At first, the plan was to bring along photographs of the plane crash and light candles to commemorate the dead, but it didn’t take long for people’s anger about how inept Iran’s leaders had been began to take hold. "Chants quickly became radical, targeting the army, Ghasem Soleimani and Khamenei. Anti-riot agents attacked with tear gas. Around 7:30 pm the forces attacked us; we fled to Rasht Street but they followed us. I don't think they wanted to arrest us, but they were brutally hitting the people with batons."
This is how a student called "Sarina" — not her real name — described the evening of Saturday, January 10 outside Amir Kabir University, after people protested to voice their outrage about the fatal plane crash over Parand on the outskirts of Tehran.
A statement from the general staff of the Iranian Armed Forces announced that the crash of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752 on the morning of Wednesday morning, January 8, was due to unintentional shots by the Revolutionary Guards’ air defense system, which sparked the protests. Initially Iranian officials had lied about the route and flight mode of the Ukrainian aircraft — another example of the Islamic Republic’s common practice of shielding the public from facts — and the Iranian Civil Aviation Authority issued a statement claiming that the flight had been "flying within the standard corridors approved by the country's integrated defense network (IKA1A exit plan) and that no problems in the control of the plane were reported by the pilot." This statement was removed from the organization's website an hour after its publication.
This all took place three days after Iranian authorities all denied evidence that the plane had been hit by a defensive missile, claiming that a technical fault caused the crash. The Revolutionary Guards Air Space Commander's comments were also broadcast live on Iranian television, suggesting that the Iranian sky was closed to passenger airplanes at that time. These remarks prompted outrage among protesters, who attacked the irresponsibility of inept officials who, as Sarina says, "know nothing but how to kill the people."
Thousands of people in Tehran, Isfahan, Rasht, Babol, Urmia, Shiraz, Bojnourd, Hamadan, Boroujerd, and Sari organized rallies on Saturday night to protest against the deliberate lies told by authorities, and their stance on the passenger plane crash. The protests, at least in Tehran, were marred by violence from security forces.
Sarina says students mainly use closed Telegram groups to organize the rallies, but that there had also been calls on social media for demonstrations or just a candle-lighting mourning. "As far as I could see from the posts, they called for a gathering at 17:00 but many people and students from other universities had gathered at the entrance of Amir Kabir University before 17:00. The crowd gradually increased, and the chants on both sides of the university gate were getting louder."
As one citizen journalist said, initially people called out: "Incompetent official!s Resign! Resign!" Gradually the slogans became more radical and "Years of murder, death to the Supreme Leader” could be heard. Sarina says the protesters, especially women, were very brave, and when they were confronted with motorcyclist anti-riot forces, which arrived and began to make manoeuvers to scare them, they shouted: “Shame, Shame.”
Inside and outside of Amir Kabir University, other chants could be heard: "We were not killed to make concessions; or to praise a murderer leader", "Death to the dictator," “The Guards commits crimes, the Leader supports it," "They took harsh revenge on you and me."
In addition to the rally in front of Amir Kabir University, there were other rallies in four other areas in Tehran: in front of City Theater, at Vali-e Asr Junction, at College Bridge and at the intersection of Vali-e Asr and Taleqani streets. Many videos of rallies inside and outside Amir Kabir University were posted online, along with footage of the radical slogans people chanted on Saturday night. Some of this footage was of protesters chanting "Khamenei is a killer, his rule is illegal" and "Death to Velayat-e Faqih [the system the Islamic Republic is ruled by, outlining that the clergy has rule over the state] .”
The guards used tear gas and batons to disperse protesters. Sarina says she returned home after being hit by batons on Rasht Street. As far as she knows most of her friends had left the university area but planned to rally again. "We have a meeting in Azadi Square on Sunday; I think many will come. We'll keep going. They cannot silence these people anymore. I just hope they don't come to us with a katyusha [rocket launcher," and laughed. She made reference to November protests and the suppression of people in Mahshahr with heavy war equipment. But everyone, including Sarina and her friends, has not returned home. According to some reports, a number of protesters were arrested outside Amir Kabir University. One of them is Asadollah Fakhimi, a civil activist living in Tehran province, who was arrested by security forces for attending a protest rally outside Amir Kabir University.
As well as the gatherings around Amir Kabir University, Sharif University of Technology students also gathered at their university, lighting candles in memory of the crash victims, and chanting slogans against Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. Slogans included "Seyed Ali [Khamenei], get up, time to go!" and "Soleimani is a murderer, so is his Leader."
The protesters marched to Tehran University dormitory at night. Students congregated in the dormitory chanted, “Commander in chief, resign, resign", "Resignation is not enough, we must have a trial!” and "Death to the liar.” Protest rallies were also held in several areas in Tehran, Si-o-se-pol in Isfahan, Hamedan, Rasht, and Kerman, as well as at Shiraz University and Hamedan Bu-ali University.
US President Donald Trump also responded to videos of the protests on Saturday. "To the brave and suffering Iranian people: I have stood with you since the beginning of my presidency and my administration will continue to stand by you,” after releasing protest videos from Iran. Trump tweeted in Persian: “We are following your protests closely. Your courage is inspiring."
An hour later, in another tweet, Trump wrote in Persian: "The Iranian government should allow human rights groups to monitor and report on the current reality of protests of the Iranian people. We should not see the killing of peaceful protesters again or the internet shut down. The world is watching what is happening."
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also tweeted a video of the protests in Iran: "The voice of the Iranian people is clear. They are frustrated by lies, corruption, lack of governance, and brutality of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps under the rule of the corrupt regime of Khamenei. We stand by the Iranian people, who deserve a better future."
Within Iran, contrary to the usual practice, some news agencies reported on the gatherings. Among them was Islamic Republic News Agency, which reported on the rallies at the intersection of Taleqani and Hafez streets and at the intersection of Hafez and Enqelab toward Vali-e Asr. In contrast, the Iranian News Channel, in its report of rallies, gave its opinion on the grounds for the crackdown on protesters. It said: "the memorial for the victims was gradually drawn into anti-system slogans, with some people unfortunately shouting anti-regime slogans insulting the martyr Hajj Ghasem Soleimani, the national hero."
These threats appear to be designed to intimidate the protesters, with security forces trying to put an end to any future demonstrations. As video footage of Tehran on the morning of January 12 shows, anti-riot police and security forces have been deployed on most of Iran's cities' main streets.
Film director Rakhshan Bani Etemad, who had earlier called on Iranian people to come together in the squares of different cities of Iran on Sunday to remember the plane crash victims, said in a tweet that she was rescinding the invitation because of threats from security agencies.
One of the strangest aspects about the protests on Saturday was the short-term detention of the British ambassador to Tehran, Rob McCurry. He said in a statement that his arrest in Tehran was unjustified. Meanwhile, according to Tasnim News Agency, the British ambassador was arrested during protests outside Amir Kabir University and was released hours later.