Iranian official signals suspension of morality police amid protests

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Iran’s so-called morality police unit, whose actions sparked months of protests, has been suspended, a top Iranian official said Sunday — although the status of the force remains uncertain.

The protest movement took off in September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s Guidance Patrol, or morality police, who detained her over an alleged violation of the country’s conservative dress code for women. Family members and activists say she was beaten to death and accused the government of a coverup. Authorities deny it.

More than 400 people have been killed, and more than 15,000 arrested, in the crackdown on demonstrations that have cascaded into broad calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical leaders, according to rights groups. Given heavy censorship and limitations on reporting, the full extent of casualties is difficult to assess.

The disbandment of the force responsible for enforcing the mandatory hijab, even if nominal, would indicate a level of reaction to the demands of the demonstrators not yet seen. But experts warned that the remarks by Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, made in response to questions at a news conference, should be taken with a dose of skepticism.

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“The morality police has nothing to do with the judiciary, and it was abolished by those who created it,” Montazeri said Saturday during a conspiracy-theory-laden speech blaming the anti-government unrest on Western countries, Iranian state-backed media outlets reported. “But of course the judiciary will continue to watch over behavioral actions in the society.”

He appeared to be referring to the relative absence of the morality police on the streets since protests against Iran’s clerical leaders broke out. An app Iranians initially used to track the roaming patrols has in recent weeks been used to monitor and evade security forces instead.

But Montazeri’s remarks, while affirming that the morality police were not under the judiciary’s purview, were not an official confirmation of disbandment, which would require higher-level approval.

Montazeri’s “statement should not be read as final,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London think tank. No formal announcement has been made by top law enforcement officials or clerical leaders. “The Islamic Republic often times test runs ideas by tossing them out for discussion,” she said.

Iranian state broadcaster al-Alam reported Sunday that Iranian officials had not confirmed the move and accused foreign media outlets of misrepresenting the attorney general’s comments as a “retreat” in the face of protests.

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Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has roundly rejected growing calls to abolish mandatory headscarves for women, established shortly after the 1979 revolution. In defining scenes from the ongoing uprising, women have publicly cast off and burned their hijab.

With or without morality police on patrol, said Vakil, Iran’s mandatory dress code remains in place and the state “has many other ways to suppress people” and enforce its rules. “We don’t know yet if disbanding means they won’t be there anymore or if they are moving out of oversight of the law enforcement to another entity and given other capacity.”

Initial reactions were mixed, abroad and among protest movement sympathizers online: Some mocked the move and others celebrated it as an apparent victory.

“They really think it makes a difference if they shut down the morality police,” one user wrote on Twitter. “Haven’t they realized our target is the whole system?”

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Experts explain what exactly Iran’s morality police do, and why women are risking their lives on the front lines to fight against it. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

“If the regime has now responded in some fashion to those protests, that could be a positive thing, but we have to see how it actually plays out in practice and what the Iranian people think,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Iran’s Guidance Patrol was formally created in the 1990s to root out and punish any violations of the Islamic republic’s strict, although at times arbitrarily enforced, religious rules and dress codes issued by its ruling clerics. The unit’s power and the state’s enforcement of hijab rules have ebbed and flowed over the years, but this summer Iran’s ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, ordered patrols to ramp up.

In response, women started holding small-scale protests, removing their hijab. Amini’s death in September sparked such outrage in part because women across Iran were fed up with decades of authorities infringing on their lives — and the broader gender segregation and state violence bolstering the Islamic republic.

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The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed sanctions on Iran’s morality police over the repression of protesters. In announcing its sanctions, the US Treasury Department said the morality police were “responsible” for Amini’s death.

As wide-ranging intimidation and arrest campaigns continue, Iran’s judiciary has begun prosecuting protesters in what rights groups say are show trials without due process. Dozens of protesters, some minors, face the death penalty.

Kareem Fahim contributed to this report.

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