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As unrest grips Iran’s schools, the government is going after children

A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran on Sept. 21 shows Iranian demonstrators taking to the streets of the capital Tehran during a protest for Mahsa Amini, days after she died in police custody.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Miriam Berger, Sanam Mahoozi and Babak Dehghanpisheh Washington Post

Across Iran, schoolgirls have defiantly taken off their headscarves, stomped on pictures of the supreme leader and chanted for freedom, producing some of the most iconic images from the country’s anti-government uprising. Now, the state is coming for them.

Many families fear sending their children to school, afraid they could be surveilled, beaten, detained or disappeared, rights groups and Iranians told the Washington Post. Iran’s clerical leaders are betting the crackdown on schools will help quell the unrest, now in its seventh week, but risk further radicalizing the public against them.

In interviews with the Post in recent weeks, three students and two parents described the assaults on schools, where teachers are under pressure to quash any sign of dissent and are often powerless to stop security forces from targeting the minors in their care. School attendance lists, report cards and security cameras have become tools of repression. Parents are warned to keep their children in check.

The Iranians interviewed for this piece spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing backlash from the government, which has punished people for communicating with foreign journalists. The Post – which does not have accreditation to report inside Iran – could not independently verify their accounts, but they echo reports by human rights groups, as well as other international and local media.

“We are all in shock and sadness and don’t have the energy to do anything,” a 12-year-old boy in Tehran told the Post after plainclothes police raided his school this month to arrest a fellow student. He said he joined his classmates and teachers in physically intervening to stop the abduction.

Authorities refuse to say how many children they’ve arrested, but a deputy with the Revolutionary Guard Corps said Oct. 5 that the average age for “rioters” arrested was just 15. Iranian Education Minister Yousef Nouri said Oct. 11 that an undisclosed number of kids were being held in “psychology centers” for reform and re-education, which rights groups say are notoriously abusive. Activists and lawyers told the Post at least 700 teenagers have been detained.

“We don’t know where they are taking these children or what is happening to them (in detention),” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights. “In some cases, these children are beaten and taken away by plainclothes (police).”

In Bukan, a Kurdish city in the northwest, there have been repeated reports of armed security forces entering schools and demanding security footage. In the capital Tehran, parents gathered outside a school amid reports of a raid by plainclothes police.

Iran’s longest-running demonstrations in decades were sparked in mid-September by the death of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of the hated “morality police.” Women and girls have since taken a leading role in the protests.

“Since the high schools and girls become involved in protests in Iran, the government became so sensitive about this situation,” said Hossein Raeesi, a human rights professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “They tried to first of all be silent about that and then tried to use oppression against them to push it down.”

While patterns of abuse are emerging, the pressure on families to remain silent and restrictions on internet and cellular access have made documenting and verifying cases a challenge.

Fifteen-year-old Esra Panahi from the northwestern city of Ardabil appears to have been the first minor reportedly killed by security forces while in school, according to Shiva Amelirad, a Canada-based international spokesperson for the Coordinating Council of Teachers Syndicates, Iran’s independent teachers union.

Esra was beaten to death by plainclothes police Oct. 12 after she and other classmates shouted “death to the dictator” and “woman, life, freedom” at a pro-government rally they were ordered to attend that morning, Amelirad said. Other girls were injured and detained.

The Post could not independently verify the syndicate’s account.

But as the story began to circulate, Esra’s brother told Iranian state TV that his sister died of a heart issue. An uncle claimed it was suicide. Authorities frequently pressure family members of the dead and detained to issue false statements, according to rights groups.

Days after Esra’s death, her brother attempted suicide and was hospitalized, according to Amelirad. The Post could not determine his current condition.

Minors have been killed at alarming rates, especially in Iran’s minority Kurdish and Baluch regions. Human Rights Activists in Iran, a Washington-based group, said Monday it had verified the deaths of 121 people – 46 were under the age of 18.

More deaths are likely to have gone undocumented, with families fearful of bringing their children to hospitals and intimidated into silence. Others have been forced to sign falsified death certificates to retrieve their children’s bodies, Amiry-Moghaddam said.

Raeesi, who worked for 20 years as a human rights lawyer in Iran, said the Intelligence Ministry and the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard are overseeing detained minors beyond the scope of the law. “They’re keeping them outside of the standards of children’s rights in detention,” he said.

Juvenile correction centers are more akin to “brainwashing” sites, Raeesi said, where children are forced to sign incriminating statements and pledge allegiance to the state. “They put them under pressure and there is psychological torture,” he said.

Amelirad said she spoke directly to a 15-year-old and 17-year-old arrested in different incidents outside the same school in western Iran. Both took off their hijabs when classes ended. The children were held for days in a crowded cell, interrogated and beaten before being released with fines, she said.

“They asked them if someone from a Western country tried to push them to protest,” she said. “They told them that their life is over.”

The Coordinating Council of Teachers Syndicates has been actively organizing school strikes and publicizing reports of attacks on kids and teachers – some have been violent, others more subtle.

A 17-year-old in Mashhad, in northeast Iran, told The Post her school had permitted long nails, fringes and dyed hair in recent years. But after protests began, she said, a new headmistress came and imposed a strict dress code, punished girls for loose headscarves and forced students to pray.

A conservatively dressed woman with prayer beads began roaming the school taking videos of students who shouted protest chants, the 17-year-old said. The school started organizing day trips and other events to distract students, who were told their grades would suffer if they did not attend.

The teenager said she occasionally joined in chanting slogans but was too afraid to be more vocal.

“They smile to your face and say nothing when you protest, but then they take videos and betray you behind your back,” she said of the school principal and teachers.

A 14-year-old girl from Tehran said she and her classmates only talk about the protests in private. They worry teachers have enlisted other students to spy on them. In mid-October, she said, police came to check if students had ripped out photos of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, from their textbooks – as other young girls had done in a viral video.

Amid calls for school boycotts, she said, administrators warned that students absent for longer than a week would lose marks.

The 12-year-old boy in Tehran said after the school rallied to prevent the police from arresting his classmate, officers vowed to return later to take the child.

The school principal sneaked the student out and sent him home in a taxi. Teachers gathered at the main door to block police from reentering, the 12-year-old said.

His mother, a 45-year-old painter, said she was terrified about her son’s mental health and future. Administrators told parents they will protect students inside the school – but could do nothing once they leave the grounds.

“The regime has lost massive credibility” for targeting schoolchildren, said Manijeh Moradian, an assistant professor at Barnard College. “It becomes harder and harder to defend a government that assaults its own students.”