A wave of anti-government protests broke out in Iran on a popular holiday celebrated with fireworks.
Iranians across the country celebrated the Zoroastrian holiday of “Red Wednesday” by throwing fireworks at security forces, throwing hijabs into bonfires, singing anti-government songs and chanting slogans against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“This year is the year of blood,” a rowdy crowd gathered in the northern Iranian city of Rasht chanted. “Seyed Ali [Khamenei] will be overthrown.”
Red Wednesday begins on the last Tuesday night of the Persian calendar year and is often celebrated by lighting fireworks or jumping over bonfires while chanting “My yellow is yours, your red is mine” – calling for the replacement of ills with warmth and energy. It’s a ritual that often leads to injury. The state news agency IRNA reported that incidents involving bonfires and fireworks related to the festival over the past three weeks have killed 26 people and injured more than 4,000. Last year, before the recent protests, 19 people were killed and 2,800 injured during the same period.
It is one of two pre-Islamic festivals that are still celebrated each year in the Islamic Republic, the other being a picnic day in early April. Both offer Iranians a rare opportunity to dance and celebrate in public, which the authorities usually frown upon.
The protests, which lasted from Tuesday to early Wednesday, follow a wave of unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in custody six months ago. The death of the 22-year-old after her arrest by the morality police sparked outrage, both within Iran and the wider international community. The wave of opposition has leveled ethnic, religious, regional and social divisions in Iran, posing one of the greatest challenges for the clerical regime in its 44 years of existence. More than 400 people died in the clashes.
Amid intense crackdowns that led to lower turnout, activist leaders in the country had previously urged protesters to avoid the streets for the time being. But anger is simmering beneath the surface at the country’s political repression and economic failure. Students, professors and others recently protested against the government over a series of alleged mass poisonings of female high schools.
Activists urged Iranians to use the annual pre-New Year’s night celebrations to hold anti-government rallies, and police braced for disruption. Videos showed young Iranians throwing fireworks at security officers passing by on motorcycles.
Officials sought to quell the protests with thousands of arrests, which human rights activists say are making prisons dangerously overcrowded.
Chief Justice Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei announced on Monday that 22,628 people arrested during the recent protests had been pardoned or had their sentences commuted on Khamenei’s orders.