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Security forces in Iran have been trying to crush anti-government protests

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

At least 185 people have died in the crackdowns on ongoing anti-government protests in Iran. That's according to one human rights group. The uprising started after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the country's morality police last month. NPR's Peter Kenyon contacted one Iranian protester who described the situation on the ground.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Thirty-seven-year-old Meysam agreed to speak about his experience as a protester if his family name isn't used. He's worried about reprisals from the government for speaking out about the actions of the security forces deployed with orders to quell the demonstrations. In voice messages to NPR, Meysam he's from Rasht, a city northwest of Tehran, near the Caspian Sea. He says at first, the demonstrations were peaceful, and the police used mainly batons and tear gas. But then, very quickly, things escalated.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: The chants turned to, death to the Islamic Republic, like the ones being heard here on this video from another protest in Mashhad. And Meysam says the security forces rapidly adopted more lethal crowd control methods.

MEYSAM: (Through interpreter) Then they started using guns and shotguns with metal shots. These days, you can see them walking in the streets with weapons, in groups of 20 to 30 people.

KENYON: Meysam says in his city of Rasht, demonstrators also began chanting, death to the dictator, a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He says normal life in the city, especially after sundown, has been throttled.

MEYSAM: (Through interpreter) Now more time has passed, and almost every day, after 6 or 7 in the evening, martial law is in place, although it's not officially announced. In fact, though not declared, gathering more than three people may lead to arrest. They let you know it, without official announcements.

KENYON: The demonstrations have moved well beyond the issue of Mahsa Amini's death and police brutality to such things as repression of Iran's Kurdish minority, where Mahsa Amini was not allowed to officially use her Kurdish name, Zhina (ph). In his first public comments on the unrest, Khamenei returned to a familiar Iranian argument that all opposition to the regime in Tehran is, in one way or another, a plot by the U.S. or Israel or other foreign adversaries. But the pressure is coming from Iranians, especially Iranian women.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: Day after day, videos that manage to get past government censors show that women continue to lead the protests, including this one that shows women disrupting traffic as they call for azadi, the Farsi word for freedom. Women's rights activists say it's remarkable that such a strong feminist message is being heard all across Iran. Iranian celebrities from sports and the arts have lent their voices to the protests as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BARAYE")

SHERVIN HAJIPOUR: (Singing in Persian).

KENYON: The popular singer Shervin Hajipour gave voice to the demonstrators in a song. The lyrics are based on Twitter messages from Iranians explaining why they joined the protests. The song, titled "For," says in part, for dancing in the street; for the fear of kissing my beloved; for my sister, your sister, our sisters; for the changing of rotten minds; for longing for a normal life. Hajipour was arrested and forced to remove that song from his Instagram account, but not before it was played tens of millions of times. Iranian officials insist the regime is in no danger of being toppled. Meanwhile, as demonstrations enter their fourth week, protesters say their demands for change will continue to be heard.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.