TORONTO — As widespread protests in Iran reached their sixth day, Iranian-Canadians voiced concern for loved ones living in the Middle Eastern country and called on Canada to show greater solidarity with peaceful demonstrators who've taken to the streets.
What began on Dec. 28 in the city of Mashhad as a protest against a weak economy and surging food prices has spread across Iran, with demonstrators criticizing Iran's government and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At least 21 people have died in the protests.
Iranians have grown frustrated by the lack of progress, even under presidents who have claimed to be reformers, said Iranian-Canadian activist and community organizer Mehrdad Ariannejad, who has been monitoring the situation through media reports over the past few months.
"The economic situation is terrible, people are suffering, people are not seeing results," said Ariannejad, who has lived in Canada for about 20 years but has family in Iran.
"They have gone out and voted for President Hassan Rouhani and supported reformists all these years but to no result ... The Ayatollah Khamenei, he can veto anything. People don't have any power, and the president doesn't have any power."
The Iranian president has warned that the government won't hesitate to crack down on those it considers lawbreakers. Hundreds of people have been arrested and a prominent judge warned on Tuesday that some could face the death penalty.
Early Tuesday, Iranian state TV reported that rioters had tried to break into a police station in the town of Qahdarijan to steal guns, leading to clashes that killed six people. Two more were killed in the town of Khomeinishahr, while a member of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and a police officer were killed in the town of Najafabad, according to local media.
Meanwhile, Canadians with friends and family living in Iran are concerned about the toll the violence might take on their loved ones.
Ariannejad said he always tells his relatives to stay away from any violence if they take part in the protests.
Toronto-area real estate agent Omid Valinasab said one of his friends was beaten by government forces during Iran's last widespread wave of civil unrest in 2009, simply because he was walking to work in an area near the protests.
"This time the police is trying to work with people and you see less violence, but there are other groups that are being controlled by Revolutionary Guard that have no mercy for people," Valinasab said.
The Canadian government says it is "deeply troubled" by the deaths of protesters in Iran.
"We call on the Iranian authorities to uphold and respect democratic and human rights," a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday.
"We are encouraged by the Iranian people who are bravely exercising their basic right to protest peacefully. Canada will continue to support the fundamental rights of the Iranians, including freedom of expression."
But some Iranian-Canadians, including Ariannejad have called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to personally express his support of peaceful protest in Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted his support of the protesters for several days.
Showing the Iranian government that the world is watching could make leaders think twice about cracking down on dissent, said Yadi Mahmodi, who was organizing a solidarity protest in north Toronto, scheduled for Tuesday evening.
Mahmodi said he hopes Iranians overthrow the current religious regime and put in place a secular government.
"This is the 21st century and still religion is in every corner of the people's life in Iran. It's not because they don't want (secularism), it's because the government is so strict and has killed so many … political prisoners in the last 39 years."
— with files from the Associated Press.
Peter Goffin, The Canadian Press