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Source: NY Times

Jan 15, 2024

Iran Frees Journalists Whose Reports Set Off Nationwide Revolt

Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi filed some of the first reports of the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, which ignited protests against the country’s clerical rulers.

By Vivian Yee and Leily Nikounazar

Iran has released two journalists jailed for their coverage of a young woman whose death sparked a nationwide protest movement that challenged Iran’s system of authoritarian clerical rule, state media reported on Sunday, although prosecutors filed a new complaint against them on Monday.

The journalists, Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, helped break the story of Mahsa Amini, 22, who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police in September 2022 after being arrested on charges of violating Iran’s religiously conservative dress code.

Ms. Hamedi, 31, reported for the Iranian daily newspaper Shargh from the hospital where the young woman lay dying and shared a photo of her grieving relatives that went viral on social media. She was arrested days after Ms. Amini’s death, and Ms. Mohammadi — who had covered her funeral for the newspaper Hammihan — was arrested a week after that, as protests swept Iran.

Both women were charged with conspiring with foreign intelligence agencies to undermine national security, as well as with spreading propaganda, and spent months in detention. After closed-door trials, they were sentenced in October — Ms. Hamedi to a total of 13 years in prison and Ms. Mohammadi to a total of 12 years.

Iranian state media reported on Sunday that the two women had been released on bail while they appeal their sentences. Video posted on the Instagram account of Ms. Mohammadi’s sister showed them leaving Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and walking hand in hand toward their husbands, colleagues and friends who were running uphill to greet them. As they all hugged, the crowd chanted, “Freedom, freedom, freedom.”

Thousands of protesters heading last October to the cemetery in western Iran where Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police, was buried.Credit...via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Friends also posted photos on social media of the journalists walking down the street with hands raised in the victory sign — with the hair of both women falling loose, in clear violation of Iran’s religiously conservative dress code.

The official response was swift: On Monday, Mizan, a news agency overseen by Iran’s judiciary, reported that prosecutors had filed a new complaint against the journalists accusing them of breaking the country’s hijab law. That legislation requires women to cover their hair and wear long, loose clothing that hides the shape of their bodies — and is what initially led to the arrest of Ms. Amini.

The morality police who detained Ms. Amini took her to a center for re-educating women on the law governing dress before she was hospitalized. The Iranian government has said that Ms. Amini died while in custody because of underlying medical issues. Her family has said she had no health issues, and that she died because the police beat her. A photo of Ms. Amini in a coma in the hospital with blood dripping from her ear and tubes in her mouth went viral. No independent investigation was conducted.

Ms. Amini’s death outraged Iranians already furious with their government over decades of social and political repression as well as economic mismanagement and corruption, igniting monthslong protests. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Iran, including many women who ripped off their headscarves and burned them in protest bonfires. The uprising — dubbed the “Mahsa movement” in homage to Ms. Amini — morphed into the most serious challenge to the legitimacy of Iran’s ruling clerics since they took power in 1979.

Iran’s government cracked down and by early 2023 had quelled the protests by force, arresting nearly 20,000 people and killing more than 500, according to human rights groups. At least seven arrested protesters were later executed, with others still facing the death penalty.

Still, many women have continued to defy the hijab law, especially in larger cities, by keeping their hair uncovered and wearing Western-style clothing in public.

In response, the government has tried a variety of measures to enforce the law, including shutting down businesses that turn a blind eye to customers’ dress code violations and banning banks and government offices from serving such women.

A portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Istanbul in September 2022. Credit...Ozan Kose/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In September, the Iranian Parliament approved a bill that increased the penalties for women who refused to wear the hijab, imposing large fines and prison time for violators.

On Monday, the photos of the two journalists with their hair uncovered drew approving comments on social media from Iranians who saw them as symbols of defiance toward the government. And Ms. Amini’s loved ones joined in celebrating their freedom.

“The news of your release after four hundred days of enduring prison and being away from your family made us all happy and sweetened our palates,” Ms. Amini’s father, Amjad Amini, wrote on Instagram on Sunday. “I sincerely congratulate you and your brave and patient family on this precious freedom.”

Vivian Yee is a Times reporter covering North Africa and the broader Middle East. She is based in Cairo. More about Vivian Yee

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