Iranian police and vigilantes crack down on student protests

Attack with batons and tear gas injures dozens of people

July 13, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TEHRAN, Iran -- The most widespread and sustained protests since Iran's revolution two decades ago spread throughout the country yesterday, while security police and their vigilante supporters moved to crush pro-democracy student demonstrators outside Tehran University.

Students demonstrated in 18 cities and towns, including major cosmopolitan cities like Tabriz, Shiraz and Isfahan and more traditional cities like Mashad and Yazd, Iran's official news agency reported.

Wielding batons and lobbing tear gas canisters, the security forces emptied Tehran University yesterday evening in a campaign to crush the demonstrations. In Tehran, students who had gathered inside the gates of the sprawling university complex in the heart of the capital fainted from tear gas that could be smelled more than a mile away.

"Filthy swine! Filthy swine!" one red-faced student screamed over and over from inside the cramped quarters of one of the caged-in vehicles. "Jerk!" yelled another. Others yelled obscenities that are seldom heard in public in Iran.

One woman, wrapped in the all-encompassing black chador, cursed the clergy with obscenities. A number of people were injured and received assistance from health personnel in a blood transfusion truck and passers-by.

Dozens of injured students were taken to the campus mosque for treatment, and a parade of ambulances streamed in and out of the campus as a voice on a loudspeaker called all medical students to help.

The demonstrations -- and the crackdown -- reflect a deep struggle over the course of Iran's revolution. Students are impatient with the slow pace of reforms promised by President Mohammad Khatami. The students are not calling for a change in the Islamic system of government, rather for a quickening of the movement toward democracy and the rule of law.

On the other side are the die-hard Islamic revolutionaries, some of them in positions of power, some of them veterans of Iran's long war with Iraq, who take their lead from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and believe that the country's moves toward democracy are a betrayal of revolutionary purism.

Khatami does not control the police and security forces, who have enraged and frightened many Iranians by a campaign of intimidation that included the murders of prominent intellectuals as well as political attacks on Khatami's allies in the government.

The five days of rage were sparked by the passage by Iran's parliament of a tough new press law and by the closure of Salam, a popular left-leaning Islamic newspaper.

Security forces and vigilantes stormed a dormitory at Tehran University on Thursday night and beat students as they slept, pushing some from second- and third-story windows. Although the official death toll stood at two, Iran's newspapers, quoting students, claimed that from five to eight students had died.

As striking as the extent of the protests throughout the country, is the form they are taking. Until now, criticisms of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is in charge of the armed forces, the security and intelligence apparatus, and radio and television, were made privately. Now the criticism of Khamenei, who lacks the religious credentials of his predecessor and has resisted any embrace of reform, has burst into the open.

In an effort to calm the highly charged atmosphere, Khamenei delivered yesterday an emotional speech condemning the attack by security forces on a dormitory last week after the first protests. Men and women in the crowd moaned and wept loudly.

Khamenei also blamed "enemies," including the United States, for the attack on the dormitory. Over and over, the crowd chanted "Death to America."

But at the university, there was no crying for the ayatollah. When a speaker tried to read the text of Khamenei's speech, the crowd booed. "Commander-in-chief resign!" and "Down with the dictator," they chanted.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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