Iran jails couple shown dancing at Freedom Tower in viral video

A young couple who posted a video of themselves dancing romantically in the streets of Tehran have been sentenced to several years in prison, according to human rights activists and Iranian authorities.

Instagram influencers Astiyazh Haghighi, 21, and her fiancé, Amir Mohammad Ahmadi, 22, were jailed amid the regime's crackdown in a bid to quell anti-government protests that have swept the country.

The couple, popular figures on social media, with a combined following of almost 2 million, have regularly posted videos together.

In a video posted to their Instagram accounts in November, which has since been deleted but is now being circulated widely on social media, the bloggers dance at night near Tehran’s landmark Azadi (Freedom) tower, which marks the western entrance to Iran's capital.

The couple twirl and dance as they embrace in front of the glowing monument, with a glittering filter transposed onto the video.

While dancing is not illegal according to Iran's penal code, women dancing in public — particularly with men — is. Haghighi appeared in the video without a headscarf, an item of clothing that has become a focal point of the protests.

The couple did not link their video to the unrest that erupted across the Islamic Republic after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in a hospital after she was detained by the morality police, who accused her of breaking the country’s strict dress code.

But news of the couple's prison sentences was first reported Sunday by an activist group, which said security forces violently arrested them on Nov. 1 "after they published a video on social media showing them dancing in a city square."

Haghighi and Ahmadi were sentenced to 10 years and six months each in prison, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency, or HRANA, the communications arm of Human Rights Activists in Iran, which describes itself as a “non-political and non-governmental organization comprised of advocates who defend human rights in Iran.”

The two were also banned from using social media and prohibited from leaving the country for two years, HRANA said, adding that they were reported to have been denied access to a lawyer during legal proceedings. The last post on both of their Instagram accounts is from Sept. 22.

Iran's Mizan news agency, which is run by the judiciary, reported Wednesday that Haghighi and Ahmadi were arrested by authorities on Nov. 1 and later sentenced by a judge to five years in prison each for “colluding and rallying against the country’s security.”

“Their focus was to encourage people to protest and overthrow the regime,” the report said. “They used their platform to advertise for protests, including the call for the October 26th protests. Despite being informed of their disruptive actions by security officials, they persisted and were arrested on November 1st.”

NBC News has been unable to independently verify any details of the case, and it is unclear what may be behind the discrepancy between the activist group and Mizan.

A boy carries an Iranian flag in front of Azadi tower in Tehran on Feb. 11, 2020. (Vahid Salemi / AP file)
A boy carries an Iranian flag in front of Azadi tower in Tehran on Feb. 11, 2020. (Vahid Salemi / AP file)

The couple's story quickly spread among supporters of the protests on social media.

“For the crime of dancing, these two young Iranians have been sentenced,” the Iranian activist and journalist Masih Alinejad tweeted Monday. “They don’t deserve such brutality,” she said, sharing the video of the pair dancing.

Tara Sepehri Far, a senior researcher on Iran at Human Rights Watch, said by email, "This arbitrary and totally unjust long imprisonment for posting a video clearly shows that authorities are using trumped up charges through the unfair judicial system to crackdown on not just social freedoms, but on acts of peaceful resistance and mobilization that courageous protestors have been undertaking over the past several months."

The protests that swept across Iran after Amini died developed into perhaps the greatest challenge to theocratic rule since it was established in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

After months violently cracking down on the protests, the Iranian government has started hanging people in public, a response that prompted an outcry from human rights activists and Western officials.

At least 527 people have been killed — 71 of them children — four protesters have been executed, and almost 20,000 others have been arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran. Iran’s Interior Ministry said in December that the death toll was 200, including security forces who were killed.

In an Instagram post uploaded Sept. 20, Haghighi wrote about her experience being stopped by morality police on several occasions because of her “inappropriate” clothing and the fear it had instilled in her.

“They took me inside the van,” she recalled of one incident in her Instagram post. “The fear that it had given me never left me.

“You often curse me, asking why I don’t speak up,” Haghighi continued, addressing her followers. “I want to tell you that I can’t, not because I don’t want to. It’s because my mother has no one but me, and I am the head of my family. I’m afraid of my mom’s tears.”

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