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The 2023 Dictators’ Playbook: Crushing Revolutions

By Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen and Miska Lewis

Today, a staggering 5.7 billion people — 72% of the global population — live under the tyranny of an authoritarian regime. As they rise in numbers and strength, autocrats maintain a domestic and international hold with an all-too-similar playbook. In fact, most dictators employ the very same tactics, such as abusive and lethal crackdowns on protests, expatriating and stripping dissidents of citizenship, and allying and lending military support to other authoritarians.

As 2023 comes to a close, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) reflects on these trends in our end-of-year blog series, “The 2023 Dictators’ Playbook.” Through this series, we explore the shared strategies of dictators and highlight the human rights defenders and activist groups who have bravely challenged them.

In September 2022, Iran’s morality police detained 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly not wearing her hijab in accordance with the regime’s mandatory dress code. She was later killed in police custody, sparking a nationwide revolution. 

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, calling for equal rights, an end to discriminatory gender-based laws and practices, and the removal of the Islamic Republic. Police and security officers responded to the protests with excessive and lethal force throughout the country. Since Amini’s murder, nearly 20,000 people have been arrested, while more than 500 have been killed in the protests.

Arbitrary arrests and detention

Official data regarding the exact number of detainees is not available, but NGOs and civil society actors estimate that around 16,000 people were detained in the first week of protests. In many cases, the Islamic Republic held closed trials, leaving family members in the dark about the location of their loved ones, their charges, and whether they had been sentenced to death. 

In 2023, Iran Human Rights (IHR) reported that over 600 had been executed by the regime. Regime agents have also disguised themselves in plain clothing to carry out arrests, often with violence, to further crack down on dissent.

No empathy for mourning families

Iranian officials have shown no signs of backing down or empathy for those killed. Iranian security forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained family members of those killed and barred them from peacefully gathering at grave sites. In September, officials prevented Amini’s family from commemorating the first anniversary of her death. Amjad Amini, her father, was briefly detained and warned not to hold a gathering at her grave site before releasing him. 

In October, security forces also halted memorial services for other protesters killed in various cities, including Tehran, Mahabad, and Arak. Two family members of Ali Rouzbahani, who was killed during a protest last year, were detained and barred from holding a memorial ceremony. Other family members of victims killed in protests also reported being harassed by security forces on multiple occasions. 

Reinforcing dress codes on women and girls

A few months into the protests, the Iranian regime signaled an attempt to reinforce strict dress codes on women and girls with a vengeance. In April, officials announced that anyone who encourages women to remove their veils will be prosecuted and have no right to appeal any convictions. As Ali Jamadi, deputy attorney general, said: “The crime of promoting unveiling will be dealt with in the criminal court, whose decisions are final and unappealable.” The regime even went so far as to install cameras in public places to identify and penalize unveiled women in violation of the hijab law. 

In September, a few days after the first anniversary of Amini’s death, Iran’s parliament passed the “Hijab and Chastity Bill,” which would increase prison terms and fines for women and girls who break the stringent dress code rules. Anyone who dresses “inappropriately” could face up to 10 years in prison. The proposed bill defines unacceptable as “revealing or tight clothing, or clothing that shows parts of the body lower than the neck or above the ankles or above the forearms.” Soon thereafter, the Ministry of Health declared a new code of conduct, forcing even medical sciences students to comply with the dress code rules and banning the use of cologne and cosmetics.

The return of the morality police

Though Iran made the hijab mandatory in 1983 following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran’s Gasht-e-Irshad (Guidance Patrol or “morality police”) only started enforcing the dress code in public in 2006. In theory, they target men and women equally, but that has rarely been implemented in practice. Under current President Ebrahim Raisi, the morality police have increased its patrols in big cities, causing mounting uneasiness for secular and religious women alike.

Following the widespread protests against the morality police, the UN Special Rapporteur called for the force to be disbanded. Morality police were rarely seen patrolling the streets as 2022 drew to a close, but reports of heeding the UN expert’s call were later disproven. 

After months of seemingly laying low, the Gasht-e-Irshad have returned to the streets, policing hijab use once again. In a press statement, Saeid Montazeralmahdi, a spokesperson for the Iranian law enforcement force, insisted hijab laws would be enforced by issuing warnings and in the court system rather than resorting to violence. But in November, the death of Amrita Gerevand, a 16-year-old girl hospitalized after an encounter with the morality police in Tehran, fueled outrage among many Iranians. While officials insist that a fainting spell caused Gerevand to fall and hit her head in a crowded subway, they refuse to release video footage from inside the train car. Gerevand is seen walking in with her hair uncovered, then being dragged out unconscious by the morality police minutes later.

To date, there has been no accountability for the killing of women, men, and children following Mahsa Amini’s tragic murder. In the past months, Iran has attempted a return to the status quo and the oppression of women and girls by reinforcing the dress code rules and restoring the morality police patrols. Recently, pictures of female members of the “Guidance Ambassadors” have begun circulating, further complicating the picture. Today, the struggle of Iranian people for equal rights and gender equality under Raisi’s regime continues. 

Tanyalak Thongyoojaroen is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Miska Lewis is a communications intern with HRF.