World leaders express concern over university crackdown
Iranian security forces laid siege to Sharif University of Technology on Sunday 2 October, surrounding the university where around 200 students had gathered for a sit-down protest. Students who tried to leave the building through an underground parking area were beaten and more than 40 were arrested on that day and the next.
The university’s student union said plain clothes security officials also beat up a professor and several university staff.
Iranian state media described “reports of clashes” at the university, and video footage of the events at Sharif University and activities at other universities around the country have spurred international condemnation.
“Hard to bear what is happening at Sharif University in Iran,” Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baerbock tweeted on Monday 3 October in a rare reference to a specific incident at a university. “The courage of the Iranians is incredible. And the regime’s brute force is an expression of sheer fear of the power of education and freedom,” she said.
United States President Joe Biden issued a statement on Monday saying he was “gravely concerned about reports of the intensifying violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Iran, including students and women, who are demanding their equal rights and basic human dignity”.
Breaking weeks of silence, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responded publicly on Tuesday to condemn what he called “rioting”.
Khamenei said he was “heartbroken” by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s morality police, following her arrest for wearing her headscarf too loosely – the chain of events which set off the nationwide protests.
However, he condemned the protests as a foreign plot to destabilise Iran – a common and often unproven response by the government to unrest in the country. Khamenei described the actions of protesters removing headscarves and setting fire to mosques, banks and police cars as “not normal” and “unnatural”.
On Sunday, Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf warned that protests could destabilise the country and urged security forces to deal harshly with those who he claimed endangered public order.
How Sunday’s events unfolded
According to reports online, hundreds of security force personnel on Sunday besieged Sharif University where students had started a boycott and sit-down protests during the third week of demonstrations after the death in police custody of Amini on 16 September.
According to the university’s student union and other student sources, the university’s president, Rasool Jalili, negotiated with security forces, after the university’s gates were locked, for students to leave through the university’s underground parking area. However, police instead chased students through the carpark, beating many and making arrests.
Video footage showed Sharif students hooded, or with their shirts covering their heads, being taken away in police vans, some of them reported to be ‘accompanied’ by university professors. A student source said professors had initially formed a human chain to prevent security officials from nabbing the students.
Security forces blocked campus entrances and fired tear gas shells in the direction of students. Gunshots were heard around campus, according to video footage.
Iran’s official Mehr News Agency said security forces had fired tear gas and paintballs at the students, adding that the security forces were carrying weapons that fire “non-lethal steel pellets” outside the university’s north gate.
On Sunday one person inside the university told IranWire: “Outside the university, quite serious clashes are going on in different areas [in front of the entrance and at the main door and the parking lot] and we had taken shelter inside the university to be safe. Uniformed forces were waiting at a distance to arrest anyone who left the university.”
Social media channels were awash with calls for help from besieged students – with messages such as: “Do not allow the security forces to kill and arrest students.”
According to one social media message on Sunday, the area “in front of Sharif University looks like a battlefield”. It added that families were very worried as “shot sounds” were being heard.
Families of the students and other supporters rushed to the university and a long queue of cars built up on roads outside the institution on Sunday night as people converged to help the students – many of whom had just started at the university when term began on 30 September.
According to Mehr News Agency and a separate account released by the Sharif student union, Iran’s Science Minister Mohammad Ali Zolfigol visited the campus on Sunday to speak with students in an apparent effort to calm the situation. However, he angered students by saying that anyone who committed “illegal acts” must pay for their deeds and accusing students of lawlessness and wasting public money.
According to the union’s account, Zolfigol also berated a Sharif professor who tried to defend the students, after discovering that the academic was Ali Sharifi Zarchi, a professor of bioinformatics and artificial intelligence who last week tweeted his support for the boycotts and strikes.
By Monday, Jalili was quoted by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency as saying the situation on campus and in dormitories was calm.
The university announced on Monday that classes would be moved online “due to recent events and the need to protect students”. In a later statement, Sharif University announced that only doctoral students would be allowed on campus until further notice.
Condemning Sunday’s siege and attacks on students, Sharif University Students’ Islamic Association said in a statement on 3 October that the university’s president and the country’s science minister were “too weak” to ensure the safety of students, even inside the university.
“Attending a university whose officials are unable to ensure the safety of its students is unwise,” the union said on Monday, calling for further boycotts of classes, whether in person or online, until the release of arrested students and until there were written guarantees of security from the authorities, so that the events of Sunday would not be repeated.
Education trade union leaders called for a nationwide strike by teachers and students in response to Sunday’s violence.
Strikes and class boycotts were held at the weekend in over 100 universities with dozens of professors supporting them, in response to a call for class boycotts and strikes a week ago.
While government cuts to internet access during the evenings has made access to the outside world via social media difficult, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that students had held peaceful protests in dozens of universities across Iran on Monday 3 October in the wake of the violent crackdown on Sharif students in Tehran.
They included the universities in Tehran, Isfahan, Zanjan, Semnan, Urmia, Kermanshah, Tabriz, Qom, Mashhad and Birjand.
In Tabriz, security forces shot students with pellet guns and injured dozens, while security forces fired tear gas inside the campus of the University of Isfahan.
At the Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran, demonstrating students were attacked by Basiji forces with sticks, according to the United Council of Students.
Protests continued on Tuesday with a video from Azad University in Najafabad, a conservative city in Isfahan Province, showing students clapping and chanting “freedom, freedom, freedom”.
Monday also saw schoolchildren in several Iranian cities joining the protests for the first time. In many schools, girls are refusing to wear their headscarves both in and outside the school, according to multiple reports from international news agencies.
A US Department of State spokesperson said on Monday that the United States was “alarmed and appalled by reports of Iranian security authorities attacking and arresting university students engaged in peaceful protests”.
The French foreign ministry condemned “in strongest terms” the continued repression of demonstrations in Iran, demanding that the repression cease immediately.
“France is particularly shocked by the violence against demonstrators at the University of Sharif this weekend,” it said.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced that her country was imposing sanctions on 25 Iranian individuals and nine entities for human rights abuses. Joly said the continued persecution of Iranian women must stop.
The United Kingdom foreign office summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in London over the Iranian crackdown on protests, outlining Britain’s concern at live ammunition being used at Sharif University.