An Iranian girl dressed in black stands on top of an overturned rubbish bin, waving a scarf as she is engulfed in flames, amid shouts of “death to the dictator”.
A moment later, the video shows, he bends down to collect another handkerchief, from a friend, and sets it on fire, also in front of the protesters.
The girl was 16-year-old Nika Shahkarami from Tehran. Hours after these scenes were filmed on September 20, in videos exclusively obtained and verified by CNN, Nika disappeared. And more than a week later, his family found out he was dead.
Iranian authorities said Nika’s body was found in a backyard on the morning of September 21. His mother was not given access to identify him until 8 days later. CCTV footage released by authorities captured the image of a masked man who was said to be entering a Tehran building where Nika was not alive and still under construction just after midnight, when September 20 became September 21.
A Tehran prosecutor initially said he had been thrown from the roof of the building and that his death was “unrelated” to that day’s protests, but while he apparently ruled the death a homicide, he did not say whether there were any suspects. in research State broadcasters reported that he had “crashed”, but provided no evidence that it was an accident.
On Wednesday, after CNN asked the government to comment on the evidence in this investigation, an Iranian media report cited a Tehran prosecutor as saying Nika’s death was a suicide. Iranian authorities have yet to respond to CNN’s repeated questions about Nika’s death
Authorities never explained why Nika would enter the building on her own, and Nika’s mother said she does not believe the masked person is Nika. Her mother has said she believes Nika was killed by authorities, but authorities have never said whether Nika was in any custody.
But dozens of videos and eyewitness accounts obtained exclusively by CNN indicate Nika appears to have been chased and detained by Iranian security forces that night. A key witness, Ladan, told CNN that he saw Nika being arrested during the protest by “some heavy-duty security officers” gathered in a car.
Moments earlier, this witness recorded a video showing Shahkarami chanting behind a white car and shouting “tekoon nakon, tekoon nakon” – meaning “don’t move, don’t move” while stuck in traffic in Tehran. gave him the driver before fleeing the short shelter.
Seven people who knew Nika and spoke to CNN confirmed it was her. In the same footage shot at 20:37 on September 20, riot police are also seen on motorbikes, patrolling the area.
“I wanted to save him, but I couldn’t,” Ladan said. “There were about 20 or 30 Basiji on motorcycles on the sidewalk,” he said, using the local name for the paramilitary organization that has been at the forefront of the state’s crackdown on protesters.
“Shahkarami was throwing stones at them. I was scared and I walked past him and said, ‘Watch out dear!’ in fact, the police were passing cars in the streets looking for him.
“Fifty yards ahead they got,” added Ladan.
Ladan appeared on CNN after realizing that the teenager he filmed and spoke to had died days later. CNN spoke exclusively with several witnesses who were at the September 20 protest in Tehran with the support of the activist group 1500Tasvir.
Other videos, including one of people burning handkerchiefs, prove that Nika led the protests earlier in the night, before the crackdown began – fearlessly chanting and throwing stones, according to several testimonies.
That would have made him a target for security forces, including members of Iran’s dreaded Basij militia, as they descended on the area around Tehran University and Keshavarz Boulevard, where most of the protesters had gathered that evening, witnesses said.
“I remember how brave he was because he would climb into the dumpster and not get off. He also burned his headscarf,” said Najmeh, who was with Nika at the demonstration.
CNN is using pseudonyms for all witnesses cited in this investigation because of the risk to their safety.
Students gathered near Laleh Park between 5pm and 6pm on September 20 to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died last month after being arrested by the country’s moral police. how she was supposedly dressed…
It was a scene that has become familiar in Tehran in recent weeks: young people, mostly women, shouting “death to the dictator”, burning headscarves and throwing stones at the security forces.
At one point, they took a trash can and overturned it, blocking the road. Nika jumped with a couple of others, video footage showed.
“He burned his headscarf and shook it. I told him not to shake it because you can burn yourself, just hold on until you burn,” said Nima, who was also present at the protest and saw the events unfold. “Then he took the scarves of the two friends who were with him and burned them too.”
In other videos from that evening geolocated and verified by CNN, Nika is shown throwing rocks at riot police forces. He carries a distinctive CAT backpack and wears a black mask and hat on his head. Sounds like gunshots are heard.
