By Daphne Psaledakis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Wednesday sanctioned senior employees of an Iranian state-run media corporation it accused of being a "critical tool" in Iran's suppression and censorship of its people, stepping up pressure on Tehran over its crackdown on protests.
The U.S. Treasury Department in a statement said it imposed sanctions on six senior employees of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), which was designated by Washington in 2013.
The Treasury said IRIB has broadcast hundreds of forced confessions of detainees and produced and broadcast interviews of people being forced to assert that their relatives were not killed by Iranian authorities during recent protests but instead died due to accidental, unrelated causes.
Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"The Iranian government’s systemic reliance on forced confessions illustrates the government’s refusal to speak truth to its citizens and the international community," the Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian Nelson, said in the statement.
"The United States remains committed to supporting the Iranian people as they continue their peaceful protests," he said, adding that Washington would continue to hold the Iranian government accountable for human rights violations and censorship.
Monday's move targeted two of the media corporation's "interrogator-journalists," who Treasury accused of cooperating with the government in extracting and airing forced confessions, as well as the director and deputy director of IRIB, among others.
The action freezes any U.S. assets of those designated and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. Those that engage in certain transactions with the targeted employees also risk being hit with sanctions.
Demonstrations following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody on Sept. 16 have become one of the boldest challenges to Iran's clerical leadership since the 1979 revolution.
The rights activist HRANA news agency said 344 people have been killed, including 52 minors. It also reported 40 members of the security forces being killed, in addition to 15,820 people being arrested.
Up to 19 of the thousands of people arrested face charges which carry the death penalty, according to state media reports.
Iran, which said Amini's death was due to pre-existing conditions, has accused its enemies, including the United States, of fomenting the unrest to destabilise the country.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis in Washington and Ismail Shakil in Ottawa; Editing by William Maclean)