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Iranian celebrities lend their star power to protests

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Nicosia (AFP)

Iranian artists, athletes and media personalities have lent their voices to anti-government protests in the Islamic republic over the accidental downing of a passenger plane that killed 176 people.

Among them have been actors vowing to boycott a film festival, a star volleyball player who said he saw "no light in the future", and a former state TV presenter who apologised "for 13 years of lying" to her viewers.

The latest demonstrations broke out after the armed forces admitted they had accidently shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet on January 8 amid high tensions with arch foe the United States.

The acknowledgement, after days of denial by the government, was met with an outpouring of grief over the loss of life and anger at the breach of trust, with demonstrators calling their rulers "liars".

They were soon joined by a string of high-profile figures from the worlds of arts, sports and media.

A slew of actors and others withdrew from April's Fajr International Film festival, which is held each year to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Over three million people within days watched a clip posted by one actor, Navid Mohammadzadeh, which also garnered plaudits from other Iranian stars.

The short take from his 2018 film "Sheeple" touches on a tough choice many dissidents face: stay and push for change despite the risks, or leave and join Iran's chronic brain drain.

"Now you see that I haven't left this wreck of a place," Mohammadzadeh's character tells his abusive father in the short video.

"I have stayed and will blacken your life. I stayed to get my rights."

- 'Desperate and sad' -

One high-profile flight from the country drew headlines around the time of the protests.

On January 11, taekwondo athlete Kimia Alizadeh, Iran's only female Olympic medallist, announced she had permanently left Iran, citing the "hypocrisy" of a system she claimed humiliates athletes while using them for political ends.

"I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran with whom they have been playing for years," the 21-year-old wrote on Instagram.

Iranian parliamentarian Abdolkarim Hosseinzadeh demanded answers, accusing "incompetent officials" of allowing Iran's "human capital to flee" the country.

Another star athlete, national volleyball captain Said Marouf, posted a message on January 12 that was sombre in tone despite the fact the team had just earned a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Today, in our desperate and sad mood, we can't celebrate this victory and achievement of a dream that we have worked toward for years," he said.

"Our despair and sadness are not only because our fellow citizens are mourning, but because we see no light in the future."

And, just days ago, Iranian chess referee Shohreh Bayat, who drew fire on accusations she violated Iran's Islamic dress code while at a world championship in Russia, also reportedly said she now plans to stay away from her homeland.

- 'Solidarity and solace' -

For days after the aircraft tragedy, state media toed the line that a mechanical failure had caused it to crash.

So the admission that a missile operator had fired at the Ukraine International Airlines plane mistaking it for an American cruise missile sent ripples through the media arena.

In a rare move, state-run TV acknowledged that "anti-regime" protests were being held, only months after November's much larger nationwide protests were bloodily put down amid a near-total internet blackout.

Several state television employees announced on social media that they were quitting, and former state TV lifestyle show presenter Gelare Jabbari went a step further.

"Forgive me for 13 years of lying to you on Iran television," she wrote on Instagram, only to delete the post later after it had spread widely and then asking that her comments not be "misused" by anyone.

Another state TV personality, Zahra Khatami Rad, also quit on Instagram, vowing to "never work in television again".

She won praise and gained more than 50,000 likes, but also revealed in a later post some of the many insults she had received in response.

Some celebrities have come out against the protests, also exposing them to criticism.

Movie star Shahab Hosseini, known for his collaborations with director Asghar Farhadi in internationally-acclaimed films such as "The Salesman", sparked controversy by opposing the film festival boycott.

Last Thursday, Hosseini, wrote on Instagram that a boycott was divisive -- earning him over 30,000 comments of support but also much vitriol, which prompted him to defend his political and religious views.

"This move provokes social divisions between us and them, and this at a time when, more than ever, people need solidarity and solace," he wrote.

"This action, even among artists, fans and audiences, also creates a deep and perhaps irreparable rift that is in nobody's interest."

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