“From early in the morning it felt like the city was covered with the dust of death. There is very little traffic in the streets. It is just like the first day of the new year.”
This is how one resident of Tehran described the mood on Thursday, December 26, as people prepared to mark 40 days since security forces and police cracked down on protesters and killed them.
The protests began after the government imposed a sudden rise in gas prices on November 15. Iranian authorities cracked down soon after, killing the first protesters on November 16, and many more over the course of the following days. According to Muslim tradition, families and communities commemorate the death of loved ones for 40 days, so for many families, the 40-day mark was December 26.
“Plainclothes agents and anti-riot police were in the city from the very early morning but both their numbers and their equipment increased,” a Tehran resident told IranWire. According to him, authorities positioned water cannons and big cranes in the main squares of southern Tehran. “But it is like the city is empty of people,” he said. “The streets are deserted and silent and only the heavy presence of security forces is noticeable.”
“They told us yesterday to close shop today at six o’clock,” an employee at a shopping mall in Vanak Square in Tehran told IranWire. “The whole shopping mall closed and we came home but there was nobody in the streets. It is like the whole city is asleep.”
Despite the apparent calm, reports on social media sites say that a number of people have been arrested at Behesht Sakineh Cemetery in Karaj near Tehran.
The family of Pouya Bakhtiari, a man of 28 who was shot dead on the first day of the November protests in Karaj, had called on people all over the country to commemorate the death of those killed during the protests on December 26. They had also planned to hold a memorial service at their son’s graveside in Behesht Sakineh Cemetery. After their appeal, Bakhtiari’s parents were repeatedly summoned by security officials and told to retract their call to the public. They refused, and on the night of Monday, December 23, security forces arrested them and took them to an unknown location.
“In a phone interview on Tuesday a relative of the family told London-based Iran International TV that security forces who arrested Pouya's parents also detained some of his relatives, including his grandmother, grandfather and an 11-year-old cousin with them,” reported Radio Farda.
Despite this obvious intimidation, on Thursday, December 26, a large number of people set out for Behesht Sakineh Cemetery to participate in Pouya Bakhtiari’s 40th-day mourning ceremony. “Security agents filmed the cars that tried to enter the cemetery and turned the cars back,” an eyewitness told IranWire.
According to videos and reports published on social media, authorities blocked access to Pouya Bakhtiari’s graveside and a helicopter circled the cemetery to control the situation. Yet the people who had gathered there were not cowed. They chanted anti-government slogans, including, according to one IranWire source, “We did not die to compromise” and “Praise the murderous Leader!”
According to this source, security agents were stationed across the whole cemetery. “They would suddenly attack, beat people on the head with batons and disperse them but they also arrested a number of people.” He said that cellphone reception in the cemetery was extremely weak and internet access was blocked. Plainclothes agents and anti-riot police dealt harshly with anybody filming the scene. “If somebody was filming,” he said, “they would take away his phone. They even broke one person’s phone.”
BBC Persian also published a video showing plainclothes agents forcing people to leave the cemetery. The video shows security agents armed with clubs and firearms.
Raheleh Farajzadeh Tarani, the sister of Shahram Farajzadeh, who was killed during the protests that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election, reported that her sister Hourieh had been arrested. On December 25, Farajzadeh Tarani told IranWire that her family planned to mark the anniversary of her brother’s death on the same day as the 40th commemoration day for Pouya Bakhtiari’s death, December 26 [Persian link]. The families planned to hold both anniversaries in Behesht Sakineh Cemetery. Raheleh Farajzadeh Tarani said since December 2009, the family of Shahram Farajzadeh has been warned not to hold memorial ceremonies on the anniversary of his death. “Every time they told us that we were not allowed to hold ceremonies,” she said. “Last year my family had made a lot of preparations but the night before the services we were threatened that if the ceremonies were not canceled all the participants would be arrested and the responsibility would rest with our family.”
Film directors Dariush Mehrjui, Rakhshan Bani-E’temad, Jafar Panahi, Reza Dormishian and Mohsen Amir Yousefi were among the mourners at Behesht Sakineh Cemetery on Thursday. “There were more security forces than people,” one of them told IranWire. “The only thing that I can say is that it was all very strange. Security forces were there in strange uniforms and carried strange banners.” He did not elaborate, adding only: “We had a duty to go there and we did but everything was really strange. Probably the videos will soon be published and then you will be astonished too.”
Other videos posted on social media show security and anti-riot police out in force in many Iranian cities. Nevertheless, people from various cities have held ceremonies commemorating those who were killed during the November protests.
Is Reuters a Victim of Khamenei and the Guards' Disinformation Campaign?, 25 December 2019
Decoding Iran's Politics: The November 2019 Fact Sheet, 19 December 2019
148 Killed in Mahshahr During November Protests, 17 December 2019
Eyewitness: Security Forces Shot People Indiscriminately, 16 December 2019
Official Claims Mahshahr Protesters Were Armed, 12 December 2019
Heavy Machine Guns Used to Kill Protesters, 2 December 2019
They Killed My Son. I'll Continue to Fight for His Ideals, 29 November 2019
The Regime’s Psychological Warfare Handbook to Crush Protests, 28 November 2019
Shutting Down the Internet to Get Away with Murder, 19 November 2019