Celebrities in Iran are facing punishment for supporting protests following death of Mahsa Amini

Award-winning Iranian filmmaker Mani Haghighi’s noir thriller, Subtraction, is set to screen Saturday at the prestigious London Film Festival.

But on Friday he joined a growing list of Iranian celebrities, including artists, filmmakers and athletes who have been arrested or put under travel bans for supporting a nationwide uprising that despite a bloody crackdown shows no signs of abating as it nears its second month.

“Perhaps the authorities thought that by keeping me here they could keep a closer eye on me, perhaps to threaten me and shut me up?” Haghighi said Friday in a video posted to his Instagram page. “Well the very fact that I am talking to you in this video right now kind of undermines that plan.”

Iran’s women and youth-led protests have swiftly become one of the greatest challenges in years to the iron grip of Iran’s clerical leaders.

Killing of another teenage protester gives Iran uprising a new symbol

Protests began in mid-September after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for an alleged dress violation sparked outrage. Amini’s death, and authorities’ efforts to cover it up, quickly became a symbol for decades of political repression, poverty, gender discrimination and state-sponsored violence, among other grievances fueling weeks of unrest.

Iran’s leaders blamed protests on foreign “instigators,” launching internet and communication blackouts and a far-reaching and violent crackdown that has included raids on schools, live fire to disperse protests and mass arrests. At least 144 people have been killed, among them 23 minors, according to Amnesty International.

Despite the clampdown, striking videos of women defiantly taking off their mandatory veils and demonstrators facing off with security forces have garnered global support. Oscar-winning actresses and European politicians have posted videos of themselves cutting their hair in solidarity.

Some Iranians and rights groups have called for a more forceful and coordinated response by Washington, the European Union and the United Nations.

“Without urgent action at the international level, this will just continue and get worse,” said Raha Bahreini, an Iran researcher with London-based Amnesty International.

The Biden administration early on expressed support for the protests and condemned Tehran’s violent crackdown.

Opinion Iran protests have broken through to the world. What’s the world saying back?

“Today, I met with civil society partners to discuss what more the U.S. can do to support the people of Iran, particularly its brave women and girls,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted Friday along with a photo of the meeting.

Iranian actress and activist Nazanin Boniadi, who attended the meeting, also met Friday with Vice President Harris. The two discussed ways to bolster U.S. support, “including by making it easier for Iranians to access the Internet, and that Iranian officials are held accountable for their brutality and abuses,” according to a readout from the meeting.

But for those speaking out in Iran, even Iranians with international clout, the risks keep growing.

‘Bloody Friday’: Witnesses describe the deadliest crackdown in Iran protests

Haghighi said authorities prevented him from boarding his flight Friday and confiscated his passport.

They gave him no explanation for “this utterly rude behavior,” he said in his video statement.

Haghighi said his ban came after he posted on Instagram, “in which I criticized Iran’s mandatory hijab laws, and the crackdown on the youth who are protesting it and so many other instances of injustice in their lives.”

Prominent Iranian actor Hamid Farrokhnezhad said in an Instagram story Oct. 9 that he had been called in for hours of interrogation and banned from travel.

“I was summoned twice, interrogated for 10 hours and banned from leaving the country to prove to me that I was wrong when I said that even a peaceful protest is not possible in this country,” Farrokhnezhad said, Radio Farda reported.

Other celebrities have faced work bans and harassment upon returning to the country.

Singer Homayoun Shajarian and his wife, actress Sahar Dolatshahi, had their passports seized after returning from a concert in Australia, ILNA news agency reported on Oct. 9.

Iranian soccer legend Ali Daei said authorities also confiscated his passport upon arrival at Tehran airport. The former head coach of Iran’s national soccer team and star player in Germany’s Bundesliga professional soccer association has been posting on social media in support of the protests.

“Our former player Ali Daei is no longer permitted to leave the country because he has come out in favour of women’s rights,” the German soccer club Hertha Berlin tweeted Oct. 9. “Solidarity with all Herthaners and women in Iran who are so bravely fighting for their rights.”

Daei said Oct. 10 that his passport had been returned. At the airport, he said, he was given a receipt “to go to the public and revolutionary prosecutor in the capital to follow up the case,” AFP reported.

Dubai-based Ali Karimi, considered one of Iran’s greatest soccer players and an early advocate of the protests, was charged in absentia Oct. 4 with “encouraging riots,” Mehr News Agency reported.

How a viral song became the unofficial anthem of Iran’s protests

Some Iranian artists have become internationally known because of the state’s efforts to silence them. In late September, authorities arrested Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour after he shared a tribute to the protests on his Instagram page. The song, a compilation of tweets about why Iranians were protesters, quickly went viral as a soundtrack of the uprising. Hajipour was released on bail in early October.

Despite decades of state censorship, Iran has a booming art scene. Artists and other celebrities have long been frequent targets during times of unrest.

In July, authorities arrested two award-winning filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, for their participation in demonstrations over the collapse of a luxury 10-story commercial building. Dozens were killed as reports emerged that the municipality had a stake in the building and approved a shoddy construction plan.

When internationally renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi went to the prosecutor’s office to inquire about his colleagues’ detention, authorities arrested him, too.

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