TEHRAN, Iran – The showdown between Iran's clerical leaders and a resilient protest movement sharpened Saturday, as opposition leaders accused the government of becoming more brutal than the shah's regime and authorities announced a new Internet crackdown.
Two of Iran's top pro-reform figures said in a Web statement that police used excessive force against anti-government protesters who took to the streets last week on the sidelines of state-sanctioned rallies to mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover.
Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, who lead the protest movement rejecting the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's June re-election, said authorities wielding batons even struck women on their heads. They called such treatment an ugly act that was not even seen during Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's response to the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled him.
"I can't understand why they should treat people like this," Karroubi was quoted as saying by several opposition Web sites. "... I struggled against the Pahlavi regime for 15 years ... but there were no such crackdowns."
Such Web statements have been the mainstay of an opposition movement struggling to stay alive despite being brutally swept off the streets in the weeks after the June 12 election. Mousavi and his supporters contend that he was the rightful winner of the vote, but that Ahmadinejad was fraudulently declared the winner.
In a clear effort to silence the opposition's Internet outlet, Iranian authorities announced they were deploying a special police unit to sweep Web sites for political material and prosecute those deemed to be spreading lies, Iranian media reported Saturday.
Many opposition Web sites are already banned, but the opposition has continued to set up new Web sites within days of the old ones being blocked.
The new 12-member police unit will report to the prosecutor's office, signaling an intention to bring offenders to trial.
"Authorities know that the Internet is one of the few available channels for the opposition to make its voice heard. They want to silence opposition voices," said reform-minded journalist Akbar Montajabi, who described the measure as the latest set of restrictions imposed on media in the country.
Iran also pushed ahead Saturday with another key component in its battle with the opposition, sentencing a student activist to eight years in prison, according to the pro-opposition Web site Mowjcamp. More than 100 activists and some senior pro-reform figures have been on trial since August on charges of participating in rallies and plotting to overthrow the country's clerical rulers.