2 protesters in Iran killed as social media apps blocked

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran on Sunday blocked access to Instagram and a popular messaging app used by activists to organize and publicize the protests now roiling the Islamic Republic, as authorities said two demonstrators had been killed overnight in the first deaths attributed to the rallies.

The demonstrations, which began Thursday over the economic woes plaguing Iran and continued Sunday, appear to be the largest to strike the Islamic Republic since the protests that followed the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election.

They were fanned in part by messages sent on the Telegram messaging app, which authorities blocked Sunday along with the photo-sharing app Instagram, which is owned by tech giant Facebook.

Many in Iran are learning about the protests and sharing images of them through Telegram, a mobile phone messaging app popular among the country’s 80 million people. On Saturday, Telegram shut down one channel on the service over Iranian allegations it encouraged violence, something its moderator denied.

On Sunday, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov wrote on Twitter that authorities had blocked access to the app.

“Iranian authorities are blocking access to Telegram for the majority of Iranians after our public refusal to shut down … peacefully protesting channels,” he wrote.

Iran’s state TV news website, iribnews.ir, quoted an anonymous source saying that social media in Iran would be temporarily limited as a safety measure.

“With a decision by the Supreme National Security Council, activities of Telegram and Instagram are temporarily limited,” the report said, without elaborating.

Facebook, based in Menlo Park, California, declined to comment.

Facebook itself has been banned in Iran since protests against the disputed 2009 re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, some in Iran access it and other banned websites using virtual private networks.

Meanwhile, authorities acknowledged the first fatalities in the protests in Doroud, a city some 325 kilometres (200 miles) southwest of Tehran in Iran’s western Lorestan province. Protesters had gathered for an unauthorized rally that lasted into the night Saturday, said Habibollah Khojastepour, the security deputy of Lorestan’s governor. The two protesters were killed in clashes at the rally, he said.

“The gathering was to be ended peacefully, but due to the presence of the (agitators), unfortunately, this happened,” Khojastepour said.

He did not offer a cause of death for the two protesters, but said “no bullets were shot from police and security forces at the people.”

However, the reformist Etemad newspaper quoted Hamid Reza Kazemi, a lawmaker from Lorestan, confirming police fired shots in the clashes.

“If someone comes to the street and acts like a norm breaker, what would you do?” the newspaper quoted Kazemi as saying.

Videos circulating on social media late Saturday also appeared to show fallen protesters in Doroud as gunshots sounded in the background. The Associated Press could not immediately verify the footage.

Thousands have taken to the streets of cities across Iran, beginning on Thursday in Mashhad, the country’s second-largest city and a holy site for Shiite pilgrims.

The protests in the Iranian capital, as well as President Donald Trump tweeting about them, raised the stakes. It also apparently forced state television to break its silence on Saturday, acknowledging it hadn’t reported on the protests on orders from security officials.

Trump, whose travel bans blocked Iranians from getting U.S. visas, again tweeted about the protests Sunday.

“The people are finally getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism. Looks like they will not take it any longer,” Trump wrote. “The USA is watching very closely for human rights violations!”

Several hundred protesters have been arrested so far, beginning with over 50 in Mashhad on Thursday. The semi-official ILNA news agency reported Sunday that authorities had arrested some 80 protesters in the city of Arak, some 280 kilometres (173 miles) south of Tehran, as well as another 200 in Tehran alone on Saturday night.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli warned protesters that police wouldn’t hesitate to confront lawbreakers.

“Those who misused cyberspace and spread violence are absolutely known to us and we will definitely confront them in due time,” Fazli said, according to state TV.

State TV also has reported that some protesters invoked the name of the U.S.-backed shah, who fled into exile just before Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and later died.

Iran’s economy has improved since its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the end of some international sanctions. Tehran now sells its oil on the global market and has signed deals to purchase tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Western aircraft.

That improvement has not reached the average Iranian, however. Unemployment remains high, and official inflation has crept up to 10 per cent again. A recent increase in egg and poultry prices by as much as 40 per cent, which a government spokesman has blamed on a cull over avian flu fears, appears to have been the spark for the economic protests.

While the protests have sparked clashes, Iran’s hard-line paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and its affiliates have not intervened as they have in other unauthorized demonstrations since the 2009 election.

Some analysts outside of Iran have suggested that may be because the economic protests initially just put pressure on the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate whose administration struck the nuclear deal.

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