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Iranian women’s rights advocate and a Girl of Revolution Street
Iranian women’s rights lawyer and writer
Iranian-American actor, writer, and activist
Correspondent, PBS NewsHour
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Middle East Programs;
Editor, MENASource and IranSource
HOLLY DAGRES: Good morning, everyone. My name is Holly Dagres, and I am a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs, and I’m honored here to give remarks for today’s Atlantic Council Front Page event.
Zan, zendegi, azadi—“women, life, freedom”—the slogan heard across the globe. Contrary to the lack of media coverage, this month marks eight months of ongoing protests in Iran against the Islamic Republic. Protests that are taking place in various ways, from street gatherings, rooftop chants, graffiti, to public displays of not wearing mandatory hijab. This continuity is unprecedented. The clerical establishment is in a tinderbox situation, and it’s only a matter of time before the protesters pour into the streets en masse because the people of Iran have had enough. They want the regime gone.
As I speak over thirteen thousand schoolgirls have been poisoned at schools across the country. Many believe this is a punishment for their participation in anti-establishment protests. Additionally, in the past two weeks there have been an alarming rise in executions, with over fifty-seven executed. Human rights organizations widely believe that these wave of executions are an effort to instill fear and silence dissent. Every day, women remain defiant against mandatory hijab, by appearing in the streets without the veil. And even in some cases, dresses and shorts, items of clothing only seen at home, behind closed doors, ordinary freedoms we here take for granted.
The world admires and applauds the bravery of the people of Iran, but especially their women and girls. As an American of Iranian heritage, I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce this incredible cohort of Iranian women who will be accepting the 2023 Distinguished Humanitarian Leadership Award on behalf of the women and girls of Iran at tonight’s Annual Distinguished Leadership Awards… which I should note will be livestreamed.
Dr. Mehrangiz Kar is a human rights lawyer and an activist. She was one of the first women attorneys to oppose the Islamization of gender relations following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Kar has been an active public defender in Iran’s civil and criminal courts, and has lectured extensively both in Iran and abroad.
Azam Jangravi is an Iranian paralegal, human rights advocate, and former political prisoner, residing in Canada. She is primarily known for being one of the girls of revolution street during the protests against compulsory hijab in 2017. Jangravi was taken into custody in 2018 after removing her headscarf in protest on Enghelab Street, standing atop an electricity transformer box, and waving it above her head. She was later released temporarily on bail and fled from Iran to Turkey, before relocating to Canada.
Nazanin Nour is an Iranian-American actress, writer, and activist. She has appeared on shows such as Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” “Madam Secretary,” and “Persia’s Got Talent,” and can currently be seen in the film “A Thousand Little Cuts” on Showtime. Nour could most recently be seen on stage in Washington starring in the studio theatre production of “English.” She is one of several Iranian Americans in the public eye speaking out on the ongoing situation in Iran.
I’d like to also note that Dr. Mahnaz Afkhami is sick with COVID-19 and was unable to attend, but she is recovering.
Finally, I’m delighted to introduce our brilliant moderator, Ali Rogin, of PBS NewsHour. Ali, over to you.
ALI ROGIN: Holly, thank you so much, and welcome to everybody in the room today and to all our viewers tuning in online, and I’m honored to be joined by these three incredible women.
As Holly mentioned, we are here today to discuss the state of women’s rights and human rights in Iran from prerevolution all the way to the current zan, zendegi, azadi movement and we can do all that in forty-five minutes. That is a very steep task but I know that this is a very well-equipped group to do just that. So let’s get right into it.
The first question I’m going to ask and, parenthetically, before I do I want to note I’m going to ask a few questions and then we’re going to open it up to questions from the audience here and online. So please submit your questions in the format that’s already been presented to the group, and for this panel each of the questions I’m going to ask, the first one will be open-ended, and then each one will be directed to one of you specifically. But I invite anybody to weigh in as well.
