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Source: The Guardian

Dec 18, 2023

‘We live with a gun to our heads’: how Iran is targeting protesters in Britain

As David Cameron says the Iranian regime threatens people on UK soil, Iranians talk about the threats, harassment and intimidation they experience for organising British protests

n September 2022, Soudabeh, an Iranian student studying in Manchester, was frantically searching for an update on the health of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in hospital in Tehran after being detained by police for allegedly breaking the country’s strict dress code.

The news of Amini’s death, the nationwide protests that followed and the plight of women in her home country kept Soudabeh – who asked to be identified by her first name only – awake at night. “That’s the moment I realised we had to do more to tell the people of the world what’s happening inside Iran,” she says.

After helping to organise protests outside Manchester University and in St Peter’s Square, Soudabeh held a sit-in protest in front of the Islamic Centre in Manchester. This year, an MP said in parliament that the Islamic Centre of England “is accused of having links to the Iranian regime”.

Soon Soudabeh started receiving threats online and intimidation in person for her role in organising the protests. At one of the protests someone she didn’t recognise whispered to her the names of her family members. “They would tell us our address back home [in Iran] and then ask: ‘Do you want your sister to face the consequences of your actions here?’”

Soudabeh says several people representing the Islamic Centre also confronted her and other protesters. The Islamic Centre categorically deny accusations of threats and physical violence by its staff or employees.

We may not be killed and shot on the streets here, but the sense of safety that I should feel here – I simply don’t feel

“Two Iranian men walked out from the building and told us in Farsi: ‘Just try entering this building and I will kill you like a dog,’” she says. “Even though I filed a complaint with the police, I still feel unsafe even walking out and doing groceries. We may not be killed and shot on the streets here, but the sense of safety that I should feel here, I simply don’t [feel].

“None of us [who protested] can go back to Iran and we’re not safe in this country either unless the government takes steps to identify those threatening us on behalf of the Islamic Republic,” she says.

The Guardian has spoken to a number of Iranians living in the UK who have taken part in or organised protests in the UK over the past year since Amini’s death and continue to fear for their lives. Iran is increasingly targeting people outside its borders in a tactic known as transnational repression, which aims to stifle debate or criticism.

An anti-Iranian regime protest in Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, in 2022. Photograph: zoompics/Alamy

Last week, the foreign secretary, David Cameron, said the Iranian regime continued to “threaten people on UK soil”, and that there had been at least 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British nationals and others living in the UK since the beginning of 2022.

The regime has called publicly for the killing of these individuals and in some cases detained and harassed their families in Iran, a UK government statement said.

BBC staff in London told the Guardian this year that they fear walking outside alone after being harassed by the Iranian authorities, with family members based in Iran also being detained arbitrarily.

A civil rights activist from the human rights group United for Mahsa says many activists have had to pause their activities or work anonymously due to the threats to their lives.

“I look over my shoulder all the time ever since the diaspora started receiving online and offline threats from pro-regime individuals living inside this country,” she says. “I don’t feel safe online or on the streets. The Islamic Republic runs a very strong online campaign to target dissidents in the west.”

British-Iranian activist and former political prisoner Vahid Beheshti has been staging an ongoing protest outside the Foreign Office in London calling for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to be labelled as a terror group. He says a fatwa had been issued against him and he was recently threatened by someone who told him: “I am going to cut your neck today.”

Beheshti says the man was later arrested by the police, who told him a knife was found during the arrest. “This is what we are living through here every day. We Iranians are living with a gun pointed at our heads. I told the police here that every day I feel like it’s my last day.”

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Some of the activists interviewed by the Guardian say they have also been victims of stalking, online doxing and character assassinations led by those supporting the regime in the UK.

“My very first understanding of going to protests in London was that I’d wear sunglasses, a mask and a hat to avoid being identified, not because of repercussions potentially on myself, but for repercussions on my family, if I was identified,” says Donya, 23, who also wanted to be identified only by her first name.

In October 2022 Donya started a social media campaign, Be Iran’s Voice, publishing content about protests happening inside Iran and across the world. She says she has been heavily harassed on social media since starting the campaign, including having her full name posted online.

“I strongly believe these are deterrents created by the regime and then deployed by undercover members of the regime to try to dismantle and sway public opinion of potentially influential women or figures in the community and try to disempower them and try to discredit them for what they are doing,” she says.

Donya revealed she’s now careful about what she posts online, makes sure someone walks with her to the station when she’s in London for a protest, and ensures that someone has her location and knows her time schedule.

“We need the protection of non-Iranians,” she says. “We need people to stand with us so that we have the confidence to have freedom of expression in the same way that is given to other people who aren’t Iranian. I should have the right to be protected in the UK, the country in which I was born.”

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan police said specialist officers continue to liaise closely with those affected to give them appropriate safety and security advice.

“We will continue to work closely with our intelligence partners and others to do everything we can to counter these types of threat – either through protective security measures, or disruptive action.”

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