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A feared Iranian militia is leading the crackdown on protesters. Who are the Basijs?

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A group of schoolgirls chanting in black in Shiraz, Iran, seemed determined to make their voices heard.

“Basiji, go and get lost!” they shouted to a man in a gray suit standing on a podium in front of them.

NBC News confirmed a video of the event posted on Twitter earlier this month, but was unable to determine whether the man on the podium was a member of the feared Basij militia, which is spearheading crackdowns on nationwide anti-government protests. It broke out last month after Mahsa Amini’s death.

Amini, 22, from Iran’s Kurdistan region, died in hospital three days after being detained by police in Tehran last month and was accused of failing to cover her hair completely and breaking the country’s strict dress code.

Several videos posted on social media since his death show demonstrators chanting furiously against Basij.

But who are the Basijs? And what role did the organization play in the nearly six weeks of unrest in Iran?

volunteer militia

Founded in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Basij-e Mostaz’afin, or Organization for the Mobilization of the Oppressed, is a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, defined by the United Nations as a foreign terrorist organization. states in April 2019.

More commonly called the Basij, meaning “mobilization” in Persian, the militia is “an armed youth organization that, for all practical purposes, also serves as the ground forces of the Islamic Republic,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow Arab The Gulf States Institute said by phone on Thursday.

The group rose to prominence in the 1980s during Iran’s war with neighboring Iraq, when the youth, often lightly armed, had only basic military training and attacked open minefields without any artillery or air support.

Alfoneh said it still consists of volunteers today and is used by the Iranian government to suppress dissidents, protests, control the population and brainwash Iranian citizens, as well as deployed during natural disasters and maintain a presence in government institutions.

material benefits

Alfoneh said many of the militia members come from poor, conservative backgrounds in rural Iran or deprived areas in the country’s cities, and many are united for the privileges and material benefits that enrollment brings, and not for ideological reasons. .

Basij added that it gives them access to higher education, subsidized consumer goods, free healthcare and job security.

Saeid Golkar, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, who wrote a book about the group, said enrolling in the militia was seen as respectable and prestigious, and it allowed its members to be socially mobile.

He said the group has around 1 million members, although there are no official figures, but he added that “Basij’s core is only about 100,000 active members.”

Today, Basij said, enforcing the country’s strict religious rules, acting as morality police in public places such as parks and checkpoints, and heavily monitoring the population.

suppression methods

Golkar said there are three main methods Basij uses to quell anti-government protests.

First, they demonstrate their presence to the public by patrolling the streets, and “create the illusion that the regime has strong social support by staying on the street and facing protesters,” he said.

Second, he said members wore plainclothes to infiltrate protests to detect “political activists or people actively cheering and mocking the regime or recording videos.”

He added that if these methods fail, Basij will resort to force using batons and whips to beat the demonstrators, and in some cases target them using deadly weapons such as shotguns.

history of violence

Basij has previously been accused of violently cracking down on individuals or groups who dare criticize or protest against the clergy-led government.

In 2009, human rights groups, including Amnesty International, said the group used excessive force during peaceful anti-government protests triggered by a controversial presidential election. At the time, Amnesty said it had documented reports of Basij beating demonstrators and shooting them with real ammunition.

Last month, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Basij’s deputy commander, accusing him and the militia of killing unarmed protesters on “numerous occasions”.

This came in January following the UK treasury’s sanctions on group members who accused them of human rights abuses, including murder, torture and mass beatings of peaceful protesters.

Decisions made to think stone

Despite its dire reputation, Alfoneh said some members of the Basij struggled to take action against anti-government protesters, particularly young women and girls who led demonstrations, burned headscarves, and angrily demanded reform from the country’s leaders.

“The thing is, members are taught to have some kind of Islamic values, you know, Islamic values ​​of honor, and now they’re taught to go and beat girls, and of course that’s against morality,” he said.