DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Iran's supreme leader on Sunday reportedly ordered an amnesty or reduction in prison sentences for "tens of thousands" of people detained amid nationwide anti-government protests shaking the country, acknowledging for the first time the scale of the crackdown.
The decree by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, part of a yearly pardoning the supreme leader does before the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, comes as authorities have yet to say how many people they detained in the demonstrations. State media offered a list of caveats over the order as well that means those with ties abroad or facing internationally criticized spying charges wouldn't be eligible.
State media reports about the decree offered no explanation for the decision by Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state in Iran. However, prisons and detention facilities already had faced overcrowding in the country after years of protests over economic issues and other matters.
Authorities also did not name any of those who had been pardoned or seen shorter sentences. Instead, state television for instance referred to the demonstrations as being a "foreign-backed riot," rather than homegrown anger over the September death of Masha Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman detained by the country's morality police. Anger also has been spreading over the collapse of the Iranian rial against the U.S. dollar, as well as Tehran arming Russia with bomb-carrying drones in its war on Ukraine.
More than 19,600 people have been arrested during the protests, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that's been tracking the crackdown. At least 527 people have been killed as authorities violently suppressed demonstrations, the group said. Iran hasn't offered a death toll for months. It already has executed at least four people detained amid the protests after internationally criticized trials.
All this comes as Iran's nuclear deal has collapsed and Tehran has enough highly enriched uranium to potentially build "several" atomic bombs if it chooses, the United Nations' top nuclear envoy has said. A shadow war between Iran and Israel has risen out of the chaos, with Tehran blaming Israel for a drone attack on a military workshop in Isfahan last week as well.
Meanwhile, a long-detained opposition leader in Iran is calling for a nationwide referendum about whether to write a new constitution for the Islamic Republic.
Mir Hossein Mousavi's call, posted late Saturday by the opposition Kaleme website, included him saying he didn't believe Iran's current system giving final say to a supreme leader worked any longer. He also called for the formation of a constitutional assembly of "real representatives" to write a new constitution.
It remains unlikely Iran's theocracy will heed the 80-year-old politician's call. He and his wife have been under house arrest for years after his disputed presidential election loss in 2009 led to the widespread Green Movement protests that security forces also put down. However, he himself had supported and served in Iran's theocracy for decades.
In 2019, Mousavi compared Khamenei to the former Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose rule saw troops gun down demonstrators in an event that led to the Islamic Revolution.
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