In Iran, Protester ‘Suicides’ Stir Anger and Calls for Accountability
Posted January 14, 2018 10:37 p.m. EST
Updated January 14, 2018 10:44 p.m. EST
TEHRAN, Iran — Two of the detained young men killed themselves, and another was a terrorist who died in a clash with security forces, Iran’s government officials have declared with finality. But in an extraordinary display of audacity, many Iranians, including a number of lawmakers and a top entertainment star, have assailed such conclusions.
The three young men were among more than two dozen Iranians who died in the wave of anti-government protests that swept the country a few weeks ago, the most serious unrest to confront the Islamic republic’s political-religious hierarchy in nearly a decade.
The men’s personal stories that have since emerged have struck a nerve among many Iranians, who see glaring contradictions in the official accounts of the facts.
Their push for further investigation, including a parliamentary demand for an inquiry into the prison deaths, suggests that while the protests have largely subsided, the fallout in Iran may be just beginning.
“This news of so-called suicides is making people angry; they demand answers,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, an analyst close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani.
It is unclear whether the anger signals a potent new complication for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as Iran’s supreme leader was a target of some of the protests, which began over economic grievances and quickly broadened.
But the willingness by members of mainstream Iranian society to publicly repudiate the narrative of the top judicial authorities is unusual in this country of 80 million, where such behavior can be risky and invite retribution.
Iran’s judicial authorities, in an update Sunday about the aftermath of the protests and government response, said 25 people had died and nearly 4,000 had been arrested. They also said that hundreds had been released, including 500 in Tehran.
The national prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, told a news conference in Tehran that “none of the bullets” found in those killed had matched types used by Iran’s law enforcement officers and military. Those who died in detention, he said, had “committed suicide.”
Rouhani, who has defended the right of peaceful protest, on Sunday appeared to lend support to the doubters of such claims.
He extended his rebukes of hard-liners over the protests after an influential Friday prayer leader called the protesters “garbage.” The prayer leader, Kazem Sadighi, later retracted his words.
Rouhani called upon the establishment to listen to the protesters, not demean them.
“We cannot call everybody who takes to the streets dirt and dust, cow, sheep or trash,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television. “What manner of talking is this? Why do we insult? Why do we treat our society impolitely?”
While acknowledging that some people exploited protester anger to stoke mayhem, Rouhani said, “it happens everywhere.” On Saturday authorities lifted a ban on the popular phone messaging app Telegram, which is used by more than 40 million Iranians. Its use had been suppressed by Iran’s National Security Council to stop the spreading of news about the protests. Rouhani, who as president officially heads the council, said Sunday that “blocking is not a solution.”
Telegram users quickly began to share skepticism about the judiciary accounts of the prison deaths.
One of the dead, Vahid Heidari, a street peddler, had been trying to make a living in Arak, a city in central Iran. He was arrested on New Year’s Eve during the protests. The judicial authorities insist that he was seized for possession of drugs. A lawyer for his family, Mohammad Najafi, denies this.
The local prosecutor for the city, Abbas Qassemi, told the Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, that video footage showed Heidari stabbing himself with a knife. But the video was never released and Qassemi did not explain how Heidari had possessed a knife in his cell.
In Tehran’s Evin Prison, Sina Ghanbari, 23, a student, hanged himself in a bathroom on Jan. 6, the judicial authorities say. He had been held with other protesters, but it has not been made clear whether he had also protested.
A group of lawmakers on Sunday called for an investigation into the deaths of both men, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported. The members of Parliament say an inquiry is needed because “relatives and eyewitnesses” have questioned the official claims that the two killed themselves.
“Why is a young student, who goes for the first time to the streets to raise his voice, placed in an overcrowded prison cell?” Isa Saharkhiz, a political activist who has spent several stints in Evin Prison, said, referring to Ghanbari.
He said panic and threats could make any inmate scared, but he was suspicious over the suicide claim. “There is so much traffic in those latrines, it almost seems impossible for any detainee to go inside the latrines and hang himself,” Saharkhiz said. “This must be investigated.”
During the last major nationwide protests, in 2009, the deaths of three men in a makeshift detention camp led to an official investigation, ordered by Khamenei. Twelve officers and guards were convicted of having played a role, but it has never been clear whether they all served prison time.
Skepticism about the official version of fatalities in the more recent protests was fueled further on Sunday when an Iranian celebrity actress, Bahare Rahnama, who stars in films and shows on state television, posted a series of messages on Twitter.
A former restaurant delivery boy she knew well, who had turned up dead in the city of Sanandaj, was described by the judicial authorities as a terrorist.
“He was neither an outlaw, nor dangerous, nor rebellious, he didn’t deserve this, I have no doubt,” Rahnama wrote in Persian.
The man, Saru Ghahremani, 24, an Iranian-Kurd, was arrested Jan. 1 after he had gone out to protest, activists said.
A group of activists known as the Committee Investigating the ’96 Protests (in Iran’s calendar, the year is 1396), said in a Twitter message by a member that Ghahremani’s body had been delivered to his parents 11 days later. “The parents of this martyr were taken by the ambulance containing his corpse to the Mahmoudieh graveyard, where he was buried with no other family members present,” the message read.
The ’96 Protests Committee also said via Twitter that Ghahremani had once been arrested at age 18, over unspecified “political and security accusations,” and had spent 18 months in prison.
The governor of Sanandaj, Mohammad Ebrahim Zarei, said Ghahremani had been associated with a “terror group” and had been killed in a clash with law enforcement agents, the official Islamic Republic News Agency has reported. Rahnama, whose Twitter messages contradicted the Sanandaj governor, deleted some of them after she had received thousands of likes and retweets.
The actress, who could not be reached for comment, later tweeted that she been asked by the Sanandaj governor’s office “not to spread false rumors.”
One of the messages she kept up included a portrait of her and Ghahremani.
She also insisted that it was unimaginable that Ghahremani had done anything wrong.
“This kid was neither political nor a protester, nor a rebel, nor an outlaw, he had simple but big wishes for himself: like making his mother happy!” she wrote. “Why should he be killed?”