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Iran should take measures to end violent attacks on students demonstrating against government policies and prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today.

In an open letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Human Rights Watch called for an independent commission of inquiry to determine who is responsible for the attacks. Vigilante assaults against protestors and dissidents have been a disturbing feature in Iran for many years, and leaders of these groups have frequently claimed to have the support of key conservative leaders.

"Iran's leaders have not taken any real steps to halt these vicious attacks on protestors," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "The commission should have the resources and authority to find out why, and should make its findings public."

The most recent protests began on June 10 over government plans to privatize Iran's universities but quickly spread beyond campuses and took up broader demands for political freedoms. Vigilante and paramilitary forces known as lebas shakhs-iha (those who wear plain clothes), some of them charging into crowds on motorcycles, assaulted demonstrators using batons, chains and knives, reportedly causing many injuries.

"The government should disband all of these vigilante groups," Megally said. "All security forces should report through a clear chain of command that is open to public scrutiny."

In November 2002, in response to student protests against the death sentence imposed on university professor Hashem Aghajari, Ayatollah Khamenei warned students that if they did not "return to their homes" then "the people will intervene," which many Iranians took to be a thinly veiled threat to unleash the same vigilante forces that had participated in July 1999 raids on university dormitories and badly injured scores of students.

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