Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

IRAN: Tale of Sohrab Arabi Raises Fears About the Missing

Sara Farhang

TEHRAN, Jul 13 2009 (IPS) - After a 26-day search, Parvin Fahimi finally discovered that her son Sohrab Arabi, 19, had been gunned down during the peaceful protest march from Tehran's Enghelab (Revolution) Square to Azadi (Freedom) Square on Jun. 15.

That day, an estimated three million citizens rallied to publicly denounce what they believed were fraudulent election results reinstating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran.

On Monday, among hundreds of mourners, including family, friends, social activists and ordinary Iranians, Sohrab, who was in his last year of high school and preparing to enter university, was buried at Behesht Zahra (Zahra's Heaven) Cemetery.

Like Neda Agha Soltan, a now-iconic victim of state violence whose death was captured on video and distributed widely on the internet, Sorhab has quickly come to be known as yet another symbol of the struggle of the Iranian people for freedom and justice.

The news of Arabi's death was short and shocking, first appearing in various email listservs.

Though the details of his death were still unclear, and despite a plea by family members not to publicise the developments until they could gain more information about the whereabouts of his body and arrange for a funeral, within a few hours the news of Sohrab's death became the hottest internet topic in Farsi language news sites.


Initially, reports indicated that Sohrab died as a result of torture while in custody in Evin prison, but it seems that he was gunned down during the protest on Jun. 15. Officials have claimed that seven people were killed during that protest and, according to reports have told Sohrab's family that he was one of the seven.

According to a family friend, after Sohrab disappeared, his mother, Parvin Fahimi, a social activist and a member of the group Mothers for Peace, went to Evin prison as well as a host of other locations, including to police stations and the Revolutionary Courts, to try to gain information about him.

The family also filed a missing person's report with the police, providing a description of Sohrab. On Jul. 11, Fahimi was told to visit the Shapour police station, where she was shown several pictures of unidentified deceased individuals matching descriptions of Sohrab. Picture No. 12 was of her son.

A statement issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran claims that while Sohrab was shot on Jun. 15, his body "arrived at the coroner's office on 19 June, five days after his disappearance". According to the statement, it is not clear whether Sohrab died immediately as a result of the gunshot wound to his heart or if he was taken to hospital for treatment first.

According to the family friend, who visited with the grieving family members on the evening of Jul. 11, the family was nervous that if the news of Sohrab's death were to be publicized, authorities would thwart their efforts at burying the teenaged victim.

Still, those who got news of the death were quick to spread the word. A short video of Sohrab's mother has since been posted on the social networking site Facebook. The video shows Fahimi holding a picture of her son and approaching those who have been released from Evin for information on his whereabouts.

Monday's funeral was held amid a heavy presence of plainclothes security officials. Fahimi was not allowed to address the crowd at length and only provided a few words, explaining that no further memorial ceremonies would be held for her son.

In the Shiite tradition, memorial services are held on the third, seventh and fortieth day after death. A family friend present at the funeral, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that the family had been pressured to forgo the usual memorial services.

Much attention has been given to the worsening human rights situation in Iran following the disputed elections and the protests. Several statements have been issued by leading opposition groups and figures urging the release of prisoners.

Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist presidential candidate, issued an open letter to Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi last week urging him to take concrete measures to release all those arrested in recent weeks before his tenure as head of the Judiciary comes to a close.

Karoubi's office has also set up a call centre where citizens can report on the arrest of their loved ones, or file a report about missing relatives.

The Participation Front, the leading reformist political party, also issued a statement condemning the arrest and continued detention of citizens, especially political prisoners, calling for their release.

According to the head prosecutor of the country, 2,500 individuals were arrested in the aftermath of the elections, with all but 500 now released. Official sources place the number of those killed in the clashes at 20, though human rights activists in Iran believe that both the numbers of those arrested and those killed are far greater.

"The number of those killed must be somewhere in the hundreds, but it is hard to get a real count, because families have been threatened into silence," said one leading human rights activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"The bodies of those killed in the clashes or as a result of torture and beatings after being taken into custody are given to family members on condition that they do not publicise the cases," the source said. "There are many accounts by people who have seen protesters shot, but since they do not know the protesters and cannot provide verifiable information, it is difficult for us to provide a real count."

"The government is non-responsive," added the activist. "They don't respond to family members or to lawyers, so it is a very difficult situation."

While much attention has been given to the scores of political and human rights activists and journalists who have been arrested in their homes or offices, often without a warrant, Sanam, a women's rights activist, believes that "these activists are in a better position, because the world knows them. The unknown individuals who are arrested in protests are in a far worse situation, because their family members often don't even know what has happened to them."

"We need to warn family members that their children could have a similar fate to that of Sohrab's," Sanam said. "If they understand that their children could die in custody or that they may already be dead, perhaps they will pressure officials to release them or to at least provide some reliable information."

On Jul. 9, another protest marking the tenth anniversary of the attack on student dormitories in 1999 drew thousands of protesters to the streets to demonstrate their support not only for the student movement but to voice their objections to the results of the elections.

While the heavy presence of police and security forces on the streets prevented a large crowd from forming, scuffles were reported in major squares of Tehran and other cities. Security forces used batons and teargas to disperse the crowds, arresting many protesters.

According to human rights activists, the lists posted outside Evin prison place the number of those arrested on Jul. 9 at nearly 200.

Meanwhile the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has called for an independent investigation into the death of Sohrab, while raising concerns about the "lack of transparency and calculated delay in releasing the information about Aarabi's unexplained death," claiming the handling of this case by officials only raises concern about others who have disappeared in recent weeks or been held in detention with no contact with family members or lawyers.

 
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