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Violent Aftermath: The 2009 Election and Suppression of Dissent in Iran

2.5       Saturday, June 20: Demonstrations are Crushed

Receiving what amounted to a green light from the Supreme Leader on Friday,[161] the security forces unleashed ferocious assaults on the demonstrating public on Saturday, June 20. Deputy Commander of the Iranian Police, Brigadier General Ahmad-Reza Radan, issued a stern warning:

I should emphasize that all protests held in the past week were illegal and beginning today any gathering critical of the election would be illegal. … Police will deal with the protest firmly and with determination. Those who provoke street protests should know that they will be arrested and prosecuted.[162]

Again, thousands of protestors refused to remain home, and attended rallies in Tehran and around the country.[163] In Tehran, demonstrators tried to congregate in Enqelab Square and Azadi Square, but thousands of police, Basij, militia and plain-clothed officers blocked access to the squares and to the streets leading to the squares.[164]  A witness recounts:

The day after the prayer, I went to the demonstration. The demonstration was supposed to be at Enqelab Avenue, and we saw that all the streets were closed. We saw that every single street that ends in Enqelab [Square had] a bus right in front of it blocking the street. The buses were filled with military people, commandos, and militia and all these Basij people. … We were getting so frustrated.[165]

Some demonstrators managed to get into Enqelab Square, however. About three thousand protestors gathered inside the square chanting “Death to the Dictator” and “Death to dictatorship.”[166] Outside, the Basij purposefully limited the flow of people and were seen creating chaos:

I was around Enqelab Square. … The people were simply walking in protest without being too tumultuous. There were a lot of Basij and plainclothes officers who had barricaded many of the side streets and were directing the flow of the people. The demonstrators were walking in order … they weren’t chanting or anything … the Basij themselves came on motorcycles, shooting in the air, terrifying and riling up the demonstrators. Really, it was they themselves who wanted to create chaos. And when people tried to run away into smaller streets they were blocked from doing so. As they grew scared and frustrated, they would throw stones and counterattack the Basij.[167]

Secret police and plainclothes agents slashed people in the crowd with knives and razors.[168] Over twenty people were fatally shot in Tehran, including bystanders who were shot by security forces who opened fire on the demonstrators.[169] Video footage shows militia members firing from rooftops and windows into crowds of protestors chanting “Allah’u akbar” and “Do not fear. Do not fear. We are all together here.”[170]

Twenty-year-old Ashkan Sohrabi was shot in the chest. His mother and sister had attempted to keep him indoors, but he left home with assurances of his return. His sister was quoted as explained:

I tried my best to distract Ashkan with things other than the street, but the crowds on our streets (Azadi) continued to get bigger. People sought refuge in alleys and homes. We heard different chants and the sound of bullets and smell of tear gas were everywhere. I asked Ashkan not to go to the street. But he said his last words to me and left the house: “Don’t worry, I’ll come back.” … Two hours later they brought the news of his death to us. … They had shot our Ashkan three times in the chest.[171] 

Kaveh Alipour was killed while walking home from acting class on Saturday. Standing at an intersection in downtown Tehran, the 19-year-old was shot in the head. He was reportedly alone, and his family and neighbors portrayed him as an apolitical person who had not taken part in the demonstrations. Though they have very little information about the circumstances of his death, they believe that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.[172]

Masoud Hashemzadeh left home to meet friends in his neighborhood. When he did not return home, his brother Milad became worried and went out to bring him back from his friend’s home. As Milad approached his destination, he heard gunshots.

I saw that some people had been shot. [There was a clinic] between the intersection where the shooting had occurred and the one I was on, where the wounded were being carried to. When I reached it, I recognized our Masoud from the watch, ring and clothes he was wearing … It had been maybe two minutes since his shooting, [when] a doctor bent over him and right there announced that Masoud had died.[173]

Masoud had been shot in the chest, and the bullet had punctured his heart and lung before exiting out of his back. He suffered extensive internal bleeding and general blood loss. His death was nearly instantaneous.[174] Milad took his brother’s body to their home town in the north of Iran. The authorities prevented him from holding a funeral until an investigation had been completed.[175] He was held overnight for questioning and missed his brother’s funeral which went ahead without him.[176]

Some of the most disturbing and dramatic video footage captured the death of Neda Agha-Soltan who was shot in the chest and died on the way to the hospital.[177] A former Islamic philosophy student, Agha-Soltan had never been particularly politically active, but like many others, she wanted to protest what she felt was the disregard of her vote.[178] Along with others gathered on the sidewalk, she watched the protestors on Karegar Street, when suddenly, security forces charged up the street on motorcycles wielding batons and throwing canisters of teargas at the demonstrators and onlookers.[179]

The crowd panicked and scattered. Agha-Soltan and her companions joined others who ran east on Khosravi Alley towards Salehi Street. After they stopped running, they stood in the street weighing their options. Dr. Arash Hejazi remembers:

We hear[d] a gunshot. Neda was standing one meter away from me. I didn’t know her. She was just another person in the crowd. I hear[d] the sound, [and] I asked my friend who was standing beside me: “What was that? Was it a gunshot?” And he said: “No, they say, they are using plastic bullets.” … All of a sudden I turned back and I saw blood gushing out of Neda’s chest and she was in a shocked [state], looking at her chest.[180]