From 19:00 to 20:00 the repression of the security forces increased, witnesses said. “They were firing tear gas and volleys and arresting the demonstrators. Almost all of us were fighting and running away,” said Reza, another eyewitness.
As riot police and Basij forces filled the streets, protesters began moving in all directions to escape the crackdown.
Another witness, Dina, who spent part of the protest walking alongside Nika, told CNN she saw Nika in front of a gas station not far from Tehran University, where the group of protesters had gathered after fleeing tear gas fired by security forces. . Others managed to capture the arrests on video by what appeared to be plainclothes officers.
Reza added, “I saw with my own eyes the security forces beating the women with sticks, and many of them were caught and taken to the police van.”
It was in this context of the extreme repression of the protest that Nika was last seen by the witnesses who spoke to CNN, and nine more days would pass before his family was officially informed of his whereabouts. Geolocated videos verified by CNN show that the girl, the last witness to show herself alive to CNN, was surrounded by security forces on three sides.
“I think it got stuck that night when we were on the run. Because he was very young,” said Dina.
While Iranian authorities insist that Nika died in the uninhabited building, her mother, Nasrin, told Etemad, an independent Iranian newspaper, in an interview published on October 10 that she believed her daughter “was at the protests and was killed there.”
Iranian security forces arrested eight people who allegedly worked in the building where Nika was seen by witnesses during the September 20 protests, the state news agency Tasnim reported on October 4. launched and expressed his condolences to Nika’s family, state-run IRNA said.
Mohammad Shahriari, head of criminal prosecution in Tehran province, initially said Nika’s injuries were consistent with being “thrown down”, citing an autopsy that revealed multiple fractures to her pelvis, head, upper and lower limbs, hands. feet and hip, Tasnim reported.
He added that “an investigation showed that this incident had no connection with the protests. No bullet holes were found in the body.’
CNN has repeatedly asked Iranian authorities for comment on whether Nika was arrested and other women were assaulted and rammed into police vehicles during the overnight protests. CNN also asked Tehran prosecutors about the status of the criminal investigation into Nika’s death. No response was received prior to publication of this story.
On Wednesday, Iran’s justice-affiliated Mizan network published a report saying Nika’s death was a suicide, citing a prosecutor.
However, a death certificate first seen by BBC Persian and verified by CNN says Shahkarami died of multiple injuries caused by blows from a hard object.
In the Etemad interview, Nasrin said she had spoken to Shahkarami on the phone many times on the day she disappeared. Background noise during the calls indicated that she and the other protesters were fleeing from security forces, Nasrin added. ,
Nika also mentioned some of her places – Enghelab Square, Keshavarz Boulevard and Valiasr Street – which, according to Nasrin, match the videos geolocated by CNN.
Nasrin last spoke to her daughter just before midnight, she said, after which all attempts to call Nika indicated that Nika’s phone was disconnected. Nika’s Instagram and Telegram accounts were deleted, according to Nika’s aunt and several protesters who spoke to CNN.
For days, his family says they went to police stations, prisons and hospitals looking for any trace of him, all in vain. Finally, on September 30, Nika’s mother and brother were asked to identify Nika’s body, he told BBC Persia. ,
On October 6, in an interview with Radio Farda, Nasrin said that while she and other family members were looking for Nika in the days after her disappearance, a person gave her Nika’s ID and told her that “the IRGC got it. , wanting to interrogate her slowly.” they had.”
This is matched by Shahkarami’s aunt Atash. he told BBC Persia soon after it disappeared. “An unofficial IRGC source contacted me and said, this kid was in our custody a week ago, and when we finished questioning and building the case file, 1 or 2 days ago (he) was taken to Evin prison,” Atash said.
Atash and Nika’s uncle, Mohsen, were arrested by Iranian security forces and forced to make a false declaration, according to BBC Persian, citing a source close to the family. When contacted by CNN after the BBC reported, Atash asked not to be contacted again, citing security concerns.
As the family searches for answers, the people who were with Nika that day are also reeling from her death.
“The situation was very scary, and everyone thought of running away,” said Dina. “I cannot forgive myself for Nika’s death. He was a child.”