So the first question—as Holly mentioned, the Islamic Republic is doubling down on its repressive tactics. It’s increased. There have been thirteen thousand schoolgirls that have been poisoned. Hangings are at a historic high. So what do these oppressive measures tell you about the state of the regime and whether or not it is under pressure from these protests? Whoever would like to begin. Maybe we go down the line.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: OK. As you know, in this movement regular women, students of university, students of high school, all labor and they are involved with that, and in zan, zendegi, azadi all Iranian women from all layers of the society, they are—they were working and now they are working in some other style.
And something that you asked about that, like poisoning, poisoning daughters in high schools, we think the—you know, the reason is because they were working a lot in the movement. And one of their activity was—because probably you don’t know that in schoolbooks, the first page is a picture of Khomeini and the second page is a picture of Khamenei, and the students of high school, sometimes they—you know, they taking out these pictures from their schoolbooks and simply removing—removing—
ALI ROGIN: And they’re removing [them] from the—from the walls?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Yeah, removing, in front of the camera—in front of the camera. And these, you know, film and video posted to some media outside the country, and that’s the reason.
I think they are very against the against daughters in high school. And we think that now this is some kind of revenge sometimes… and the government doesn’t care about that and doesn’t say anything and doesn’t investigate—very serious investigate in that, and they don’t say what is this. Sometimes, they say something that is not true… They say that this is not true. This is something that, you know, they pretend that there is nothing, there is no poison.
And this is something that the people in Iran, now they are very angry with that because the students of—women students, daughters and students of high schools, they don’t have any safety, any security. And the parents now, they are very angry. And they go around the high schools, and they say: If the government cannot guarantee our daughter’s life and our daughter’s security, we will go around the high school and we will, you know, find something that they poison them, and this is our duty if the government doesn’t do their duty.
ALI ROGIN: So that’s going to be a big test.
But I’m curious to get all your thoughts—and I apologize; we didn’t discuss this in advance—but who do you think is behind these poisonings?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: The government.
ALI ROGIN: Is it the government?
NAZANIN NOUR: I mean, everybody believes it’s regime—the regime is complicit, because this is also a regime that has eyes and ears everywhere. They’re able to—they kidnap dissidents abroad, and bring them back to—for execution. They have intelligence on dissidents abroad. There was the, you know, kidnapping that was—that the FBI foiled the plot against a leading voice, Masih Alinejad. So, it’s very difficult for anybody to believe that a regime that uses facial recognition technology to send tickets to women who aren’t wearing their hijab properly, cannot find out who’s behind these poisonings. So, everybody believes that the regime is actually behind this.
And it’s been going on since November of 2022, so that’s months now that this has been happening. And there’s countless videos on the internet from activist groups within Iran that are showing girls in hospitals, you know, with oxygen masks. They can’t breathe, they smell tangerine in the air, or rotten fish in the air. So, it’s very real.
And I know that the regime tries to downplay it, but, you know, it’s also very difficult to kind of loiter around a girls’ school in Iran. And so, again, it’s—again, that’s why it’s very difficult for anybody to believe that the regime is not complicit in this. Parents that have gone to ask questions are met with brute force by regime forces. So, not only are no answers being given, this is still continuing as of just a few days ago, we saw videos from other poisonings. And it’s across all cities and provinces in Iran, too. So—
ALI ROGIN: So, what I’m—what I’m curious about is—Azam, is this an example of the regime really feeling the pressure, that they are taking these steps of poisoning young girls?
AZAM JANGRAVI: Actually, I don’t know. It’s really complicated. But it might be the regime is behind of this situation.
Mehrangiz and Nazanin mentioned about poisoning, and I want to talk about executions. Well, the government is now trying to create fear among people by increasing executions. In the past ten days, over fifty-five people have been executed in—from in which twenty-six Baloch citizens executed. And I think—this by the suppression of Islamic Republic of Iran.
But the protest is ongoing in Balochistan, and every Friday they shut down the internet. And I think we have to talk about Balochistan and Kurdistan and—because the suppression in that areas every time increased by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
ALI ROGIN: That’s a very, very important point.
Azam, I want to stay with you and ask, let’s take a step back and let’s talk about the factors that led to this round of protests.
AZAM JANGRAVI: The protests that begin in mid-September were unprecedented in their scale and duration. People from all level of society, including women of various cities and social classes, came together to demand change.
