Iranians Gather in Grief, Then Face Police

Posted in Other | 01-Aug-09 | Author: Robert F. Worth and Nazila Fat| Source: New York Times

This photo obtained by The Associated Press shows protesters chanting slogans at an opposition rally at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery outside Tehran on Thursday. Iran has banned the foreign media from covering protests.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Thousands of people gathered in Tehran on Thursday to commemorate those killed in Iran's post-election crackdown, but a vast deployment of police officers used tear gas and wooden batons to disperse them, in some of the largest and most violent street clashes in weeks.

The mourners gathered at the freshly-dug graves of protesters, including Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman whose bloodied image has become an icon of the opposition movement. As opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi arrived at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery, the police barred him from entering, and angry mourners chanted "Neda lives! Ahmadinejad is dead!" referring to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, witnesses said.

Later, large crowds massed in several areas in central and northern Tehran, but riot police mostly beat them back, and there were reports of a number of arrests.

Opposition leaders had hoped for a vast and peaceful public outpouring, despite the withering summer heat and the Interior Ministry's refusal to grant permission for the gathering. Outrage over the deaths in prison of several protesters has spread to Iran's hard-liners in recent days, and Thursday was a day of unusual symbolic importance: the end of the 40-day mourning period after Ms. Agha-Soltan and others were killed.

But the authorities, after releasing 140 detainees on Tuesday in an apparent effort to defuse the issue, were equally determined to prevent a broad show of popular discontent. Hundreds of police officers surrounded the mourners at the cemetery, and riot police officers began gathering in force in central Tehran early in the day.

On Wednesday, the leader of the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, Abdullah Araghi, issued a stern warning against any public mourning ritual, saying, "We are not joking - we will confront those who want to fight against the clerical establishment," the semiofficial Fars news agency reported.

Some opposition supporters were heartened by the turnout on Thursday. "You see they never thought this many people would turn out in the heat like this," said a 45-year-old woman at the cemetery, where thick crowds of people chanted slogans deriding President Ahmadinejad as a dictator and calling on him to resign. "They can't stop it now."

On Thursday, Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president, became the latest prominent figure to speak out forcefully against prison deaths and abuses that occurred during the crackdown.

"Crimes have taken place and people have died," Mr. Khatami told a group of lawmakers. "Our people, young women and men, have been treated in ways that if it had taken place in foreign prisons, everyone would be screaming that it must be confronted."

Conservative figures in Parliament have made similar comments, and at least two investigations of the prison abuses are underway. A number of senior hard-line figures attended a mourning service on Tuesday for one of those who died in prison, Mohsen Ruholamini, the son of an adviser to Mohsen Rezai, a conservative presidential candidate, the Tabnak Web site reported.

On Thursday the government made another conciliatory gesture, moving Saeed Hajjarian, a prominent reformist who is seriously ill, from prison to a "state-owned" house with proper medical facilities, the semiofficial Mehr news agency reported. Two other detainees, a political activist and a journalist, were also released, opposition Web sites reported.

Public anger is rising at a difficult time for Mr. Ahmadinejad, who won the election on June 12 in a landslide that opposition supporters say was rigged. This month Mr. Ahmadinejad refused a direct order from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to drop a contested cabinet appointment. That provoked many hard-liners, who have warned that he may not last as president if he does not show more respect for the revered Ayatollah Khamenei. The deputy ultimately withdrew, but Mr. Ahmadinejad then named him chief of staff. Some on both sides of Iran's political divide have linked the prison abuse to Mr. Ahmadinejad's flouting of Ayatollah Khamenei's authority, hinting that a broader lack of accountability is the problem. Lawmakers have complained that they were not given access to the those arrested after the election, who are widely believed to be under the control of the Revolutionary Guards. Many in the opposition say the election amounted to a coup by the guards, where Mr. Ahmadinejad spent formative years.

"This is the only way that we can stop everything from falling into the hands of the Revolutionary Guards," said a 29-year-old physiotherapist who came to the cemetery. "You see, now they don't even take notice of the clerics, it's gone that far."

The mourning ceremony quickly turned into a tense standoff between the police and opposition supporters. At one point, mourners gathered around Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist cleric and presidential candidate. The police surrounded them, apparently trying to intimidate Mr. Karroubi, who spoke to the crowd without a megaphone.

Later, after Mr. Moussavi was denied entry by the police, mourners began chanting angry slogans, and the police charged with their batons, leaving many people bruised and bleeding. A number of people were arrested, including two prominent filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mahnaz Mohammadi, Web sites reported.

"I was telling them not to beat this girl - she was on the ground - and then they hit me on the legs," said a 45-year-old woman, who was sitting on the grass, recovering. "If only these dead would rise up and help us."

Later, many of the mourners headed to central Tehran to regroup at the Grand Mossalah, a vast prayer hall. But the police had closed the station that is nearest the hall, witnesses said. Instead, the mourners got off one stop before the station, and were met by riot police officers wearing protective gear and clutching bulletproof shields. The police charged at the protesters, scattering them, witnesses said. Similar confrontations took place throughout the evening as protesters gathered in Vanak Square and other places. As in earlier protests, young women were often at the forefront, hurling rocks at riot police officers and shouting in their faces.

"It is clear from the number of people that they have not felt intimidated by the arrests and killings," one witness said. "The crowd is still as large as it was weeks ago, and you see people from all classes and ages."

Robert F. Worth reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nazila Fathi from Toronto.