Mahsa Amini death: Iranians risk everything to protest. Their families say some of them will not return home

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

Farnaz said his older brother, an accountant, had joined demonstrations in the city of Kerman, in southeastern Iran on Monday, against what he calls the “oppressive government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi” when “plainclothes officers” infiltrated the crowd and “forced people into moral police vans”.

Amini’s suspicious death has become a symbol of the violent oppression women have faced in Iran for decades and protesters say that, once again, the regime has bloody hands.

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

Demonstrations in Tehran after Mahsa Amini's death on 21 September.

In the hectic hours following his brother’s disappearance, Farnaz and his parents went to the Kerman branch of the moral police to ask for answers.

Instead, they say they have encountered a sea of ‚Äč‚Äčother families who are also looking for loved ones – many of whom have claimed to have been threatened by the police.

It’s been over four days since Farnaz saw her brother and she worries he’ll never go home.

“My brother is being held captive by these cruel people and we can’t even find out about his condition,” he said.

CNN checked the video showing armed police clashing with protesters on Monday in Kerman’s Azadi Square, where Farnaz says his brother was kidnapped.

On Thursday, the United States sanctioned several police and security officials who it holds responsible for Amini’s death.

“Brutalizing Iranians into Subjugation”

Amini’s family last saw her alive on September 13, when she was “stuck in the head” by Tehran’s moral police in the back of a car before being taken away, her cousin Diako told CNN. Aili.

Security camera footage released by Iranian state media showed Amini collapsing in a “re-education” center later that day in Tehran, where she was taken by moral police officers to receive “guidance” on how she was dressed.

Two hours later she was transferred to the Kasra hospital in Tehran.

According to Aili, doctors at the Kasra hospital where Amini was treated told her close relatives that she was hospitalized with “brain damage on arrival” because “the head injuries were so severe”.

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Aili lives in Norway and hasn’t spoken to Amini since July, but has frequent contact with her parents. She said that none of her relatives had been allowed to enter the hospital room to see her body.

“She died in a coma three days later … a 22-year-old young woman with no heart disease or whatever … she was a happy girl living in a not so good country, with dreams I will never know,” Aili said. .

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

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

Last weekend, the government said the autopsy had been completed but was still under review.

A family photo of Mahsa Amini as a child.

An official investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death is “underway”, but it hasn’t done much to quell the riots in the streets, as scenes of protests, striking for their geographic spread, ferocity and symbolism, flood social media , in what appears to be the largest manifestation of public anger in Iran since the demonstrations over the skyrocketing food and fuel prices in 2019.

For Shima Babaei, who fled Iran in 2020 after serving a sentence in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison for not wearing a veil, Amini’s death is particularly nerve-wracking.

“Her death reminds me of the ferocity of the police, not only against me, but also against thousands of Iranian women who have had these experiences. In the same building as the moral police headquarters they treated me like a criminal, they put me in handcuffs and dishonored me, “the 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 has become synonymous with the “Girls of Revolution Street” anti-hijab demonstrations that took place across Iran from 2017 to 2019.

But she says the mood looks different this time.

“I think this is the beginning of something. Women are setting fire to their scarves and uprooting any symbol of the regime from the streets … sooner or later the Iranian people will gain freedom and we will remember those around us.”

Concern for the next steps of the authorities

An internet blackout introduced Thursday by authorities in an attempt to quell the riots appears to have had little effect. Human rights organizations are now concerned about what the Iranian authorities might do next with the cover of darkness.

The Iranian military issued a warning to protesters and said it was ready to “confront the enemies” to defend the security of the nation, state news agency IRNA said, as protests erupted in several cities Thursday night.

The army has “strongly condemned” the attacks on the police and “will confront the various plots of the enemies and defend the security and interests of the Iranian nation,” he added. At least 17 died during the protests last week, according to Iranian semi-official media.

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

Mansoureh Mills, who works on 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 men intentionally shot with metal bullets and other ammunition, which resulted in horrific death or injury. This is the desperate attempt by the authorities to brutalize Iranians into submission,” Mills told CNN.

For Aili – who watches the protests from afar – the fear she now has for her relatives in Iran who have spoken of Amini’s death is paralyzing.

She said the government had offered to take care of her family financially if they kept quiet about her cousin’s case, but they decided to let her story out.

“Why did you kill an innocent 22-year-old girl?”

“Nobody deserves to die just because they show hair or say what they think … it’s a waste of life,” Aili told CNN.

CNN’s Mostafa Salem and Celine Alkhaldi contributed to the report.