(CNN) — Iran’s supreme leader praised the country’s Basij paramilitary force for its role in the deadly crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
In a meeting with Basij staff in Tehran on Saturday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described the protesters as “rioters” and “thugs” and said the popular protest movement was backed by foreign forces. He also praised “innocent” Basij fighters for protecting the nation.
The Basij is a wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard deployed on the streets as protests have escalated since September.
The protest movement was initially sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s moral police.
Amnesty International says the Basij have been ordered to “ruthlessly confront” the protesters.
“When facing the enemy on the battlefield, the Basij have always been fearless, unafraid of the enemy,” the Supreme Leader said on Saturday.
“You saw in the most recent events, our innocent and oppressed Basijis became the target of oppression so they would not allow the nation to become the target of rioters and thugs and those on the payroll. [enemiga], whether knowingly or not. They gave themselves to free others,” Khamenei said.
Khamenei’s words come a day after the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, warned that Iran is in a “human rights crisis in every sense of the word” due to the repression of dissidents who oppose the regime.
Turk called for “independent, impartial and transparent investigative processes” into human rights violations in Iran during a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday.
He told the council of 47 member states in Geneva that security forces reportedly responded to the protests by using deadly force against unarmed protesters and bystanders who “posed no threat.”
According to Turk, more than 14,000 people, including children, have been arrested in connection with the protests. He said at least 21 of them are currently facing the death penalty and six have already received death sentences.
Among those arrested are two well-known Iranian actresses, Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi, who were detained on separate occasions for publicly supporting protests across the country, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
The Islamic Republic has been hit by a wave of anti-government protests sparked by Amini’s death, allegedly for not wearing her hijab correctly.
Since then, the authorities have unleashed a deadly crackdown on protesters, with reports of forced arrests and physical abuse being used to target the country’s Kurdish minority group. In a recent CNN investigation, undercover testimony revealed sexual violence against protesters, including children, in Iran’s detention centers since the start of the unrest.
The unprecedented nationwide uprising has gripped more than 150 cities and 140 universities in Iran’s 31 provinces, according to Turk.
The violent response by Iran’s security forces towards the protesters has shaken diplomatic ties between Tehran and Western leaders.
The White House on Wednesday imposed its latest round of sanctions on three officials in Iran’s Kurdish region, after US Secretary Antony Blinken said he was “very concerned that Iranian authorities are reportedly they are increasing violence against protesters.”
During an interview with Indian broadcaster NDTV on Thursday, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani said that foreign powers were interfering in Iran’s internal affairs and creating “false narratives.”
CNN’s Mostafa Salem, Sana Noo contributed to this report.