CNN
Now playing
02:12
US-Iran relations remain strained 40 years later
Reuters
Now playing
00:58
Firefighters battle flames in South African national park
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny delivers a speech during a demonstration in Moscow on September 29, 2019. - Thousands gathered in Moscow for a demonstration demanding the release of the opposition protesters prosecuted in recent months. Police estimated a turnout of 20,000 people at the Sakharov Avenue in central Moscow about half an hour after the start of the protest, which was authorised. The demonstrators chanted "let them go" and brandished placards demanding a halt to "repressions" of opposition protesters. (Photo by Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP) (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny delivers a speech during a demonstration in Moscow on September 29, 2019. - Thousands gathered in Moscow for a demonstration demanding the release of the opposition protesters prosecuted in recent months. Police estimated a turnout of 20,000 people at the Sakharov Avenue in central Moscow about half an hour after the start of the protest, which was authorised. The demonstrators chanted "let them go" and brandished placards demanding a halt to "repressions" of opposition protesters. (Photo by Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP) (Photo by YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:09
Alexey Navalny 'close to death,' press secretary says
WINDSOR, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: The Duke of Edinburgh's coffin, covered with His Royal Highness's Personal Standard is carried to the purpose built Land Rover during the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021 in Windsor, England. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born 10 June 1921, in Greece. He served in the British Royal Navy and fought in WWII. He married the then Princess Elizabeth on 20 November 1947 and was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich by King VI. He served as Prince Consort to Queen Elizabeth II until his death on April 9 2021, months short of his 100th birthday. His funeral takes place today at Windsor Castle with only 30 guests invited due to Coronavirus pandemic restrictions. (Photo by Adrian Dennis/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Adrian Dennis/WPA Pool/Getty Images
WINDSOR, ENGLAND - APRIL 17: The Duke of Edinburgh's coffin, covered with His Royal Highness's Personal Standard is carried to the purpose built Land Rover during the funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at Windsor Castle on April 17, 2021 in Windsor, England. Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark was born 10 June 1921, in Greece. He served in the British Royal Navy and fought in WWII. He married the then Princess Elizabeth on 20 November 1947 and was created Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich by King VI. He served as Prince Consort to Queen Elizabeth II until his death on April 9 2021, months short of his 100th birthday. His funeral takes place today at Windsor Castle with only 30 guests invited due to Coronavirus pandemic restrictions. (Photo by Adrian Dennis/WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:29
See memorable moments from Prince Philip's funeral
ITN
Now playing
02:10
Princes Harry and William seen together at Prince Philip's funeral
Getty Images
Now playing
00:55
CNN anchor: We saw a Queen grieving
Getty Images
Now playing
03:00
The end of an era has arrived in Cuba
Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro talking with parents of some of the American prisoners held hostage for food and supplies by the Cuban government after the abortive emigre invasion at the Bay of Pigs, January 1963.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro talking with parents of some of the American prisoners held hostage for food and supplies by the Cuban government after the abortive emigre invasion at the Bay of Pigs, January 1963.
Now playing
05:37
Remembering the Bay of Pigs invasion, 60 years later
Myanmar Bago killing Hancocks pkg intl hnk vpx_00002309.png
Myanmar Bago killing Hancocks pkg intl hnk vpx_00002309.png
Now playing
03:39
Eyewitnesses recount bloody crackdown in Bago, Myanmar
MAY LEWIS via Reuters
Now playing
00:49
Here's why this river turned white
Hong Kong national security education day Lu Stout W&T intl hnk vpx_00013016.png
Hong Kong national security education day Lu Stout W&T intl hnk vpx_00013016.png
Now playing
01:42
Hong Kong police showcase 'Chinese-style goose-stepping'
brazil coronavirus jair bolsonaro rio de janeiro Darlington pkg intl ldn vpx_00003012.png
AFP
brazil coronavirus jair bolsonaro rio de janeiro Darlington pkg intl ldn vpx_00003012.png
Now playing
02:43
Last week, coronavirus killed 3 people every minute in Brazil
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: U.S. President Joe Biden announces new economic sanctions against the Russia government from the East Room of the White House on April 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden announced sanctions against 32 companies and individuals that are aimed at choking off lending to the Russian government and in response to the 2020 hacking operation that breached American government agencies and some of the nation's largest companies. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: U.S. President Joe Biden announces new economic sanctions against the Russia government from the East Room of the White House on April 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden announced sanctions against 32 companies and individuals that are aimed at choking off lending to the Russian government and in response to the 2020 hacking operation that breached American government agencies and some of the nation's largest companies. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Now playing
06:49
Biden imposes new sanctions on Russia
CNN's Becky Anderson speaks with Fatima Gailani, an Afghan women's rights activist and government peace negotiator, about her views on the planned withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
CNN
CNN's Becky Anderson speaks with Fatima Gailani, an Afghan women's rights activist and government peace negotiator, about her views on the planned withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan.
Now playing
03:49
Afghan negotiator: I'm worried about withdrawal without peace
screengrab afghanistan taliban
AFPTV
screengrab afghanistan taliban
Now playing
03:50
How Taliban may run Afghanistan after US troops withdraw
screengrab japan fukushima daiichi
IAEA
screengrab japan fukushima daiichi
Now playing
02:31
Japan plans to release treated Fukushima water into sea
(CNN) —  

