Iran security forces retreat as huge numbers of mourners gather at cemetery

As many as tens of thousands of protesters meet at the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan, whose shooting death was videotaped. Meanwhile, the first group of protesters arrested in the unrest heads to trial.

July 31, 2009|Borzou Daragahi and Ramin Mostaghim

BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — Protesters swarmed Tehran's main cemetery and fanned out across a large swath of the capital Thursday, defying truncheons and tear gas to publicly mourn those killed during weeks of unrest, including a young woman whose death shocked people around the world.

The protests marked the 40th day since the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan was captured on video and posted on the Internet. For Shiite Muslims, the 40th day has religious importance, often an occasion for an outpouring of emotion and grief.

Thirty years ago, such commemorations helped build momentum for the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the shah. The resilience of the thousands of protesters this time set the stage for more clashes next week, when hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to be inaugurated for a second term despite allegations that he won only because of widespread fraud in the June 12 election.

The scale and reach of Thursday's protests, which also erupted in at least four other cities, appeared to catch security forces off guard. After initially bloodying some of the mourners arriving at Behesht Zahra cemetery, many of them young women dressed in black and carrying roses, officers stepped back. They mingled amicably with protesters, and in one case even accepted flowers from them.

The mourners chanted political slogans as they rode the Tehran subway from the city center to the cemetery and back. When they returned to the center, they took to the streets, first in the area of the Grand Mosala Mosque, where they had been banned from gathering.

Later, on side streets and main thoroughfares, they were occasionally attacked by baton-wielding security personnel, some on motorcycles.

But they were also cheered on by thousands of well-wishers honking car horns ferociously or hanging out the windows of apartments and buses. They clogged roadways and tunnels, holding up signs in support of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Shopkeepers handed out bottles of water to sustain the demonstrators in the heat.

"Honorable Iranians," the protesters chanted. "Today is a day of mourning."

And in a challenge to a harsh crackdown on the news media, they recorded everything and quickly flooded the Internet with amateur videos of the day's events in the capital as well as the provincial cities of Esfahan, Shiraz, Ahvaz and Rasht.

"Death to the dictator," chanted those in one long procession heading toward Agha-Soltan's grave, kicking up a storm of dust as they walked. "Neda is not dead. This government is dead."

As night fell, witnesses reported intense confrontations between demonstrators and security forces in north-central Tehran. Trash bonfires that had been created to counter the effects of tear gas belched black smoke into the sky. Residents nearby hurriedly took injured protesters into their homes to protect them from roaming bands of Basiji militiamen.

Iranian officials say 30 people have died in unrest since the election. But human rights monitors and independent observers say the number killed in the protests and subsequent crackdown is at least twice that in the capital alone.

On Wednesday, the Paris-based monitoring group Reporters Without Borders urged authorities to explain the death of journalist Alireza Eftekhari on June 15. His body was handed over to relatives on July 13. A news release said Eftekhari died from a severe beating.

Authorities have tried to quell the unrest using the coercive instruments of the state, angering even some of Ahmadinejad's conservative allies.

On Wednesday, the Tehran prosecutor's office announced the latest in a series of arrests of prominent political figures: Saeed Shariati, a member of the central committee of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the nation's primary reformist grouping.

Authorities also said they would place the first group of protesters on trial. According to a statement by the prosecutor's office, they will be charged with offenses that include having ties to terrorist organizations, invading and setting fires at military bases, destroying public property, looting, and preparing and dispatching news reports for "enemies" of the Islamic Republic.

Still, under massive domestic and international pressure, officials also have acknowledged wrongdoing by authorities. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this week ordered the Kahrizak detention center south of Tehran closed because its facilities were "substandard."

Iran's police chief, Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, said some officers "went to extremes" during the protests.

Two prominent jailed reformist politicians, Behzad Nabavi and Mostafa Tajzadeh, were allowed to phone their families from prison for the first time since they were arrested June 13.

And authorities moved Saeed Hajjarian, who was critically wounded in a 2000 assassination attempt, from prison to a detention house with medical facilities, the Mehr news agency reported.

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