A key point of contention was the mandatory hijab laws, which require all Iranian women to cover their hair. And although the protests were initially led by women, they soon expand to include men as well. The government attempt to suppress the protest with violence and repression, but the movement continued to grow and gained momentum. People from different backgrounds joined in—driven by a shared sense of frustration with the current government. While there have been some reports of misinformation circulating about the government’s intention, most people understand that the issue of mandatory hijab is just one of the many issue that need to be addressed.
It is clear that until there is real change in Iran, people will continue to demand change and speak out against the injustices in Iran. As I said, the government is now trying to create really fear among people by execution. Two men were executed in the past week, Yousef Mehrdad and Sadrollah Fazeil Zare were executed for just running online group criticizing Islam. Dual Swedish-Iranian citizen also executed last week. Additionally, more than eleven individuals are currently on deaths way—on death row in connection with the now recent protests. The world has been outraged by these killings and has called on Iran to stop them. We need to act now and raise our voices and call on the Islamic Republic to stop their executions.
ALI ROGIN: Nazanin, to Azam’s point about the need to raise your voice, we’ve seen some really interesting subversive ways that protesters, especially the young women and girls in Iran, are using social media. They’re using just formats that the regime is not familiar with to register their dissent. So does that add a new dimension that we haven’t seen before in previous iterations of these protests? And how is that affecting how this message is being communicated to the regime?
AZAM JANGRAVI: Yeah, absolutely. Social media’s been a huge help actually in this movement. It’s the first time that we’ve seen it. Gen Z is very adept at using TikTok and Instagram, and figuring out how to make things trend and go viral. An example of that is the video of the girls of Ekbatan. I don’t know if everybody saw that video, but there’s a song by Rema, a popular Afrobeats artist, with Selena Gomez. And they have a song called “Calm Down.” So these young girls made this dance video, and then they were detained afterward, of course, and had to give a forced apology video.
But that went viral. And that caused everybody around the world, from various countries—I mean, this—it was, like, trending billions in hashtags on TikTok. And it raised awareness for people to understand what’s actually happening in Iran. It gives people outside of Iran a connection to those inside showing, hey, we’re actually more similar than you might think, because a lot of people don’t have information on what Iran was like prior to 1979 either. And so social media’s been a really huge tool in pushing this forward.
And this is also—the Gen Zers are the ones who were at the forefront of all of this. And as Dr. Kar and Azzi said, this is—these poisonings seem to be a retaliation for the fact that they have been ripping up pieces of the supreme leader, they’ve been setting fire, there’s countless photos now that are iconic, that Time replicated, with the girls with their backs to the camera with the middle finger. So all of these things that they’re doing, they’re very smart. They know exactly how to get the attention of people across the world, and it’s—we have never seen that level of social media activity to move a movement forward when it comes to Iran.
ALI ROGIN: And it’s fascinating because it really does seem to be techniques using forums that are just completely unfamiliar to especially the conservative clerics.
So Dr. Kar, for you, you have—for a long time, part of your scholarship has been about tracking the divisions between the moderates, the reformers within the government, and the hardliners, looking from the 1990s to now. So can you get us up to date on what is the balance, what is the tension currently in the regime between moderates and conservatives? Is there any tension there, or is it just completely overrun by conservatives? How do you see those tensions playing out now, versus in previous decades where there was a bit of a reformist element?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: At the beginning I would like say that I practiced as a lawyer twenty-two years in Islamic Republic of Iran, so when I started to practice as a lawyer in Iran I was very young, and immediately we had Islamic—the revolution, Islamic Revolution and victory of Khomeini in this revolution. So I had been in a very complicated situation, not because I was a lawyer but because I was a woman and lawyer. I think two criminal in their eyes, because they—immediately they said that women cannot be judge, so they removed all female judge from judiciary system. And we were not sure that they give us permission to continue work as a lawyer, but they did, and they said because everybody is able to choose a lawyer, probably a mad lawyer, a crazy lawyer, and this is—and Islam—Islam doesn’t care about that. This is something that the people—
ALI ROGIN: If you want to choose a female lawyer, that’s your choice.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Yes, is your choice; if you want to choose a mad, you know, lawyer, that is your choice. And that’s why we could survive. This was the reason, the base of our job.
