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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Mahsa Amini died in Iran police custody 1 year ago. What’s changed since then — and what hasn’t?

Tehran— On September 16, 2022, a young woman died in the custody of Iran‘s Morality Police. Mahsa Amini was 22. Iranian officials said she died of a heart attack, but her family told CBS News she was fatally beaten by the police after being arrested for wearing her mandatory hijab head covering incorrectly.

Amini’s death sent shockwaves across the country, triggering an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests. The demonstrations spread quickly, largely driven by young women demanding basic rights. They made the refrain “Women, Life, Freedom” echo around the world.

Women burned their hijabs in the streets, despite a brutal response by Iran’s security forces. The chants evolved, calling not only for women’s rights but for the country’s elderly male Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to be ousted.

Weekly rallies soon popped up across the globe, with Iranians and others abroad echoing the cries of the protesters in Iran.

It was the most serious internal challenge ever to the authority of the male Muslim clerics who’ve ruled Iran for almost five decades.

What’s it like for women in Iran now?

A year after Amini’s death, the street protests have all but vanished in the wake of the violent crackdown. But Iran’s government has appeared to grapple with the lingering effects of the uprising.

Many women have continued to shun the Islamic hijab when they’re out on the streets, including Maryam, 29, who works at a Tehran coffee shop.

She told CBS News she used to encounter the morality police frequently while walking her daughter to kindergarten on her way to work and was regularly chastised for not wearing the hijab properly, but was never taken into custody. She said that may have been because she had her young daughter with her.

Amini’s death and the protests that followed gave Maryam more courage, she told CBS News. She said she doesn’t plan to wear the hijab anymore at all, and she knows there could be consequences.

The Iranian government has proposed a “Chasity and Hijab Bill,” believed to be a legislative effort to reinforce the mandatory dress code. The punishment for violations of the hijab rule in the bill are said to vary from fines for first time offenders to lashings and the denial of government services, and even long jail terms, for repeat violators.

The bill has yet to be approved by the county’s powerful Guardian Council.

Security forces have taken measures to prevent flare-ups of dissent over the weekend marking the first year since Amini’s death, including arresting known activists and some journalists.

Sharzad Hemati, a female journalist with the Iranian newspaper Shargh, told CBS News she believes that “people will not back off” after Amini’s death.

The movement Amini’s death sparked “could, up to some extent, achieve at least one of the long-term desired requests, which was the end of the compulsory hijab,” Hemati said.

Even some women who adhere strictly to the hijab rules and say they’ll continue to do so appear to recognize a change in Iranian society, and a need for some degree of free will.

Fatemeh, a medical advisor in the capital, told CBS News there should be regulations, and “women are not supposed to appear naked on the streets, but I am concerned about others, too.”

“They should have the right to choose, of course with consideration for the norms,” she said.

Despite the risks women continue taking, going out in public without their heads covered as the Iranian authorities try to figure out how to deal with the quiet resistance, for many, there is a new sense of fear.

Neli, now 18, had just finished high school and was looking forward to starting college last September. After Amini died, however, Neli became very active in the street protests and in voicing dissent on social media.

She told CBS News she was arrested by Iran’s notorious paramilitary “Basij” forces and held for two weeks. Neli declined to share details about what happened while she was in custody, but said she now battles severe depression. Her parents want her to emigrate to Australia to finish her studies — and to stay out of Iran until the situation in the country changes.

How did the U.S. respond to Iran’s crackdown?

The international community heaped pressure on Iran’s government to use restraint as it countered the protests. But from the very beginning, the authorities in Tehran dismissed the outcry. They called the protests a plot to undermine the Islamic Republic by its global foes, casting blame at the U.S., Israel, Britain, the European Union and Saudi Arabia.

As the protests grew, the security forces cracked down more brutally on the demonstrators, shooting them with pellet guns and, in some cases, live ammunition.

Thousands of people were swept up in rounds of mass arrests, with many claiming harsh treatment in custody, including some who said they were tortured and sexually assaulted.

Iranian officials have denied all the allegations, calling them propaganda aimed at damaging the country’s international reputation. The supreme leader announced a formal pardon of all those arrested during the protests, though many have since reportedly been rearrested or harassed by authorities.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed theMahsa Amini Human Rights and Security Accountability Act. If approved by the Senate and President Biden, the act will impose further sanctions for human rights abuses on Iranian officials.

Washington and other major Western capitals remain highly critical of Iran, and the U.S. and U.K. announced further sanctions Friday targeting officials in Tehran.

In a statement, President Biden said he and first lady Jill Biden “join people around the world in remembering her [Amini] — and every brave Iranian citizen who has been killed, wounded or imprisoned by the Iranian regime for peacefully demanding democracy and their basic human dignity.”

Mr. Biden said Washington had “responded to the calls of the Iranian people and organized an unprecedented diplomatic campaign” to pressure Tehran.

He said a growing number of human rights activists had been relocated to the U.S. and touted steps by the U.S. to ensure that Iranians were able to access the internet during the protests.

“We have also sanctioned over 70 Iranian individuals and entities responsible for supporting the regime’s oppression of its people,” Mr. Biden said. “And today, we are announcing additional sanctions targeting some of Iran’s most egregious human rights abusers.”

The U.S. Treasury said the new sanctions, imposed in conjunction with the U.K., Canada, Australia and other partners, targeted “18 key members of the regime’s security forces,” along with the head of Iran’s prisons, three media outlets controlled by the regime, Fars News, Tasnim News and Press TV, “and three senior officials.”

But despite the still-mounting sanctions, diplomacy has also quietly ramped up in recent months, and there’s been notable progress.

What are Iran’s relations with the world now?

In the wake of Amini’s death and under more pressure than ever from the international community, Iran’s rulers have shown more flexibility recently in their foreign policy — likely in the hope of having U.S. sanctions lifted to ease both the huge economic burden on Iran’s economy and the extent of its isolation on the world stage.

There’s been notable diplomatic progress with some arch rivals, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and even the U.S.

The most tangible advance to date was a diplomatic agreement, negotiated by China, with longtime regional foe Saudi Arabia. And another major breakthrough appears to be looming.

As CBS News reported in August, Mr. Biden has signed off on a politically charged agreement with Iran to bring home five American citizens held in the Islamic Republic in exchange for the regime gaining access in the coming weeks to billions of dollars in funds held outside the heavily sanctioned country.

The family of one of those U.S. nationals, Emad Shargi, who’s been detained in Iran for more than five years, told CBS News they were holding their breath after his recent transfer from prison to house arrest as the highly sensitive negotiations continued.

Gaining access to the roughly $6 billion in Iranian state funds that have been blocked by the U.S. in foreign accounts for years would be a massive achievement for the Iranian government, and many Iranians would embrace it.

Mohammad Mehdi Rahmanian, editor in chief of the Shargh newspaper, noting the agreement with Saudi Arabia, told CBS News that Iran’s government was moving in the right direction.

“We welcome it, and hope it continues,” he told CBS News. “The same way we also hope that we have dialogue with others in the world, as this is the only way for the development of our country.”

“It is always better to solve problems by negotiation rather than fights,” he said.

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