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The Very Suspicious Death of a Young Protester in Police Custody

January 12, 2018
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
5 min read
A friend of the arrested protester Vahid Heydari mourns his death on Instagram
A friend of the arrested protester Vahid Heydari mourns his death on Instagram
The Very Suspicious Death of a Young Protester in Police Custody

The traditional ceremonies marking the seventh day after the death of Vahid Heydari were held on January 11 amid an atmosphere of fear and threats. Vahid was a gentle young man who had never harmed anybody. He had worked as a street vendor, selling umbrellas in the winter and knickknacks and cheap clothing in the summer. But now he is gone from his street corner forever. “In the freezing winters of Arak,” says a friend of his, “he stood at the street corner and shouted ‘Sale! Sale!’”

Asad, another street vendor who knew Vahid, also spoke to IranWire. “He was self-reliant and innocent. He hated drugs or anything illegal. He was young but he worked hard to help his family. All the people in the neighborhood liked him.”

Pouria, another friend of Vahid, sent a message to Mohammad Najafi, a lawyer in Arak, who has been pursuing Vahid Heydari’s case. “From dawn to dusk he would stand next to the bazaar selling things for a legitimate loaf of bread,” he wrote. “I swear that he never touched drugs. Now you [addressing the police] have done this horrible thing to him. You did not even hand over his body to his family and buried him yourselves. I beg you, please do not destroy his reputation. Have mercy on his family. His mother has a sick heart and his father is old. Leave them alone.”


Contradictory Accounts of “Suicide”

Vahid Heydari was 23 years old and lived in Karahrud, a town in the central province of Arak. He was arrested on December 30 during the recent protests. Five days later, the police informed his family that he had been arrested for carrying 10 grams of heroin and that he had committed suicide while being held at the 12th police precinct in Arak. “First they said they had a video showing that he had killed himself with his underwear under his blanket,” Pouria said. “Then they said that he had hanged himself with his clothes.”

Ali Bagheri, a civil rights activist based in Arak, also says the authorities’ accounts of what happened are misleading. “How difficult is it to re-stage something that they say happened under a blanket and with no face showing?” he asked. “Vahid Heydari’s family do not answer my inquiries. They are grieving and they are under pressure. They are not allowed to talk to the media,” he added. Authorities in the Islamic Republic regularly use this tactic of pressuring families to stay quiet about what has happened to their loved ones in prison. 

Moayed lives in the neighborhood where Vahid’s family lives. “People in the neighborhood are mad about the charge that he had drugs on him,” he says. “They should have said something else. They could have said: ‘We killed your young man by hitting him with batons. Now forgive us.’ It would have been less painful and people would not curse them so much. This trumped-up charge has made them angry.”

According to Bagheri, the police were caught off guard on the first night of protests, and for some hours they seemed to be in a state of shock. For this reason, there were not many violent clashes on the first night. But on the second night, police were ready, and clashes between the police and the people soon spread. “Vahid was arrested on the second night,” says Bagheri. “They took him to the 12th precinct’s police station, known as Razavi Police Station, in the Gerdoo area. Five days after the arrest, they informed the parents that their son had committed suicide in the detention center. On January 6, they buried his body themselves and under guard. A relative of Vahid told me that his left temple was swollen and had a 10cm-deep hole in it. How can that be the result of suicide?” Up to now, the coroner has not announced a cause of death.

According to Bagheri, Vahid grew up in a religious family. His uncle, his cousin and his father’s cousin were killed during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and Vahid’s father is a disabled war veteran.

On January 10, Central Province Prosecutor Abbas Ghasemi confirmed the death without naming Vahid Heydari. “There were definite signs of self-harming on this individual,” Ghasemi told Mizan, the Iranian judiciary’s official news agency [Persian link]. “There is also a film showing the moment he committed suicide. Therefore, the evidence confirms that his death was caused by suicide.”

Others Were Beaten, Too

“We have received reports of people being beaten at that police station during this period,” Mohammad Najafi, who has offered his services pro bono to Heydari’s family, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “We have also visited Heydari’s village near Arak and spoke to his family and associates who have denied he was ever an addict or sold drugs. They are very upset.”

Ali Bagheri said that the police lied to justify their deeds and now they feel they have no option but to continue lying to people. “If he committed suicide then why did they bury the body themselves? Why tear down notices of his death whenever they see them?” he asks. “Probably they have threatened the family as well because the family has their guard up. His old parents are in shock. In the memorial service for Vahid the security forces were actively present.”

A street vendor who had a stand near Vahid’s remembers what he was like. “Vahid saved money for his mother,” he says. “Now that they have taken his life away from him, at least they could have spared his mother the indignity of destroying his reputation.”



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