When Sina Ghanbari took to Tehran’s streets during nationwide demonstrations at the beginning of 2018, he was speaking out against corruption, a sluggish economy and soaring fuel and food prices.

Ghanbari was detained during the protests. After being held in the so-called quarantine ward of Tehran’s Evin prison for five days, he died on his 22nd birthday.

Prison authorities told his mother, Fatemeh Malayan Nejad, that her son had taken his own life. “My son called me from prison. He told me they had beaten him up,” Nejad tells CNN. “It’s a big lie that he committed suicide, and I won’t rest until the truth comes out.” Ghanbari’s mother says she believes he was murdered.

Fatemeh Malayan Nejad holds a picture of her son Sina, who was detained for protesting and died after five days in custody. Courtesy of Fatemeh Malayan Nejad/Masih Alinejad
Fatemeh Malayan Nejad/Masih Alinejad
Fatemeh Malayan Nejad holds a picture of her son Sina, who was detained for protesting and died after five days in custody. Courtesy of Fatemeh Malayan Nejad/Masih Alinejad

Ghanbari is one of nine protesters who died under “suspicious circumstances” after being detained by the Iranian authorities in 2018, according to a report by Amnesty International released on January 24. The rights group also says that at least 26 protesters were killed on the streets, and more than 7,000 dissidents of the regime were arrested throughout the year. Of that figure, 11 lawyers, 50 media professionals and 91 students were detained arbitrarily.

The Iranian government has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.

But Iran’s protest movements show little sign of abating. As security forces step up their crackdown, dissidents have continued to stage demonstrations. Rather than quashing dissent, experts say, Iran’s repression may have emboldened activists.

“Protesters feel they have nothing to lose,” says Mansoureh Mills, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher. “In the past year, we’ve seen thousands of workers across the country in anguish because they haven’t been paid for months and are struggling to feed their families.”

“You only have to watch videos of these protests on social media and listen to workers calling out, ‘We do not fear prison because we have nothing more to lose’ to understand how emboldened they have become,” Mills added.

The wave of protests in 2018

The economic protests of December 2017 and January 2018 were the largest display of public discontent in Iran since the 2009 Green Movement, when millions took to the streets to demonstrate against alleged election fraud.

But while the Green Movement attracted far larger numbers, the geographic scope of the 2017 and 2018 protests caught authorities by surprise. The demonstrators were largely from outside the capital. They gathered in major northeastern cities – such as the conservative stronghold of Mashhad – and in the provinces. They also largely hailed from the country’s working class. Both demographics were long considered centerpieces of the regime’s popular base.

“What was noteworthy was their geographical spread,” says Mohammad Ali Shabani, Iran Pulse editor at Al-Monitor. “Equally noteworthy was the lack of elite backing: beyond general statements of sympathy for demands such as more jobs and lower consumer prices, no major political camp sided with the protesters.”

Despite the regime’s violent response to the initial 2017 and 2018 demonstrations, individuals and coordinated groups of dissidents continued to publicly demand political and social reforms throughout 2018.

As Iran’s economic crisis deepened, peaceful demonstrations were held during July and August which authorities dispersed by using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons, according to Amnesty.