So I can say that since Khomeini ordered for mandatory hijab, this movement started in Iran and continued. But sometimes it was very slow, it was very hard; sometimes it was getting clear and obvious. I can say that in first decade we were very, very active for mandatory hijab. And for something that is full of, you know, our penal code and family law after they came on power are full of discriminations against women, gender discrimination, and we can say this is some kind of gender apartheid. But we cannot have demonstration. Just somebody like me started talking and writing about these legal discriminations.
After that, the second we had involved with a very bad war between Iran and Iraq, and eight years we had been involved with that. And that’s why everything was closed about women’s rights and human rights, and nobody could talk about that in any other country that is involved with war. So we can say that during the time everything was slow or nothing. Nothing was active in that.
After war, after eight years that the war was over, Hashemi Rafsanjani was on power as president and he ordered open very small, very small opportunity for writing and talking about something, but under control—under very heavy control.
ALI ROGIN: And remind us, this is in the 1990s?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: 1990s, yes. And because I should make short everything, this is history and it is not easy—
ALI ROGIN: No, it—you’re doing a great job.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: After 1990, we reached 1996. And 1996 is very important period of revolution history started because the name is reformism movement. And the president, Khatami, and the people—most people of Iran, for the first time they voted to a president of this system, this political system. After that, because the slogan was different like rule of law and like we should—we should have civil society, it was very important because he ordered and the reformists ordered that women can have independent NGO. And it was very helpful for women. It was the first time that something like that happened in Iran.
But either during this time they didn’t give me permission because it—
ALI ROGIN: How interesting, during the reformist era.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: No, yeah, everything was under control. And they said: No, no, you cannot. You cannot have any NGO. And I do have all documents of that.
But some of young Iranian women, they could register and they could be active as NGO. This was something that started, you know, another kind of—
ALI ROGIN: Activism, or another kind of activism, or—
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Yes, yes, yes, as NGO.
ALI ROGIN: Yeah.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: And it—and they could be very active.
And then, after that, we had some campaign like one million signature and no to stoning and something like that. And Iranians—some part of Iranian women, they came to streets and it was very important. They came to public area, and they were talking and they were giving a slogan against discriminations, not against political system.
But after that, step by step, Ahmadinejad came and stopped everything and suppressed all women activists. And you know, they—most of them, they left Iran, and now they are all over the world. And after that, everybody thought that everything is stopped and never—you know, never be active about women’s rights. But as you know and as you see now, everything is full of energy and started a movement: Mahsa; and zan, zendegi, azadi. This is full of energy. This is full of anger. And this is different with some other that we had been before that.
ALI ROGIN: And to—Dr. Kar, to your point about how many activists left Iran, so now the diaspora is very rich, very, very vocal. And so, Nazanin, I’m curious to get your sense of what is the state of the diaspora now? Are they united around these protests, any more so than perhaps the cohesion was in previous years?
NAZANIN NOUR: Yeah. I want to say, just to that point too that you brought up of differences in the government, reforms, et cetera, that the people—the information coming out of Iran and people I talk to on the ground, most people don’t see any difference between any—they all think it’s the—you know, they’re all cut from the same cloth. So it’s a regime that’s irreformable and irredeemable in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Iranians.
To the diaspora, yes, I remember in 2009 I was actually in Iran. I got there two days before the election, the Green Movement elections. And I witnessed what happened afterward, which was the violent suppression and oppression by the state to quash those protests. And I remember that it must have been like a blip in the American media. Maybe it was in a forty-eight-hour news cycle, and then it was gone. And so—and we’ve had protests that have built up in Iran since—you know, for the last twelve to thirteen years. But if you just want to go back, 2017, 2018, 2019. There was bloody November in 2019, fifteen thousand protesters got killed within a few days and it wasn’t on the news at all.
And now we saw that actually, yeah, the diaspora rallied around the people of Iran. I had never seen that level of unity in the entire time that I’ve lived in this country, as far as, you know, giving a spotlight and attention to Iran. There’s protests and rallies that have been held in—major protests and rallies held in cities and countries all over the world ever since September. Most of them are happening in cities every weekend.
