Iranian Police Move to Break Up Mourning Ceremony

Posted in Iran , Democracy , Human Rights | 30-Jul-09 | Author: Robert Worth| Source: New York Times

Neda Agha Soltan's grave.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Riot police officers ordered the Iranian opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi to leave a contentious mourning ceremony on Thursday commemorating those killed in the unrest after Iran's disputed presidential election, news reports said.

Quoting unidentified witnesses, news reports said Mr. Moussavi went to the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery on Tehran's southern outskirts to commemorate the dead, including Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman who was shot to death in postelection violence. Amateur video showing her bleeding to death had become a global icon of resistance to the electoral victory claimed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the June 12 elections.

News reports said hundreds of people gathered around Ms. Agha-Soltan's grave as Mr. Moussavi arrived at the cemetery. The police forced him to return to his car before he could offer prayers. He drove off as arguments broke out between mourners and police, these reports said.

The crowd continued to swell after Mr. Moussavi left, growing to several thousand, some chanting Mr. Moussavi's name and "death to the dictator," according to videos posted on the Internet and witness accounts reported by The Associated Press. When another opposition leader, reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, attempted to give a speech, the police moved in, firing tear gas and swinging wooden batons. Other news reports said there were additional clashes with police.

Witnesses said mourners later tried to gather at the Grand Mosala, a large prayer venue in central Tehran, but the police had gathered in force. Opposition Web sites reported fierce clashes between demonstrators and the police, with tear gas and beatings, and witnesses said some demonstrators were arrested.

The authorities had denied permission to hold any formal mourning ceremonies.

Earlier Thursday, the police arrested two prominent Iranian filmmakers when they tried to lay flowers at Ms. Agha-Soltan's grave, The A.P. said. One of them was Jafar Panahi, best known for his film, "The Circle," which was critical of the treatment of women under the Islamist government and was banned in Iran. A female associate and documentary maker, Mahnaz Mohammadi, was arrested with him, The A.P. said.

Thursday was a day of unusual symbolic importance because 40 days have passed since the shooting of Ms. Agha-Soltan. The 40th day marks an important Shiite mourning ritual, and similar commemorations for dead protesters fueled the demonstrations that led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The Iranian authorities have been releasing dozens of the hundreds held in the postelection crackdown, but they have also continued with arrests. On Wednesday, the authorities said that 20 protesters charged with serious crimes would be put on trial, starting this weekend.

On Wednesday, the police arrested two additional prominent reformists, Saeed Shariati and Shayesteh Amiri, opposition Web sites reported. Separately, an "underground network providing foreign media outlets with photos and footage of the post-election unrest" was identified and its members arrested, state-run Press TV reported, citing security forces.

The report said that the network was made up of "pro-reform extremists" and that at least two members had confessed to providing images of the unrest to Western news media in an effort to "stage a regime change" in Iran. The Iranian leadership has blamed foreign news outlets for encouraging the riots and rallies.

On Tuesday, the authorities released 140 detainees, amid accusations that jailed protesters had been tortured and killed. Prominent conservatives and senior clerics have joined the opposition in denouncing the abuses, and the release of the detainees appeared to be part of a government effort to defuse the issue.

Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a dissident and one of Iran's most senior clerics, issued a fierce statement on Wednesday on his Web site, saying the government's closing of one notorious detention center was not enough. "Was the shah able to resist the protests by jailing, torturing, extracting confessions and lying?" he said, referring to the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the 1979 revolution.

There were more conciliatory gestures from the government on Wednesday, with Iran's top police official, Brig. Gen. Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, saying some officers "went to extremes" and caused damage during the post-election protests, Press TV reported. The prosecutor general of Iran, Ayatollah Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, said that more detainees would soon be released and that a "serious judicial inquiry" was being conducted into prison deaths after the election, Iranian news agencies reported.

But the authorities have also said that their clemency is limited, and that protesters who crossed the line will be punished. The 20 protesters whose trial is scheduled to start this weekend are charged with "attacking military units and universities, sending pictures to enemy media, carrying firearms and explosives, organizing thugs and rioters, and vandalizing public property," state television reported.

Robert F. Worth reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nazila Fathi from Toronto. Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris, and Sharon Otterman from New York.