PRAGUE, March 15, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian officials say burials of "martyrs" in public places -- including universities -- are intended to keep alive the memories and sacrifices of those who lost their lives fighting for Iran.
But observers and student activists are skeptical about whether universities are the most suitable place for such graves. They say authorities are using the issue to try to gain greater control over universities.
"By burying the bodies of the martyrs on university campuses, they can destroy every freedom seeking movement under the claim that the blood of the martyrs is being disregarded and trampled upon." -- Tehran student activist
Three burials took place at Tehran's Sharif University on March 13, despite protests a day earlier. Students had called for the burials to be postponed until after Iranian New Year celebrations on March 21 and after a vote on the issue.
It was the second group of burials at an Iranian university in recent days. Three "unknown martyrs" were buried at Tehran's Shahid Rajaii University a few days earlier.
Two student groups issued statements to protest the burials at Shahid Rajaii University. But the burials at Sharif University faced even greater resistance from students.
Soroush Sabet is a spokesman for a student group called the Islamic Society of Sharif University.
"Despite the opposition by the students Islamic Society and also despite a poll in which 82 percent of students said they are against the plan, [the volunteer Islamic group] Basij and the cultural council of the university approved the [burials]," Sabet told Radio Farda. "On [March 12] we had a gathering during which we approved a resolution in which we called for the plan to be stopped until after the new year and the holding of a referendum."
Sabet says the resolution also was signed by a deputy dean of Sharif University and it was decided that the burial plans would be postponed.
But on March 13, when students came to the university they discovered that three graves had been dug outside the university's mosque and that a burials were scheduled to take place around noon.
Clashes At Graves
Reports say between 600 to 700 students attempted to create a human chain around the graves to prevent the soldiers from being interred. But they faced resistance from about 200 other students who supported the burial plans.
First, there were verbal arguments between the two sides. Clashes broke out when a group of black-clad men carried coffins onto the campus with the remains of the soldiers. Many students who tried to block the plans reportedly were beaten before authorities completed the burials.
The dean of Sharif University, Said Sohrabpour, says he was beaten later by a group of protesters. He told Iran's Student News Agency (ISNA) that the university's mosque is located outside the campus -- and that the university had agreed to the burials upon the insistence of some Islamic groups and the "children of martyrs."
Some students have expressed concerns that the burials set a dangerous precedent that paves the way for other political groups to enter university campuses and pressure students.
"The students say that the war martyrs are very important and dear to us and we will always respect them," says Delbari, the student activist. "But this doesn't mean that the establishment can abuse them. By burying the bodies of the martyrs on university campuses, they can destroy every freedom seeking movement under the claim that the blood of the martyrs is being disregarded and trampled upon. Under the [pretext] of a renewal of support for the martyrs, universities will be turned into [military zones] by military and militia groups."
Professor Mohammad Maleki, a former chancellor of Tehran University, also thinks authorities are using the burials as an attempt to gain leverage over student activists.
"A university is a place for science, research, and discussions," Maleki says. "It is also a place for finding a solution to the country's problems. It's not a cemetery. They do this to suppress students. They know that students protest such moves. And their goal is to repress them and create fear at universities."
But Maleki predicts that the plan is likely to backfire -- leading to more resistance and unity among students.
Iran's daily "Sharq" -- a reformist newspaper -- reports that there also were plans last December to bury the remains of soldiers at Tehran's Amir Kabir University. Those burials were supposed to coincide with a visit by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. But the plan was cancelled after children of 'martyrs' who study or work at the university joined protests against burials there.
(Radio Farda contributed to this report.)