Mahsa Amin’s death: Iranians risk it to protest. Their families say some of them won’t come home

“He called me and said just one sentence: ‘I got caught’…I immediately understood what my dear brother was thinking and went to the moral police department (to look for him),” the 22-year-old asked. to use a pseudonym for safety reasons, told CNN.

Farnaz said his older brother, an accountant, was joining what he calls “the oppressive government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Rais” in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman on Monday when “plainclothes officers” entered the crowd and “forced”. people into morality police vans.”

Amin’s suspicious death has become a symbol of the violent oppression women have faced in Iran for decades — and protesters say the regime once again has blood on its hands.

Since last week, semi-official news agencies have reported that at least 17 people have been killed in violent clashes between protesters and security forces. CNN cannot independently verify the death toll. In addition to the protesters, two members of an Iranian paramilitary group have also been killed.

In the frantic hours following her brother’s disappearance, Farnaz and her parents drove to the Kerman branch of the morality police to demand answers.

Instead, they say they encountered a sea of ​​other families also searching for loved ones — many of whom said they were threatened by police.

Farnaz’s brother has been gone for over four days and he is worried that he will never come home.

“My brother is being held captive by these cruel people and we don’t even know his condition,” he said.

CNN has confirmed video showing armed police clashing with protesters in Kerman’s Azad Square on Monday, where Farnaz said his brother was taken.

The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on several moral police and security officials believed to be responsible for Amini’s death.

The brutal surrender of the Iranians

Amin’s family last saw him alive on Sept. 13, when Tehran’s morality police punched him in the head in the back of a car before driving him away, his cousin Diako Aili told CNN.

CCTV footage released by Iranian state media showed Amini collapsing later that day at a “re-education” center in Tehran, where morality police took him for “instructions” on how to dress.

Two hours later, he was taken to Kasra Hospital in Tehran.

According to Aili, doctors at Kasra Hospital, where Amin was treated, told his next of kin that he was admitted “on arrival with brain damage” because “his head injuries were so severe”.

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Aili lives in Norway and has not spoken to Amin since July, but is in frequent contact with her parents. He said none of his relatives were allowed in the hospital room to see her body.

“She died in a coma three days after that… a young 22-year-old woman with no heart disease or anything… she was a happy girl living in a not-so-good country with dreams I’ll never know,” said Aila.

CNN could not independently verify Ail’s account with hospital officials.

Iranian authorities say Amini died of a heart attack and have denied any wrongdoing.

Last weekend, the government announced that the autopsy had been completed but was still being reviewed.

Family photo of Mahsa Amin as a child.

An official investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death is “underway” but has done little to quell the unrest in the streets, with scenes of protests striking in their geographic spread, ferocity and symbolism flooding social media in what appears to be Iran’s biggest public outcry after protests over soaring food and fuel prices in 2019.

For Shima Babaei, who fled Iran in 2020 after serving time in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for not wearing a headscarf, Amin’s death is particularly disturbing.

“Her death reminds me of the brutality of the police against not only me, but thousands of Iranian women who have experienced it. In the same building of the headquarters of the morality police, they treated me like a criminal, handcuffed me and humiliated me,” a women’s rights activist who now lives in Belgium told CNN.

Babaei, who has a large social media presence in Iran, knows what it’s like to become an accidental symbol of protest. Her name became synonymous with the anti-hijab “Girls of Revolution Street” protests that took place across Iran from 2017 to 2019.

But he says the mood feels different this time around.

“I think this is the beginning of something. Women will set fire to their scarves and destroy all symbols of the regime from the streets…sooner or later the people of Iran will gain freedom and we will remember those who stand by us.”

Concerns about the authorities’ next steps

Internet blackouts introduced on Thursday to quell the unrest appear to have had little effect. Human rights groups are now worried about what the Iranian authorities will do next under the cover of darkness.

Iran’s army issued a warning to protesters and said it was ready to “confront the enemy” to protect the nation’s security, state news agency IRNA reported, as protests erupted in several cities on Thursday evening.

The army “strongly condemned” the attacks on the police and will “oppose the various conspiracies of the enemies and protect the security and interests of the Iranian people,” it added. According to Iran’s semi-official media, at least 17 people have been killed during protests over the past week.

According to Amnesty International, hundreds of Iranians were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and in some cases even sentenced to death under national security laws following the November 2019 protests.

Mansoureh Mills, who works in the organization’s Iran team, describes the situation today as a “crisis of impunity” made possible by international inaction.

“We are receiving reports of young people being deliberately shot with metal pellets and other munitions, causing death or horrific injuries. This is a desperate attempt by the authorities to get the Iranians to surrender,” Mills told CNN.

For Aili – who has been watching the protests from a distance – the fear she feels for relatives in Iran who have spoken out about Amin’s death is debilitating.

He said the government had offered to take care of his family financially if they kept quiet about his cousin’s case, but they decided to go public with her story.

“Why did you kill a 22-year-old girl who is innocent?”

“No one deserves to die just because they show their hair or say what they think… it’s a waste of life,” Aili told CNN.

CNN’s Mostafa Salem and Celine Alkhaldi contributed.