Death of Mahsa Amini: Iranians are risking everything to protest. Their families say some of them will not return home


The last time Farnaz heard his brother’s voice was on the phone, on an unknown number.

“He called me and said one sentence: ‘I was caught’…I immediately understood what my dear brother meant and I went to the moral police department (to find him),” the 22-year-old asked to use. a pseudonym for security reasons, he told CNN.

Farnaz said his older brother, an accountant, joined the demonstrations in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman on Monday against what he calls the “oppressive government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi” when “plainclothes officers” infiltrated and “forced” the crowd. people in the van of the moral police.’

The anger in Kerman echoes scenes across Iran as people take to the streets amid chants of “death to the dictator” in a dramatic show of defiance against the regime following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died last week in the custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police”, mentally a popular unit that complies with mandatory scarf laws.

Amini’s suspicious death has become a symbol of decades of brutal oppression of women in Iran, and protesters say the regime once again has blood on its hands.

Since last week, semi-official news agencies have reported that at least 17 people have been killed in violent clashes between protesters and security forces. CNN cannot independently verify the death toll. In addition to the demonstrators, two members of the Iranian paramilitary group were also killed.

In the frantic hours following her brother’s disappearance, Farnaz and her parents went to the Kerman branch of the morality police to demand answers.

Instead, they said they encountered many other families who were also looking for their loved ones; many of them said the police had threatened them.

It has been four days since Farnaz saw her brother, and she is worried that he will never come home.

“My brother is being held captive by these cruel people and we cannot even know about his condition,” he said.

CNN has verified video showing armed police clashing with protesters in Kerman’s Azadi Square on Monday, where Farnaz says his brother was taken.

On Thursday, the US punished the moral police and security officials believed to be responsible for Amini’s death.

Amini’s family last saw him alive on September 13, when he was “punched in the head” by Tehran’s morality police in the back of a car before being driven away, his cousin Diako Aili told CNN.

CCTV footage released by Iran’s state media showed Amini being dropped off at a “re-education” center later that day in Tehran, where morality police officers took her to receive “orientation” on how to dress.

Two hours later he was taken to Tehran’s Kasra Hospital.

According to Aili, the doctors at the Kasra hospital who treated Amin told his family that he was admitted “on arrival for brain damage” because “the head injuries were very serious”.

Aili lives in Norway and has not spoken to Amini since July, but is in frequent contact with her parents. That none of his relatives were allowed in the hospital room to see his body.

“She died in a coma three days later…a young 22-year-old woman with no heart disease or anything…she was a happy girl living in a not-so-good country with dreams I’ll never know.” said Aili.

CNN was unable to verify Aili’s account with hospital officials.

Iranian authorities say Amini died of a heart attack and have denied wrongdoing.

Last weekend, the government said an autopsy had been performed, but was still under review.

Family photo of Mahsa Amini as a child.

An official investigation into the circumstances of his death is “underway”, but it has done little to quell the unrest in the streets: scenes of protests, striking geographical spread, brutality and symbolism seem to flood social media. The biggest show of public anger in Iran since protests over rising food and fuel prices in 2019.

For Shima Babaei, who fled Iran in 2020 after being held in Tehran’s Evin prison infamous for not wearing a headscarf, Amini’s death is particularly troubling.

“Her death reminds me of police brutality, not only against me, but against thousands of Iranian women who have had these experiences. I was treated like a criminal, handcuffed and humiliated in the same building as the headquarters of the Moral Police,” the women’s rights activist, who now lives in Belgium, told CNN.

Babaei – who has a strong social media presence in Iran – knows what it’s like to become an unexpected symbol of protest. Her name became synonymous with the “Girls of Revolution Street” protests that took place across Iran from 2017 to 2019.

But this time the mood is different, he says.

“I think this is the beginning of something. Women are burning their scarves and erasing any sign of the regime from the streets…sooner or later the people of Iran will gain freedom and we will remember those who stood by us.’

An internet shutdown authority introduced on Thursday to quell the unrest appears to have had little effect. Human rights organizations are now concerned about what Iranian authorities may be doing under the cover of darkness.

After the November 2019 protests, hundreds of Iranians were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and in some cases sentenced to death under national security laws, Amnesty International says.

Mansoureh Mills, who works in the organization’s Iran team, describes the current situation as a “crisis of impunity” due to the lack of international action.

“We are receiving reports of youths being deliberately shot with metal pellets and other ammunition, causing death or horrific injuries. This is a desperate attempt by the authorities to subdue the Iranians,” Mills told CNN.

For Aili – who has been watching the protests from afar – his fear of his Iranian relatives, who spoke of Amini’s death, is crippling.

He said the government offered to take care of his family financially if he kept quiet about his cousin’s case, but they decided to release his story.

“Why did you kill an innocent 22-year-old girl?”

“Nobody deserves to die for showing their hair or speaking their mind…it’s a waste of life,” Aili told CNN.