Sunni cleric challenges Iran's leaders as protests rage

A police motorcycle burns during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police", in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022. [WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters | File Photo]

A prominent Sunni cleric who directed unprecedented criticism at Iran's supreme leader over a bloody crackdown in his hometown appeared unbowed this week by warnings from security forces, pressing his demands for more rights for his minority and voicing support for other groups in country-wide unrest.

Molavi Abdolhamid has long been a dissenting voice seeking better living standards and more political representation for the Sunni minority in the mostly Shi'ite Islamic Republic, including the Baluchi ethnic group to which he belongs and the Kurdish population. Iran's government denies discrimination against Sunnis.

His criticism has escalated since the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman in police custody on Sept. 16 ignited nationwide protests, in which more than 250 people have been killed according to rights groups.

Some of the worst unrest has been in areas home to minority ethnic groups with long-standing grievances against the state, including Abdolhamid's province of Sistan-Baluchistan and Kurdish regions. Officials have blamed separatist militants for the unrest.

In the deadliest incident, security forces shot dead 66 people on Sept. 30 in Abdolhamid's hometown of Zahedan in a crackdown following Friday prayers, according to Amnesty International. Officials blamed separatist militants for opening fire on a police station, triggering a shootout.

Abdolhomid, who had denounced the killings as a "crime", on Friday dramatically raised the stakes, saying Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other officials were "responsible before God."

Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards, a hardline military force used by the state to crush political unrest, issued on Saturday what it said was a "last