Slain Iranian teenager becomes symbol of protests

Hundreds of mourners attended the funeral Monday of 19-year-old Sohrab Aarabi, a quiet young man whose body was returned to his family after nearly a month of frantic searching by friends and relatives. He had disappeared June 15 during a protest against the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“I won’t remain silent,” said Aarabi’s mother, Parvin Fahimi, according to the pro-reformist news website, the online incarnation of the popular newspaper Norooz, which was closed by authorities in 2002.

“The authorities were playing with me all this time,” she added. “My son had been killed, but they refused to tell me.”


The story of Aarabi’s death and his mother’s quest is emerging as another emotionally potent narrative of the fledgling protest movement. It follows that of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old aspiring tour guide shot dead June 20 during a demonstration, who has also become a symbol of the movement.

Aarabi’s relatives described him as a sometimes sullen and sensitive young man, the youngest of four brothers, who fell a year behind in his studies while stoically attending to his ailing father. The senior Aarabi died two years ago after a long illness, said Bahman Mohammadi, his paternal uncle, who lives in Aachen, Germany.

“He had his own spirit, very emotional,” Mohammadi said in a telephone interview. “From childhood he was very much like his father. He was quiet. He would hold stuff inside. He never complained.”

He added, “This was a big blow to this family.”

Aarabi was to begin college in the fall but disappeared June 15, the day of the first large demonstration against Ahmadinejad, who is accused by opposition candidates of vote-rigging in the June 12 presidential election.

Public outrage over the teenager’s death has been fueled by accounts of his mother’s ordeal in looking for her son. In a video posted online, Fahimi is seen clutching his photo outside Evin Prison, where authorities had told her that he was probably being held. On the video she pleads for information about Aarabi’s whereabouts.

After weeks of shuttling among prisons, hospitals and courthouses, she was summoned to the Revolutionary Court and asked to identify Aarabi from among 60 photographs of bodies. She was shown a coroner’s report dated June 19, which said Aarabi died of a gunshot wound to the chest.

But Aarabi’s family expressed skepticism, wondering whether he had been wounded, abused and left to die. Several human rights groups have demanded an independent investigation.

Norooznews reported that Iranian intelligence officers arrived shortly before the funeral ceremony Monday and demanded that the rites be held in silence, warning that any acts of protest would lead to arrests and more trouble for Aarabi’s family.

But video reportedly taken during the funeral shows mourners chanting “God is great,” a call that has been taken by the protest movement. CNN reported on its website that some people carried placards reading “My martyred brother, I will take back your vote” and held up their right hands in victory signs.

“What was done to you, no animal would do to another animal,” a mourner reportedly said after reciting a poem in Aarabi’s honor.

Friends and observers said Aarabi’s mother is no stranger to controversy. Even before her son’s death, she was an active member of Mothers for Peace, which wrote an open letter to authorities condemning Iran’s nuclear program. She has suggested to those close to her that she and her family are prepared to weather the consequences of turning Aarabi’s death into a rallying cry for the opposition.

A poem written about Fahimi’s plight noted that her teenage son’s picture was in a booklet of images of slain men between 25 and 30 years old.

“How quickly you’ve grown in these 25 days that your mother has been going door to door looking for you,” said the poem, posted on Norooznews. “Open your eyes, Sohrab! Your mother is devastated by your picture.”


Lutz is a researcher in The Times’ Beirut Bureau.