Iranian leader praises force tasked with crushing dissent

BAGHDAD — Iran’s top leader praised paramilitary volunteers tasked with quelling dissent in a televised address on Saturday, as dozens of ophthalmologists warned that a rising number of protesters at anti-government protests have been blinded by security forces.

Addressing members of the Basij, the elite Revolutionary Guard’s paramilitary volunteer wing, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated unsubstantiated claims that protesters demonstrating across the country were “tools” of the US and its “mercenaries”.

“(The) Basij should not forget that the main clash is with global hegemony,” Khamenei said, referring to the US.

Hailing the military and social virtues of the Basij over the decades, Khamenei said the armed forces “sacrificed themselves to save the people from a group of rioters and mercenaries,” referring to the recent nationwide unrest. “They sacrificed themselves to confront oppression.”

The Basij have taken a leading role in cracking down on demonstrations that began on September 17 and were sparked by the death of a young woman in Iran’s Morality Police custody. Her death sparked months of protests against the country’s headscarf requirement, but quickly morphed into one of the greatest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the chaotic years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

According to social media, protests continued on Saturday at some universities in the capital Tehran and other cities. The demonstrations have become more and more scattered due to a violent nationwide crackdown by the Iranian security forces. The protesters have also called for commercial strikes.

According to the semi-official Tasnim news agency, Khamenei’s comments came a day after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with a group of Basij members and praised their efforts to maintain security.

Iran’s crackdown on dissidents has drawn criticism, with at least 448 people killed and more than 18,000 arrested in the protests and the violent response by security forces that followed, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the demonstrations. Iran has not offered a death toll or a number of those arrested.

In a letter, 140 ophthalmologists expressed concern over a rising number of patients with severe eye injuries from metal and rubber bullet gunshots, according to pro-reform Iranian news site Sobhema and Iran International, among others on social media. “Unfortunately, in many cases, the hit resulted in loss of sight in one or both eyes,” said the letter, which was addressed to the head of the country’s Ophthalmologists’ Association.

The doctors called on the head of the Iranian Ophthalmology Association to convey their concerns about the irreparable damage caused by the security forces to the relevant authorities.

It was the second letter from ophthalmologists expressing concern at police brutality and the shooting of bullets and rubber bullets in the eyes of protesters and others. A previous letter was signed by over 200 ophthalmologists.

Last week videos circulated on social media of law student Ghazal Ranjkesh in the southern city of Banda Abbas, who lost an eye after being shot with a metal ball on her way home from work.

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