And while we would love more media coverage, and attention, and a spotlight kept on Iran and all the atrocities—the poisonings, the executions, the fact that the people want this regime gone—the unity that I’ve seen and the level of attention is something that I’ve never seen before. And it’s absolutely necessary and vital to keep, you know, because their internet gets cut off. They don’t have the means, a lot of the times, to get the messages out. So it is up to the people in the diaspora to continue to amplify their voice and make sure that the world hears what they’re saying and what’s actually happening inside of the country.
ALI ROGIN: Absolutely.
Let’s take a couple questions from the audience. I invite anybody who has a question. While you’re thinking of your questions, I’d love to ask, Azam, you were one of the kind of, as we say, OGs of the anti-hijab movement. You stood on an electric transformer, as we said. You’re a girl of revolution street, which is where these protests were happening. So what does it mean to you to see these women and young girls in the streets now?
AZAM JANGRAVI: The fight for women’s rights in Iran has been ongoing for over forty-four years, as Mehrangiz says. One of the first protests against mandatory hijab in Iran occurred on March 8, 1980, where women have used various campaigns, activist groups, NGOs, to protest the violation of their rights and demand justice and equality. However, they have paid heavy price for their activism, including suppression, threats, imprisonments, and mental and physical torture.
In 2018, when I decided to protests against mandatory hijab, there were already ongoing protests against the regime in Iran. The Iranian public was expressing their anger in the protests with a wide range of chants directed towards the regime and its leadership. In the same days, Vida Movahed performed a symbolic act of taking her scarf off and putting it on a stick to peacefully protest hijab laws—a brave move that followed forty years of women’s activism. And this is important because the forty-four years ongoing activism, you know? And I also wanted to be part of these forty-year-old movement and raise my voice against mandatory hijab laws.
As an Iranian woman, I had experienced a lot of problems in my life, particularly when I decided to separate my ex-husband. And these difficulties made me more aware of inequality and separation that Iranian women have to endure. This made me think about what was happening to Iranian women. Then I felt compelled to protest against such cruelties, you know. I believe that each woman in Iran has explained it and said similar problems as this is a year of separation.
My hope was to be part of the activists who cared about creating more awareness in society. And on the day I protested, no one stood by me or supported me when I was arrested, you know. And right now we have seen every man stand for women. This is the more important things. I think this learning and becoming aware process has done so that men are now standing by women, fighting for human and women rights.
ALI ROGIN: To that point—and I’m so sorry to cut you off, Azam, but I do want to get to some audience questions. And somebody asked something that I think ties into this, which is the solidarity that we’re seeing, is that translating to internationally.
Somebody asks, how do you see the influence of regional solidarity among women. Is it active in places like Afghanistan? Are they giving each other energy and support as needed? So let’s broaden it out and look at the regional solidarity that’s happening. What are you all seeing? Whoever wants to take that. And I think, unfortunately, that may be our last question of the session.
NAZANIN NOUR: I mean, there were videos of women in Afghanistan that were marching with signs in solidarity with the women of Iran as well. I mean, they’re neighbors and, you know, African women are under terrible suppression and oppression themselves.
And I feel like there has been a global outcry but there needs to be more. There’s actions that have been taken by various countries. At the U.N. there’s a fact finding mission that was created. You know, people banded together and got the Islamic Republic kicked off the Commission on the Status of Women, for example.
But I still feel like there hasn’t been the amount of solidarity that there needs to be and the amount of support for—it’s a human rights issue. It’s a human rights crisis. It’s a women’s rights crisis. So we need people from around the world in various countries that also believe in women’s rights and human rights to also stand up for the women, girls, and the people of Iran.
ALI ROGIN: Excellent. And somebody else asks a question. With all that is going on we see regional neighbors like Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Iran. What does this mean for the protest movement? Are there any implications with other countries in the region normalizing ties with Iran?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: You mean the relationship—the new relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
ALI ROGIN: Yes. Yes. Are there any implications there for the protest movement?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: … We cannot predict the future of these negotiations because a lot of, you know, challenges are between Iran and Saudi Arabia and I don’t believe that everything could be. But we know Saudi Arabia that we—everybody knows is very serious, serious with Islam and with limitations and the discriminations, gender discrimination.
