by Thomas Erdbrink
TEHRAN, Iran — In a furious series of Twitter posts and statements on his website Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader called President Donald Trump “psychotic” and repeated accusations that the United States bore primary responsibility for instigating a week of protests that rocked Iran in recent weeks.
“He says that the Iranian government is afraid of U.S. power,” the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said of Trump. “So, if we are ‘afraid’ of you, how did we expel you from Iran in the late 1970s and expel you from the entire region in the 2010s?”
Khamenei, who admitted that the recent protests, where people shouted harsh slogans against him, had hurt Iran’s establishment, threatened the U.S. with revenge.
“They damaged us during these days, they know there will be some sort of retaliation,” he said. “This man who sits at the head of the White House — although, he seems to be a very unstable man — he must realise that these extreme and psychotic episodes won’t be left without a response.”
Protests took place in more than 80 cities nationwide, first over economic concerns but later broadening into a general critique of Iran’s clerical establishment. Officially, 21 people have died and 1,000 arrested, although a Parliament member from Tehran, Mahmoud Sadeghi, said Tuesday that 3,700 protesters had been arrested.
The uprising appears to have largely died down following a crackdown and the imposition of severe restrictions on social media. However, protests reportedly flared in the city of Ahvaz on Monday night, a resident said in a telephone interview, as demonstrators and security forces clashed inside the city. The resident asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.
In Arak, a city that has seen numerous protests, a local prosecutor, Abbas Qassemi, told the Mizan news agency Tuesday that an inmate had killed himself in a detention centre.
“There is evidence on the body showing that the man had stabbed himself,” said Qassemi, who did not identify the man or provide video evidence. “Moreover, the footage of the moment he committed suicide is available.”
On Monday, human rights advocates reported that a young peddler by the name of Vahid Heydari, who was arrested on New Year’s Eve, had died in what the prosecutor called a suicide in a detention centre in Arak. It is unclear if this was the same person.
Human rights advocates and many Iranians have raised doubts about these official reports of suicides, saying the protesters had died while in custody but not by their own hand.
Such was the case with Sina Ghanbari, 23, who officials say killed himself inside Tehran’s Evin prison, known for its harsh conditions and treatment of prisoners, and where many protesters are being held.
“On the dawn of Saturday, one of the prisoners of the Evin prison named Sina Ghanbari, son of Ali Akbar, went to the quarantine toilet and killed himself through hanging,” Mostafa Mohebbi, the head of the Tehran province Prisons Department, told the semiofficial ISNA agency on Tuesday.
A popular actress, Mahnaz Afshar, repeating popular sentiment, responded on Twitter, saying the death was unacceptable. “No justification is acceptable for the death of a 23-year-old youth, more so in the quarantine ward of Evin prison. #Sina_Ghanbari.”
Others accused prison officials of having injected Ghanbari with an overdose of methadone, though they could not cite any evidence. It is unclear whether he participated in the protests or was arrested for something else.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a well-known human rights lawyer and activist, who herself has done several stints in Evin prison for political activities, said that she had been informed by inmates that at least three people had died in the prison in recent days.
“In some cases hundreds of people are packed in rooms that can only accommodate 120 people,” she said. “They must be freed as soon as possible before some react badly or, God forbid, commit suicide.”
International rights groups also expressed alarm about the incarcerations, saying they were reminiscent of the violent repression in Iran that followed the 2009 protests over a disputed presidential election.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the reports of ill treatment of arrested protesters had cast “a dark shadow on the situation for people arrested since these protests began.”