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Grieving In Iran: Mothers Brought Together By Tragic Deaths, State Pressure

Nahid Shirpisheh (right) poses with other mothers who have lost sons to the state's repression of dissent.

Covered in black and holding a picture of her son, a blogger who died seven years ago in police custody, Gohar Eshghi trudged slowly with a cane into the home of Nahid Shirpisheh, whose son was shot dead in last month's violent crackdown on nationwide gas-price protests.

Eshghi's son, Sattar Beheshti, was killed in 2012 while being detained and reportedly after being tortured by Iranian cyberpolice.

Shirpisheh's son, 27-year-old electrical engineer Pouya Bakhtiari, was killed during a demonstration in the city of Karaj and has become a symbol of the reported hundreds of protesters killed during the rallies last month in more than 100 cities around Iran.

The two grieving mothers posted a video of their December 14 meeting in which they welcomed and then consoled each other about the tragic loss of their children at the hands of the state.

They also posed together for social-media photos while holding pictures of their sons.

The two women are among many hundreds of mothers whose children have become victims of Iran's state repression during different time periods.

They mourn their children while daring to challenge the clerical establishment by seeking truth and justice about the killings and raising awareness about state violence and human rights abuses in Iran.

They have also faced state pressure and harassment that is aimed at intimidating them into silence and inaction.

Shirpisheh, who was near her son when he was shot dead on the street, has said she will not remain silent in the face of "tyranny and pressure." She's called for the punishment of those who ordered the killing of her son while also stating that she does not trust Iran's judicial system.

Eshghi has fought for justice for the past eight years in open letters, media interviews, and public appearances while always carrying a photo of her slain son.

In 2014, she rejected a three-year prison sentence issued for a police officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her son, maintaining that her son's death under torture was the result of "premeditated murder."

Killings In Different Eras

Some of Iran's grieving mothers lost their sons in the late 1980s mass prison executions following a fatwa by the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. An estimated 5,000 people, including members of the opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), leftists, students, and others were executed.

The mothers of those people are known as the Mothers Of Khavaran because of their regular visits to the Khavaran cemetery in southeastern Tehran, where their loved ones were secretly buried.

Many other mothers lost their children in the brutal state crackdown in 2009 that followed the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Among them is Shahnaz Akmali, who went to visit Shirpisheh last month.

Akmali, whose son Mostafa Karimbeigi was killed in the state-sanctioned violence during the Green Movement demonstrations, has been outspoken in the years since his death, seeking those responsible to be prosecuted. "I won't be silenced as long as I'm alive," she has said.

Her peaceful activism has brought her a one-year prison sentence on charges that include "spreading propaganda" against the Iranian establishment. In early December, Akmali said she was summoned by the authorities to serve her sentence.

After visiting Shirpisheh, Akmali said on Twitter that the meeting reopened her wounds "as if it was yesterday that I was kissing my son's lifeless body."

"I visited [Pouya Bakhtiari's] mother to let her know that the flag of seeking justice has been passed on from the Mothers Of Khavaran to us and now to the mothers of the victims of the 2019 [state crackdown]," she tweeted on November 29.

Amnesty International said on December 16 that at least 304 people were killed between November 15-18 as the authorities crushed the protests with "lethal force."

Iranian authorities have not released an official tally of casualties but acknowledge that thousands of people were arrested.

Shirpisheh's son was shot in the head during a November 16 protest in Karaj, not far from Tehran.

Last week, Shirpisheh was also visited by Akram Neghabi, whose son, student Saeed Zinali, has been missing since being arrested amid the 1999 student protests that lasted for several days and shook the Iranian establishment.

He called his parents a few months after being arrested outside their home in the Iranian capital. That was the last time they heard from him.

In the past 20 years, Neghabi has made multiple futile attempts to seek answers from the authorities about the fate of her son.

A photo of Neghabi, Shirpisheh, and Horieh Farajzadeh -- whose brother Shahram Farajzadeh was run over by a car during the 2009 crackdown -- in which the three women are holding pictures of their deceased loved ones, has gone viral on social media.

The deaths highlight four decades of state repression and a lack of accountability.

"My mother wished that no other mother would ever hold such a framed picture of her child," Reza Moini, the head of the Iran and Afghanistan desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said on Facebook in reaction to the photo.

Moini, who posted a photo of his mother holding a framed photo of his brother -- executed in the 1980s -- added that his mother's wish had gone unfulfilled.

He noted, sadly, that the number of the Islamic republic's grieving mothers has only increased over the years.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.