But now we are—you know, we are hearing that something has changed either in Saudi Arabia and this is something that Iranian people they are watching that and they think why they are—you know, they are pushing to a very bad situation, war situation, and Saudi Arabia is going toward and this is something that Iranian women know and they think about it but they don’t compare themselves with women in Saudi Arabia because we had a very different background during shah, during Pahlavi. Pahlavi changed a lot of things in Iran, like women’s rights.
ALI ROGIN: Right.
NAZANIN NOUR: But also anything that—like, anything that legitimizes the government is not going to be a good move. Anything, you know, that emboldens them is not going to be a good move, or solidifies their status.
But it’s not deterring people in Iran from protesting in their own ways. They still do come out to the streets. It might not be to the same effect as it was a few months ago, but the fact that women are taking off their hijabs, men are supporting them—also by wearing shorts, by the way, because that’s not allowed. So, that’s one way that people are dissenting, using civil disobedience. So those types of things are continuing to happen, and they’re not going to stop. And schoolgirls, university students in general, boys and girls, have been protesting for the last few weeks, as well.
So, I don’t believe that that is going to stop what has already started in Iran. There’s no going back, is what the people of Iran say.
ALI ROGIN: In the time that we have left, I’d like to go around. And in a few sentences, can you tell me what you would like to see from the international community, to give the support that this movement needs?
Dr. Kar, would you like to begin?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Now we can understand that it’s not enough that human rights institution, international human rights institution, work for removing gender discrimination in Iran. Now we can understand that all Western government, they should work with human rights institution because, as my friends mentioned about execution, now it’s very important if they can stop it. Because if everybody is getting crazy in Iran by this situation, and either us that are outside Iran, when we get this news we cannot—we cannot—what could we do?
ALI ROGIN: Right.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Because six others, they do one execution in Iran now. And all of them that call it an investigation, it is not justice. They don’t have lawyer. They don’t have lawyer. And the lawyer is coming from government and it is related with government.
So we can say that international community can do a lot of work for Iran, but so far we cannot see any results of that in this movement that now it is our focus.
ALI ROGIN: Azam.
AZAM JANGRAVI: As an internet security researcher and digital security trainer, my concern is about internet, because the Islamic Republic of Iran, when it wants to suppress the people of Iran, they shut down the internet. And it would be good for Iranian people if the international community find a way to help people for internet, and—especially VPNs, especially, you know, support us for helping people, for internet shutdowns.
ALI ROGIN: Right, we’ve seen that the sanctions don’t really seem to discriminate between uses for speaking out, and for doing business with the regime.
AZAM JANGRAVI: Exactly.
ALI ROGIN: Nazanin.
NAZANIN NOUR: I just think overall, the global community needs to condemn the actions of the Islamic Republic, not legitimize them. Even the smallest action, like heads of states, when they meet with Islamic Republic officials—women not wearing the headscarf. You know, it’s not obligatory; they don’t have to do it.
I think things like, you know, the U.N. just appointed the Islamic Republic to a commission that’s overseeing human rights. And it’s an absolute slap in the face to Iranians, because they just executed two people two days ago, simply for running a social media channel that was questioning religion. So, the world needs to stop doing things like that, because all they’re doing is solidifying and emboldening the regime.
They need to pass legislation and do things that support the people of Iran, instead of emboldening the regime. They need to hold them accountable for human rights abuses. They need to, you know, list—the EU can list the IRGC as a terrorist organization. The US can pass the MAHSA Act. There’s a lot of things that can be done that haven’t been done yet. And I hope to see that.
ALI ROGIN: Nazanin Nour, Mehrangiz Kar, and Azam Jangravi, thank you so much for being here today. This has been a fascinating conversation, and congratulations tonight on the award that you are receiving from the Atlantic Council. It is so well deserved.
I think we can all join in a round of applause for this incredible panel.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
AZAM JANGRAVI: Thank you.
ALI ROGIN: So that concludes the program. Thank you so much for joining us.
NAZANIN NOUR: Thank you. Ali.
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