Authorities in the Islamic Republic detained at least a dozen women’s rights activists on Wednesday, according to rights groups and local news agencies.
The arrests are part of a concerted effort to head off protests to mark a year since the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising swept the Islamic Republic, rights groups say.
The government has been trying to stamp out dissent and reimpose strict dress codes as it struggles to reassert its authority in the wake of the sometimes-violent protests, which posed the biggest challenge to the clerical establishment since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Residents of the capital, Tehran, have observed a heavy security forces presence on the streets in recent days. And further north, in the province of Gilan on the Caspian Sea, the semi-official Tasnim and Fars news agencies reported the arrests of 12 people on Wednesday.
Citing the regional intelligence office, the news agencies said those arrested were “a team associated with foreign people, which was planning and acting to incite unrest and vandalism on the anniversary of last year’s autumn protests.”
The intelligence office said the members of the “team” had “a history of engaging in multiple anti-security activities” during the protests last year, and accused them of trying to “organize” people with prior protest activity, including “some youth,” the news agencies reported
“They were in the process of creating the conditions for unrest and insecurity across Gilan Province and certain counties in Kurdistan Province,” the intelligence office said, according to Tasnim and Fars.
None of the people arrested were named, and the exact charges against them were not listed.
The Human Rights Activists in Iran, a non-governmental group monitoring human rights in Islamic Republic, also said Friday that at least 13 people had now been detained in Gilan.“The precise reasons underlying their detentions, their current locations, and the specific charges brought against them all remain undisclosed at this juncture,” the group said on its website.
The group told NBC News in an email that it has confirmation of the arrests of 12 women and one man in Gilan. “It paints a stark picture of a regime that is deeply concerned about the potential for renewed protest and is taking pre-emptive action to stifle any possible resurgence of popular unrest,” said Skylar Thompson, the group’s director of global advocacy and accountability.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said Thursday on X, formerly Twitter, that she was “deeply concerned about the arrest of women’s rights defenders in Iran,” adding that their families are unaware of their location and accusations.
“Iranian authorities must release them immediately and halt the persecution of women’s rights advocates,” Lawlor said.
The surge in arrests ahead of the anniversary seems to be “a deliberate strategy by the Iranian authorities to sow fear among the populace,” Jasmin Ramsey with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran said in an emailed comment to NBC News.
The lack of accountability by the Iranian government, Ramsey said, has created a volatile situation in the country: “a situation that remains highly combustible and susceptible to erupt into further instances of protest.”
The crackdown comes around a month before the anniversary of the protests that swept through the country, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the country’s powerful morality police in Tehran for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress code.
As protests grew, women and girls defiantly removed their headscarves in public and some across the world shared videos cutting their hair in solidarity. The wave of anger developed into a broader anti-government movement, and though human rights and economic troubles persist, an intense crackdown has largely quelled the unrest.
Thousands of protesters across the country were detained and more than 500 are believed to have died in the months that followed Amini’s death, according to the U.N. and Iran Human Rights, a human rights organization tracking the unrest. Some protesters have been publicly executed.
In March, Iran said the country’s supreme leader had pardoned more than 22,000 people arrested during the protests.
Last month, Iranian authorities announced a new campaign to force women to wear the Islamic headscarf and morality police returned to the streets. Iran’s parliament is also looking into a new bill that could increase penalties for women refusing to wear the hijab.
A number of Iranian celebrities, including famous actors and filmmakers, have also been detained for expressing solidarity with the protesters and criticizing the government crackdown.