Teachers in Tehran held protests in October and November which resulted in 23 arrests and eight prison sentences. By the end of the year, 467 workers, including truck drivers, factory workers and teachers, had been questioned by authorities or subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.

“(The crackdown) is the worst we have witnessed over the past decade,” Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher, tells CNN.

A few brave women

Perhaps the highest-profile social movement to gain momentum during 2018 were the protests against Iran’s compulsory hijab law.

On December 27, 2017, Vida Movahedi, a 31-year-old Iranian mother, climbed atop a utilities box on one of Tehran’s most crowded streets and silently waved a white headscarf on a stick. She stood unveiled, her long hair flowing in the breeze.

Movahedi was arrested a few hours later, but a photograph of her solitary act went viral. The image helped galvanize exiled Iranian Masih Alinejad’s “White Wednesdays” social media campaign. The movement encourages people to protest against the mandatory headscarf law by wearing white on Wednesdays or going out unveiled.

Vida Movahedi stands on a telecoms box on a Tehran street after removing her headscarf and holding a stick to protest against the country's compulsory hijab rules.
Salampix/Abaca/Sipa/AP Images
Vida Movahedi stands on a telecoms box on a Tehran street after removing her headscarf and holding a stick to protest against the country's compulsory hijab rules.

Through her campaign, Alinejad receives pictures and videos of these demonstrations. She then shares them on her social media accounts, which have a combined following of more than 2.3 million. Within weeks of Movahedi’s act, women across the country were filming themselves unveiled on busy streets in a show of solidarity.

By the end of 2018, at least 112 female activists had been arrested or detained, according to Amnesty. Despite the arrests, the White Wednesdays movement continues today and shows no signs of subsiding.

Shaparak Shajarizadeh, 43, an active member of the movement, was arrested three times in 2018 before eventually fleeing to Turkey, and then seeking asylum in Canada. She was first detained on February 21 for sharing a video of herself online mirroring Movahedi’s demonstration.

“I got beaten in the morality and security office, then they sent me to solitary confinement in jail. I was on a hunger strike for one week, then I got released,” Shajarizadeh tells CNN. “After that I received threatening calls – they told me to stop posting my pictures online and speaking about the compulsory hijab laws.”

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer and women’s rights defender in Iran, took up Shajarizadeh’s case. While awaiting sentencing, Shajarizadeh was illegally detained by authorities again in March and May. She says she was tortured, threatened and thrown in Evin prison.

“I was accused of corruption and prostitution for posting pictures without my hijab online,” Shajarizadeh says. “They told me to drop Nasrin Sotoudeh as my lawyer – threatening to charge me with national security charges against the country if I kept her.”

02:15 - Source: CNN
Risking it all by rejecting the hijab

Shajarizadeh was sentenced to 20 years in prison, 18 of which were suspended. Sotoudeh was herself arrested on June 13, 2018, for defending several anti-compulsory hijab protesters. She faces national security-related charges which could see her sentenced to more than a decade in prison.

According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, she is denied visits by her family. On January 23, Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, also a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for security-related charges. Both are now appealing their charges.

Shaparak Shajarizadeh stands unveiled in an Iranian town waving a white scarf on a stick, as part of the anti-compulsory hijab protests of 2018.
Shaparak Shajarizadeh/Masih Alinejad
Shaparak Shajarizadeh stands unveiled in an Iranian town waving a white scarf on a stick, as part of the anti-compulsory hijab protests of 2018.

 US intentions

Throughout 2018, senior US administration officials – including President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – repeatedly aligned themselves with Iranian protesters to further isolate the regime.

During the wave of demonstrations in January, Trump tweeted, “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” The President then warned that the US was watching closely before declaring, “it’s time for a change.”

Pompeo seemed to take a personal interest in the anti-hijab demonstrations, and on at least two occasions in 2018 tweeted images of Vida Movahedi’s protest. In June, he even posted a graphic of Movahedi next to a photo of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, with the slogan “Iranian people deserve respect for their human rights” written over the image. The State Department also tweeted several messages in support of women’s rights in Iran – all written in Farsi.

During a speech at the Heritage Foundation in May 2018, Pompeo laid out how the US planned to proce