TEHRAN (Reuters) - Supporters and opponents of the Iranian government clashed on Wednesday at a funeral for a student shot dead during an opposition rally, with both sides claiming him as one of their own.
State television showed thousands of government supporters at Tehran University for the funeral of Sanee Zhaleh, one of two people shot dead on Monday during the first opposition rally for more than a year. Each side blames the other for the killings.
Monday’s rally, in support of the people of Egypt and Tunisia, was the first major unrest since a wave of arrests, trials and at least two executions in response to huge protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2009 re-election.
“Students and the people attending the funeral ceremony of the martyred student Sanee Zhaleh have clashed with a limited number of people, apparently linked to the sedition movement, and forced them out by chanting slogans of death to hypocrites,” said the website of the state broadcaster IRIB.
The semi-official Fars news agency said Zhaleh had been a member of the Basij, the volunteer militia connected to the elite Revolutionary Guards which put down the 2009 protests.
Opposition websites did not deny Zhaleh was a member of the Basij, which has millions of members throughout Iran, but said he attended Monday’s rally as an active opposition supporter.
“University occupied by the military — martyr’s body carried on the shoulders of murderers,” read a headline on opposition website Kaleme after Zhaleh’s coffin, draped in the Iranian flag, was carried through the streets by Basijis and government supporters.
Kaleme said the university’s arts faculty, where the 26-year-old was a student, was “occupied” from early morning by pro-government militants. It said several people were attacked and a large number arrested.
“The martyr’s fellow students were standing against the walls watching a large crowd of strangers who had entered the university,” Kaleme quoted Sajjad Rezaie, head of the faculty’s Islamic Association, as saying.
The fight to claim Zhaleh as a martyr mirrors the struggle to take credit for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Iran’s government says they follow Iran’s own 1979 Islamic Revolution which toppled the Western-backed shah, but the opposition says the revolts were inspired by its own 2009 protests.
President Barack Obama said he hoped the Iranian people would continue to have the courage to demand greater freedom.
“I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully,” Obama told a White House news conference on Tuesday.
Opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi hailed Monday’s rally as a “glorious” event by a “magnificent movement.” Reformist websites said an estimated 1,500 people had been arrested.
Mehdi Karroubi, the other main opposition leader, said Monday’s rally had been turned violent by “individuals whose role and affiliation with specific institutions is evident to all.”
Tehran’s deputy police chief Ahmadreza Radan said only about 150 people turned up. A second person died of gunshot wounds on Tuesday and a further eight people who had been shot were being treated in hospital, he was quoted as saying by Fars.
By Wednesday there were tributes to Zhaleh and the other victim, 22-year-old Mohammad Mokhtari, on the social media website Facebook, hailing both as victims of state brutality.
Authorities have blamed “terrorist” elements for the violence at Monday’s unauthorized rally. A large majority in parliament signed a motion for the opposition leaders, who both say they are living under virtual house arrest, to be tried, calling them “corrupts on earth.”
Being “corrupt on earth” is a charge which has been leveled at political dissidents in the past. It is a capital offence.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher