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Source: Washington Post

Sep 15, 2023

Their loved ones were killed in Iran’s uprising. Then the state came for them.

By Nilo Tabrizy

Ramtin Fatehi’s father, uncle and aunt had been missing for 10 days when he joined a demonstration in Berlin last October, held in solidarity with the uprising then sweeping Iran.His family members had been arrested for protesting in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s northwestern Kurdistan province, and he hadn’t been able to reach them.

“I participated in the protest to be [their] voice,” said Fatehi, a 25-year-old nursing student in Germany. He even did a media hit that day, hoping to raise their profile.

His father was already dead. A friend called that night to deliver the news.

“I felt like the world was falling down on me,” Fatehi said. For his family back in Iran, it was only the beginning of their ordeal.

“The Ministry of Intelligence summons one of our family members each week,” Fatehi said. “They threaten them to get them not to participate in protests.”

“The threats and harassment have increased closer to the anniversary,” he added, referring to Saturday’s marking of a year since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s “morality police,” which set off months of anti-government demonstrations.

At least 530 protesters were killed by Iranian security forces over the past year, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), and their relatives have often been targeted by the state. In interviews with The Washington Post, grieving family members revealed how Iranian authorities have systematically surveilled and detained them, pressuring them to stay silent and off the streets.

On Sept. 5, Amini’s family members were taken into custody in their hometown of Saqqez and warned not to call for protests to commemorate her death, local human rights observers reported.

“The pressures come in the form of phone calls, summoning families, asking them to keep quiet around the anniversary,” said Tara Sepehri Far, the senior researcher on Iran for Human Rights Watch. “Families draw a lot of sympathy from the public, given that they are basically the lived experience of the injustice that happened to them.”

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

The Heydari family was among the first to go public about the death of a loved one, after their son Javad was killed on Sept. 22 while protesting in the northwestern city of Qazvin. His funeral was broadcast online; his sister Fatemeh wept as she cut her hair over his casket. Those images, along with family videos of Javad shared online, went viral, propelling the family into the spotlight and swiftly attracting the attention of security and intelligence forces.

“A few days after what happened to my brother and the sharing of the videos, I was arrested and I had to go to court because I was summoned for making propaganda against the government,” Fatemeh Heydari, now in Turkey, told The Post. “My father was pressured to say that we are supporters of the regime and that his daughter acted emotionally, and we made a mistake.”

Their family home was surveilled and raided numerous times over the past year, forcing them into hiding. Heydari said arrest warrants have also been issued for her father, her older brother and more than a dozen other relatives. Even a 2-year-old niece was briefly detained with her father. Four family members lost their jobs, including Heydari and a sister-in-law who was fired as a nurse after being asked about Javad’s role in the protests.

Authorities also worried about the symbolism of Javad’s grave. “They put pressure on us to change the headstone or they said that they’d come break it,” Heydari said.

“These pressures weren’t only on my family,” she continued. When people from their village came to the graveyard to commemorate the 40th day since Javad’s death, many were “arrested, beaten and asked why they attended,” she said.

Hiwa Hosseinpouri was abroad when he learned about the death of his brother. Azad Hosseinpouri, 32, was killed on Nov. 17 during anti-government protests in Mahabad, a Kurdish city close to the Iraqi border.

“All my hair has turned white from grief and pressure in these past few months,” said Hiwa, 31. “I have had many panic attacks. I am far away and feel desperate.”

Azad had been active in anti-government protests before, but Hiwa said he seemed more serious this time — stating that he was willing to die for his freedom. After he was killed, the family in Mahabad was put under constant state surveillance.

Azad Hosseinpouri, 32, was killed on Nov. 17, 2022, while at a protest in Mahabad, Iran. (Family photo)

“Three of my sisters, my brother and my brother-in-law were summoned by intelligence officials,” Hiwa said. “They confiscated their mobile phones and passports. They threatened them with prison and death. They banned them from any activity on social media. They can’t even visit my brother’s grave.”

His 80-year-old father was summoned as well, he said. His mother has suffered two heart attacks in the months since. One of his sisters has fallen into a deep depression.

“When you are outside of Iran, and cannot be with your family and relatives, and be present, your pain and suffering multiply,” Hiwa said. (The Post is not identifying his whereabouts because of concern for his safety.)

He and Fatehi both long to return home, but the fear of arrest keeps them away.

Fatehi works at hospitals and nursing homes in Germany, and takes special pride in looking after the elderly. “One of my dreams was to take care of my father in his old age and to be beside him, but the Islamic Republic prevented me from reaching this dream,” said Fatehi, his voice starting to break.

While pressuring victims’ families may tamp down protests in the short term, researcher Sepehri Far said, it could have unintended consequences for the regime.

“We have seen the families of the 2019 protest joining forces with those who have been killed, we have seen the families all the way back to the ’80s finding this space to speak up,” she said. “Every round of protests just brings more people together.”

Nilo Tabrizy is a video reporter for The Washington Post's Visual Forensics team. Before joining The Post, she worked as a video journalist at the New York Times, where she covered Iran, race and policing, and abortion access. She was also a reporter at Vice News covering drug policy and harm reduction. Twitter

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