In his first public remarks after days of demonstrations, Ayatollah Khamenei denied any possibility that last week’s vote had been rigged and defended President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the rightful winner of the election. At the same time, the Iranian government continues to arrest journalists, prominent reformists and associates of the opposition candidates, including twenty-six-year-old Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, the top strategist for presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. We speak to Toronto Globe and Mail reporter George McLeod. On Sunday, he was arrested, briefly detained, and beaten by Iranian security forces. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Iran’s Supreme Leader has issued a warning that protests against the country’s disputed presidential election results must end. In his first public remarks after days of demonstrations, Ayatollah Khamenei denied any possibility that last week’s vote had been rigged and defended President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the rightful winner of the election. Demonstrators calling for a new election had earlier vowed to stage fresh protests on Saturday.
Hundreds of thousands of silent protesters flooded the streets of Tehran yesterday despite a continuing government crackdown. Several protesters wore black and carried candles and white flowers to mourn the demonstrators who were killed by Iranian paramilitary and security forces in the past week. The leading opposition candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, addressed the protesters Thursday, asking them to prepare for a major march on Saturday.
Meanwhile, President Ahmadinejad appears to have backed down from his initial remarks insulting the protesters, saying, quote, “every single Iranian is valuable. We like everyone.” But at the same time, the Iranian government continues to arrest prominent reformists and associates of the opposition candidates, including twenty-six-year-old Mohammadreza Jalaeipour, the top strategist for Mousavi.
Well to find out more about some of the conditions that those arrested are facing and the crackdown on protesters, journalists and opposition leaders, we’re joined on the phone from Tehran by Toronto Globe and Mail reporter George McLeod. On Sunday, he was arrested, detained and beaten by Iranian security forces.
George McLeod, Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe what happened to you this weekend?
GEORGE McLEOD: Well, I was approached by a police officer, who grabbed me. He was a riot police officer. And he took me — I was taken to an outdoor location near the Interior Ministry. And I was hauled off the bike and grabbed by the neck and beaten and hit by about, I don’t know, five officers, I would say. And then I was hauled back onto the bike and taken to the Interior Ministry and taken by the arm, with my arm behind my back, into the basement of the car park down a flight of dark stairs and held there and questioned. And I could see — in that area, I could see about a hundred or so demonstrators who were crouched down with their hands behind their head, so this was some sort of a holding facility. And then I was released. So, I had a few minor injuries, but I consider myself quite lucky compared to what could have happened.
AMY GOODMAN: And the numbers, at this point, of people that you understand who have been detained, of people that have been killed?
GEORGE McLEOD: We don’t — we really don’t know that yet. We know that about 400 were arrested the other day — the other night, excuse me. I mean, it would be in the thousands. And we’ll never know the real number, because, I mean, as I saw with my experience at the Interior Ministry, I was taken in, and I was never charged or even accused of anything. So with the way the system works here, they can detain you without calling it an arrest. They can just hold you. So I don’t think we’ll ever know how many have been arrested, but I’m sure it’s well into the thousands.
AMY GOODMAN: And your assessment of the anti — election results protesters, the people who are supporting Mousavi and other candidates? Is this about the elections or about the government overall?
GEORGE McLEOD: Well, at first, it was about the elections. But I think over the week that’s changed. And what I’m hearing from people on the ground is that this is more about the government and about the system and about the way that this country works. And I think the goals of this movement have changed, and they’ve broadened. And I think probably by if not even tonight, then tomorrow, we’re going to see some very, very serious protests occurring in the capital. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw rioting tonight, but I don’t know that for a fact.
AMY GOODMAN: And how are you in Tehran right now, George McLeod, since foreign have been banned?
GEORGE McLEOD: Well, the number of reporters is dwindling. I just spoke with an American TV crew, and their cameraman is down at the police station. And they’ve basically been told that they have to leave. And there’s another radio station — excuse me, television station in the UK that’s being thrown out, as well. And on top of that, we’ve been told that we can’t leave our offices, we can’t look at demonstrations, and that if we do, the authorities are not responsible for what happens to us. So that’s basically — I’ve never reported in an environment as hostile as this, in terms of the authorities.
AMY GOODMAN: And how are they enforcing this? And it’s not just foreign reporters like you, coming from Canada, but it’s also Iranian reporters who are reporting for foreign news organizations. How do they enforce this?
GEORGE McLEOD: Well, first of all, I would say it’s much, much worse for Iranian reporters, because, well, with my experience, I’m convinced I wouldn’t have gotten out of there if I wasn’t a foreigner. So the big issue is how Iranians are treated.
And what they do is, well, they throw you out of the country. Perhaps they throw you in jail for a little while. And they’ve said that if it’s at a riot or a demonstration, you could potentially be physically harmed. So it’s serious.
I was just walking down the street near the prayer meeting, and I was briefly detained and searched. My computer was — they looked at my computer hard drive on my laptop. They looked at my photos. They asked me if I work for a security service. So it’s very bad. The grassroots have been told that the foreign media is stoking these protests. They’ve been told that we are basically the enemy, so it’s not a good situation.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Basij, the paramilitary forces that are known for — have killed a number of people?
GEORGE McLEOD: I had a little run in with them about three nights ago. And they are absolutely terrifying. This is a sort of a quasi-legal, hard-line Islamic group that is basically above the law, because they’re said to be following a religious law. And they basically roam the streets after 10:00 at night, armed with chains, sticks, belts, anything they can get their hands on, and they beat anybody they suspect of being protesters. They searched cars, set up checkpoints. And I personally find them terrifying. They pulled me off a bike the other day and eventually let me go, but it’s not a good situation at nighttime here.
AMY GOODMAN: And the people who are protesting, can you describe the silent protest of the young people, what that means?
GEORGE McLEOD: Well, a lot of it — a lot of it is just to prevent sort of — to prevent any agitation from authorities. They believe that if they’re silent, that that will reduce the pressure from the authorities. The one yesterday, of course, there was the added issue that it was a commemorative ceremony for the death of eight protesters. So I think that what the protesters are trying to make very clear right now through their silence is that this is a peaceful movement, this is not a violent — not a violent insurrection.
AMY GOODMAN: George McLeod, I want to thank you for being with us, freelance correspondent for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, was briefly detained, is now back out on the street. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. He was speaking to us from Tehran.