In her sunny yellow coat, a 17-year-old climbed onto the roof of a car and threw her hands in the air – fingers splayed to show V for victory – and the crowd erupted in a big cheer .
Sonia Sharifi had just been freed from the clutches of Iranian detention.
This is the fourth month of protests in Iran and the levels of violence and intimidation faced by those calling for revolution are at their highest level since the beginning of the movement.
The risks for those involved are huge, with some protesters now leaving their phones at home to minimize the brutality they could face if arrested.
Perhaps that’s why it seems less video evidence of the protests has emerged from the country in recent weeks.
Despite the danger, video verified by Sky News shows the moment Sonia’s family, friends and neighbors gathered in the streets of Abdanan to celebrate her return home when she was released on bail. It is blurred to protect their identity.
Some people were so overwhelmed with happiness that they spontaneously started dancing in the street.
The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reports that this teenage girl was dragged from her grandmother’s house in November, beaten and forced to make a false confession while admitting to making Molotov cocktails and writing dangerous slogans.
Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guards sent messages on an encrypted messaging app monitored by Sky News accusing ‘unfriendly media’ of ‘lying’ about details of his arrest. They have provided no evidence for their claims.
Sonia’s provocative pose, struck seemingly without fear by the authorities who detained her, spread quickly on social media in mid-December.
The image of his brave stance was treated by many Iranians online as a beacon of hope at a time when the state had executed two protesters and more than 500 demonstrators had lost their lives.
The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reports that around 70 of those who died were children. The group’s figures, published on December 19, also show nearly 20,000 people arrested.
Despite this repression, the authorities have not been able to stifle the protest movement that has been sweeping the country for three months.
Sky News has mapped the location of every protest with 12 or more people since September 16, with data provided by the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project (CTP) with support from the Institute for the Study of War.
The dots are lighter or darker red depending on the conservative estimate of the number of people present, with the gray dots indicating demonstrations where it is not possible to determine the size of the crowd. The CTP says their dataset is “likely incomplete” given the difficulty of accessing information on the ground in Iran.
It is possible to witness the first surges of demonstrations which began after the death of Mahsa Jina Aminiwho was killed in custody for wearing her hijab (head covering) “inappropriately”.
Mass protests and government buildings attacked – online evidence shows what is happening in Iran
It started primarily as a women’s rights movement, but other voices soon joined in the call for a revolution. Issues such as freedom, democracy and economic stability fueled the resolve of this army of ordinary people.
The animation shows how widespread the protests have been, but the Kurdish province and capital Tehran consistently serving as hotspots for the movement.
Most of the demonstrations gathered between 12 and 1,000 people, including around a dozen registered by the CTP while more than 1,000 people attended a single demonstration.
Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history and director of the Institute of Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews, told Sky News: “We are now seeing strikes and different kinds of protests. The main thing to consider is that the government is difficult to suppress them.”
He added that the executions of two protesters “just made the protesters more determined”.
“Protesters leave phones at home to stay safe”
Videos and images taken by people on their smartphones have been one of the main sources of news from Iran, with independent and foreign media effectively banned from reporting in the country.
But now that lifeline of vital information is in jeopardy as the consequence of being found with protest images becomes overwhelming for some.
“People are attacked for filming. They are further harassed if they are found with footage of protests when arrested,” says Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher at information rights group Article 19 and from the Oxford Internet Institute. Her work focuses on access to online information in Iran.
“People who go out on the streets now often don’t go out with their phones to eliminate that risk.”
Ms Alimardani says people are now becoming more cautious after seeing how others have been prosecuted and criminalized over images, while others have been targeted or even shot for brandishing their phones during protests.
This and continue drastic restrictions on internet access means that Iranians face multiple levels of challenges when trying to obtain evidence of the scale of the protests and the brutality of the crackdown from the international community.
Authorities have aggressively tried to limit the Iranian people’s ability to go online, with organizations such as Netblocks internet monitors and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Internet Outage Detection and Analysis (IODA) project reporting repeated blackouts.
For example, nationwide internet access plummeted during the execution of Majidreza Rahnavard on December 11, as highlighted by the red stripe on the graph in this tweet.
Authorities are able to target specific areas of the country, as they appear to have done on December 8 when internet access was disrupted for around seven hours in the town of Sanandaj in the country’s Kurdish region.
“In reality, what we see is just the tip of the iceberg. These are things that can slip through the cracks of all these difficulties in connecting and documenting,” says Alimardani.
For those willing to take the risk, the images coming out of Iran in recent weeks have changed. Ms Alimardani has noticed that people are taking more measures than before to hide their identities while filming, such as focusing only on arms or legs and avoiding faces altogether, or filming in low light.
Images showing violent clashes and aggressive behavior of security forces has become much more prevalent than in September and October. Evidence of injuries, including those sustained by people who were shot, is also widely shared.
“We still see a lot of footage of protests, in their various forms across Iran, from large crowds to chanting on balconies and rooftops,” she explains.
“But the content that talks about the crimes and killings of the Islamic Republic is also there and is being documented by users. The tragedy is to see this content increase as the regime adopts more violent, even genocidal, strategies to suppress the protests.”
As images from Iran grow bloodier and protesters show few signs of stopping, what’s next for the movement?
“It’s probably too early to characterize this as a ‘revolution’,” says Ansari, “but people see the movement as revolutionary.
“The direction of travel is clear.”
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