Khamenei said he insisted on "implementation of the law." He vowed that Iran would not give in to pressure "at any price." He also appealed to lawmakers to temper criticism of Ahmadinejad, saying that the Majlis, or parliament, "should help the government in such a rough journey and must not be too hard on the administration."
On one of Mousavi's Web sites, the opposition leader's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a former university dean who played an active role in her husband's presidential campaign, said that people have a constitutional right to protest and that the government should not treat them "as if martial law has been imposed in the streets." Saying it was her duty "to continue legal protests to preserve Iranian rights," she called for the immediate release of people detained since the election, including the editor and more than two dozen employees of her husband's banned newspaper.
Rahnavard later denied reports that she and her husband had been arrested. Mousavi has not been heard from in recent days, fueling rumors that he had been placed under house arrest.
"I am still active in my academic pursuits and . . . I continue to object to recent events," Rahnavard wrote. "The system should respect people's right to protest and refrain from violent clampdowns." She said she wished she could have been "executed" if it meant that no one else would be hurt.
Amid the turmoil, the outlines of a political coalition against Ahmadinejad appeared to be taking shape. The influential head of Iran's parliament, former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, joined other political figures in refusing to attend a dinner organized by Ahmadinejad, the opposition newspaper Etemaad-e Melli reported. Larijani has criticized the government's vilification of Mousavi and is encouraging state television to give him airtime to explain his views.
Another influential politician, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, also spoke out against official denunciations of opposition supporters as "anti-revolutionaries," a loaded term in Iran used for enemies of the state. Iranians who took to the streets June 15 "were part of the people, part of the voters, and they had doubts on the election," the Mehr News Agency quoted Ghalibaf as saying. "All of their slogans were in support of the system and the revolution, even though wrongful accusations were made about this. Everything must be explained to the people; you can't solve anything with force and violence."
Top government officials, however, continued to take a hard line on the protests. On Wednesday, Iran's interior minister, Sadegh Mahsouli, accused the CIA, Britain, Israel and an Iranian guerrilla group in exile, the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, of helping to fund "rioters." Mahsouli told the semiofficial Fars News Agency, "Britain, America and the Zionist regime were behind the recent unrest in Tehran."
Iran's intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, warned in a statement, "Whoever, under any name or title, collects information in Iran will be arrested, and so far a foreign journalist has been arrested." He did not identify the journalist. A Greek freelance reporter, Iason Athanasiadis, was picked up last week, and a Canadian Iranian filmmaker and journalist, Maziar Bahari, was arrested Sunday morning.
Mohseni-Ejei, a Shiite Muslim cleric, charged that one of those arrested was "disguised as a journalist, and he was collecting information needed by the enemies." He also asserted that "some people with British passports were involved in recent riots."
The governor of greater Tehran, Morteza Tamadon, a staunch Ahmadinejad ally, claimed Wednesday that 800 artists and academics who had visited the United States in recent years were trained to protest the election outcome.
Pro-government media even suggested that Neda Agha Soltan, a young woman whose violent death on a Tehran street on Saturday shocked the world after it was captured on cellphone cameras, was shot from behind by an unspecified terrorist. Bystanders said she was shot in the chest by a Basij sniper.
Branigin reported from Washington. Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.