Uneasy calm in Tehran as death toll in post-election unrest mounts

Racked by bloody protests in recent days, the streets of Tehran were relatively quiet on Sunday, even as state media reported a new spate of deaths and the government arrested the daughter and four other relatives of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Foreign Affairs denies Canadian Embassy turned people away

Supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi set fire to a barricade as they protested in Tehran on Saturday. ((Associated Press))

Racked by bloody protests in recent days, the streets of Tehran were relatively quiet on Sunday, even as state media reported a new spate of deaths and the government arrested the daughter and four other relatives of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

State television reported Sunday that 10 "rioters" were killed and 100 injured in clashes with police during protests Saturday. The report brings the death toll — by the state's official count — to 19 during a week of post-election unrest.

Iran's Press TV, which is only broadcast outside the country, reported that 13 died Saturday and labelled them as "terrorists." There was no explanation for the discrepancy in the reports.

Amnesty International cautioned that it was "perilously hard" to verify the casualty tolls. Iran has imposed strict restrictions on journalists in the country, and has expelled almost all foreign reporters.

Thousands of Iranians gathered in Tehran on Saturday, despite stern orders from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the cessation of anti-government gatherings. 

Khamenei on Friday ordered opposition leaders to end the protests or be held responsible for any bloodshed. He said Iranians must accept the June 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In this photograph posted on the internet, a man holds up his hand covered in blood during clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Tehran on Saturday. ((Associated Press))

Official results showing Ahmadinejad won by a two-to-one margin over former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi sparked a week of massive street protests by opposition supporters who allege the presidential vote was rigged.

Injured flock to embassies

People injured in the Saturday protests sought refuge at a number of international embassies in Tehran, including the Canadian Embassy, said freelance reporter Kameel Ahmady, reporting from the capital.

There have been reports that the Canadian Embassy in downtown Tehran turned away people seeking help, Ahmady told CBC News.

"As far as we know the security guard at the door [said] they cannot actually accept any protesters or any injured — that's against their policy," he said Sunday.

"However, there has been some sort of conflicting reports that the Canadian Embassy tried [to let] a limited number of protesters [enter] today."

It has not been possible to independently verify these reports.

Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Simone MacAndrew said on Sunday the embassy was closed Saturday, and reports that people seeking help were turned away are false. She says no one is being sheltered at the embassy.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff condemned the Iranian government's use of violence to stifle what he said was peaceful dissent by protesters, and also urged the Canadian government to do all it can to help the injured at its embassy in Tehran.

"Canada should join other countries in keeping our embassy open for the humanitarian needs of the people of Iran," he said late Saturday in a release.

'I don't think I've ever seen so many police'

There were no reports of additional clashes or protests on Sunday. Freelance reporter George McLeod, reporting from Tehran, told CBC News that while the streets of the capital were quiet Sunday, police and militia groups were out in massive numbers.

"I have never seen so many police here — in fact, I don't think I've ever seen so many police," said McLeod, one of the few remaining foreign journalists in the country.

The Iranian government expelled BBC correspondent Jon Leyne from Tehran, suspended the Dubai-based network Al-Arabiy and detained at least two local journalists for U.S. magazines.

During the past week, at least 24 journalists and bloggers were arrested.

Authorities have also banned foreign media from reporting from the street and allow only phone interviews and information from official sources such as state television. Many websites have been blocked. Iran is particularly sensitive about news reports, blogs and internet reports in Farsi.

"Today we've seen the authorities have been able to keep people from demonstrating and I've seen them being very assertive about making sure that the groups of more than, say, three people aren't walking down the street at once," McLeod said, adding that the sources he had spoken to weren't aware of any protests on Sunday.

Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, shown here in August 2008, has lambasted President Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy. ((Vahid Salemi/Associated Press) )

"I'm wondering how it would be possible for anybody to gather for a protest under these circumstances."

Powerful former president

The government said Sunday that Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, was arrested late Saturday. She has spoken out in support of Mousavi and addressed his supporters at a rally on Tuesday.

The identities of the four other unidentified Rafsanjani relatives who were detained were not immediately known. The four had been released, Press TV reported Sunday evening, but Hashemi was still believed to be in captivity.

Rafsanjani, 75, has spoken out repeatedly against Ahmadinejad, who in turn has accused Rafsanjani and his supporters of corruption. Rafsanjani, who heads two powerful councils, had worked alongside Mousavi throughout the election campaign.   

Rafsanjani's leadership of the Assembly of Experts is particularly significant. The council is made up of senior clerics who can elect and dismiss the supreme leader. The second is the Expediency Council, a body that arbitrates disputes between parliament and the unelected Guardian Council, which can block legislation.

"Rafsanjani believes that Khamenei has lost his capability to run the country, and they have to replace him," Ali Reza Nourizadeh, the director of the London-based Centre for Arab-Iranian studies, told CBC News.

Rafsanjani has the support of a significant number of Iranians, said Nourizadeh.

"Yesterday [protesters] were chanting 'Death to Khamenei,' and that is the first time in 10 days," he said.

Khamenei chose his words carefully when speaking about Rafsanjani in his Friday sermon to tens of thousands of worshippers. Kahmenei praised the former president as one of the architects of the revolution and an effective political figure for many years. Khamenei acknowledged, however, that the two have "many differences of opinion."

Meanwhile, former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, who is also a Mousavi supporter, said Sunday that having the Guardian Council oversee the election dispute was not a solution, according to state media.

"Referring the dispute to a body which has not been impartial regarding the vote, is not a solution," Khatami said in a statement, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.

With files from The Associated Press