Others in the crowd noticed the wound at the same time. A few began making video recordings with their cell phones as she clutched her chest and fell to the ground.[181] While Hamid Panahi, her music teacher who was one of her companions, and Dr. Arash Hejazi tried to help by placing pressure on her wound, someone called for a car to take her to a hospital. The footage shows Agha-Soltan bleeding out of her mouth and nose as she quickly loses consciousness.[182] Dr. Hejazi described her state:

I bent over her and I saw the bullet wound then, which was right in the chest below the neck. … Her aorta and her lung were hit by the bullet. … I can verify that the bullet came from [the] front … and there were no exit point [in] her back. I have never seen such a thing. It seemed to have blasted [the] inside [of] her chest. That [much] blood, and later on the blood exiting from her mouth and her nose, [gave me the] impression at the time that it had hit her lung as well.[183]

She was put in a car that lost its way and became ensnarled in traffic, and then switched to another car and driven to Shariati Hospital where she was taken into surgery. She died well before she reached the emergency room.[184] 

Dr. Hejazi was left behind in Khosravi alley where he watched as Abbas Kargarjavid, a Basij who had been riding a motorcycle just moments before, was mobbed and disarmed by the crowd who were shouting that they had caught the killer. They ripped his shirt off, confiscated his ID cards identifying him as a member of the Basij, and after some debate of what to do with him, let him go.[185]

A couple of minutes later, the people had arrested a person who kept yelling: “I did not intend to kill her.” It was precisely this sentence that made everyone suspect that he was guilty. … Debate broke out about what to do with him. Some suggested to deal with him right there, but a larger number insisted that “we are not like them. We can’t kill him.” On the other hand, they could not hand him over to the police … because they did not want to identify themselves to the authorities, nor did they feel that it would serve any purpose. For these reasons, they simply let him go … but they kept his [ID] cards.[186] 

Agha-Soltan became a major symbol of the brutality of the regime for demonstrators and caused an international sensation. Video of her death was seen by millions on the Internet. As a result, her family suffered at the hands of the authorities as they attempted to deny the veracity of the facts surrounding Agha-Soltan’s death. In an interview with the BBC on June 22, her fiancé Caspian Makan, described the authorities’ manipulation of the grieving family:

We worked so hard to get the authorities to release her body. She was taken to a morgue outside Tehran. The officials from the morgue asked if they could use parts of her corpse for body transplants for medical patients. They didn’t specify what exactly they intended to do. Her family agreed because they wanted to bury her as soon as possible. We buried her in the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran. They asked us to bury her in this section where it seemed the authorities had set aside spaces for graves for those killed during the violent clashes in Tehran last week. On Monday afternoon, we had planned to hold a memorial service at the mosque. But the authorities there and the paramilitary group, the Basij, wouldn’t allow it because they were worried it would attract unwanted attention and they didn’t want anymore trouble. The authorities are aware that everybody in Iran and throughout the whole world knows about her story. So that’s why they didn’t want a memorial service.[187]

As with others who spoke up about the deaths of their loved ones or reported on killings they witnessed, both Makan and Dr. Hejazi became targets of the security apparatus. Dr. Hejazi realized the dangerous situation he was in and left immediately for Britain, but Makan stayed behind. Four days after Makan’s interview with the BBC, his house was surrounded and he was arrested. He was taken to Evin Prison, where he spent two weeks in solitary confinement and was repeatedly interrogated. His interrogations were similar to those of other arrestees. He was blindfolded and faced a wall as his interrogators accused him and Agha-Soltan of various motives and affiliations. He was beaten and psychologically manipulated. Finally, almost two months later, he was released on bail and escaped Iran.[188]

Dr. Hejazi, though in Britain, was still the target of attacks by the security apparatus and the state media who vigorously disputed his version of events. On July 1, state media outlets reported that Police Chief Ahmadi-Moqaddam, had announced that the doctor was wanted by both Interpol and Iran’s Intelligence ministry. He accused Dr. Hejazi of helping the Western media launch “psychological warfare against Iran.”[189] After media sources contacted Interpol, Ahmadi-Moqaddam insisted he had been misquoted.[190] 

The attacks continued, however. Dr. Hejazi’s publishing house in Iran was attacked through the use of censorship laws and financial constraints.[191] In early November, members of the Basij gathered in front of the British Embassy in Tehran to demand his extradition.[192] That same day, the Iranian Embassy in London denounced a graduate scholarship offered by Oxford in the name of Neda Agha-Soltan.[193] The published letter of protest suggested that Dr. Hejazi was somehow responsible for Agha-Soltan’s death.[194]

By the end of Saturday, June 20, the streets leading to Enqelab Square in Tehran were covered in blood and rocks thrown by the protestors.[195] State media initially glossed over the level of violence, reporting that police used batons and water canons to disperse protestors.[196] Later, it acknowledged that a number of people had been killed, but blamed “terrorist elements—who had infiltrated the rallies.”[197] These reports were given a boost of credibility by a reported suicide bomber attack on the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini,[198] but failed to address the video and testimonial evidence showing security forces shooting into crowds of chanting demonstrators. 

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