In the summer of 2009, Saane’ Zhaale was a theater student and aspiring filmmaker at Tehran University whose relatives say he was “filled with love for his fellow human beings.”
He was shot and killed during the protests that erupted in June that year after the disputed re-election of Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Like so many others who lost their lives in the crackdown that followed the demonstrations that year, the truth behind his killing was repressed by the regime and may never have come to light if not for the reporting of Radio Farda journalist Masih Alinejad.
In her award-winning
multi-part radio documentary “The Victims of 88,” Alinejad speaks to the family and friends of those who were either killed by security forces during the 2009 demonstrations (the year 1388 in the Persian calendar) or who later died in prison. Subject to harassment and intimidation by the authorities, many of the families had been reluctant to speak up before.
Adding insult to the cruel loss of a loved one, Zhaale’s family told Alinejad that his death was exploited by the regime for its own propaganda. Relatives said Zhaale’s cousin was sent by police to the family home after his death to borrow a photograph, which was later broadcast on state media along with false reports that Zhaale was a member of the loyalist Basij militia and was killed by pro-democracy demonstrators.
Alinejad said she found this kind of cynical manipulation of events all too often in her investigations.
To date, she has identified 57 victims whose families are willing to speak to the media. Each 10-12 minute segment of the series tells the story of one through the memories of those who knew the person best, at least one witness to that person’s death, and the reactions of officials when pressed about it. Alinejad has produced 27 individual segments so far this year, and is planning one that would combine their stories and provide an overview.
She notes, though, that a commission formed by reformist presidential challengers Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi to investigate the deaths has confirmed 72 victims. Taking these findings together, she estimates that the 2009 crackdown produced upwards of 100 victims.
For Alinejad, “The Victims of 88” project has become much more than a radio program. She says the families of the victims she has met have become like her own family.
“The main thing that encourages me to dedicate my life to these people is that they have nobody inside Iran to tell the truth. I want people inside Iran to learn about these unknown victims.”
LISTEN: Saane’ Zhaale's family speak to Masih Alinejad
Alinejad previously worked in Iran as a Parliamentary correspondent for Hambastegi Daily and Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA). She was banned from Parliament in 2005 after she exposed a major hike in deputies’ salaries that had been kept from the public.
Coming under increased pressure after the 2009 upheaval, Alinejad left Iran and now lives in exile in the UK. Once abroad she became the target of a smear campaign carried out by Iranian state media in which she was accused of promiscuity and sexual immorality in an attempt to discredit her.
While Alinejad says that interviewing the relatives of those who were killed in 2009 and putting their testimony on record was extremely painful, the feedback from audiences reassures her of the work’s importance.
“There were a lot of ordinary people who came to me to tell me about their friends, neighbors, classmates,” said Alinejad. “They were afraid, but they said ‘we just cannot stay silent anymore.’”
One episode which especially resonated with the audience dealt with the death of Dr. Ramin Pouranarjani, a physician who cared for prisoners in the Kahrizak detention center, a prison notorious for torture. In the comments accompanying the web version of the program readers thanked Alinejad for breaking the silence on Dr. Pouranarjani’s death and expressed frustration at not being able to speak about the events freely.
“This story is really painful, but what is more painful is us being silenced and not saying anything because we are scared of the government,” wrote one reader.
“There is a huge silence in Iran about [Dr. Pouranarjani] and about other victims. If you want to know the reason for the silence, it’s obvious because people are afraid the same is going to happen to them. So thank you for telling the story and not being afraid and not letting it be forgotten,” wrote another.