TEHRAN (Reuters) - Baton-wielding Iranian police fired tear gas on Thursday and arrested protesters mourning the young woman killed in post-election violence who has become a symbol for the opposition to Tehran’s hardline leaders.
The renewed protests show the opposition refuses to be quelled or accept the June 12 hardline election victory despite a security crackdown, the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators and repeated calls from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The clashes erupted after hundreds of supporters of opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi gathered to mourn Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death on June 20 was captured on video and has been seen by hundreds of thousands on the Internet.
At least 300 mourners were at a ceremony for the 26-year-old music student at Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, greeting the opposition leader with chants of “Mousavi we support you” and clinging to his car as he arrived, a witness said.
But police forced Mousavi to return to his car and leave.
Many hundreds later tried to move toward the Grand Mosala, a large prayer venue in central Tehran. But police were out in force outside the Mosala, having rejected a request by opposition leaders to hold a memorial ceremony there.
“There are thousands of people chanting slogans in favor of Mousavi. Hundreds of riot police around Mosala and nearby streets are trying to disperse them,” another witness said.
Plainclothes security agents and riot police beat protesters with batons and police fired tear gas, witnesses said.
Protesters set garbage containers alight in nearby streets. At least three protesters were arrested and police smashed the car windows of drivers who honked their horns in support of the demonstrators, one of the witnesses said.
Smaller groups of scores of protesters gathered in parts of Tehran as evening fell, shouting “death to dictators,” and “independence, freedom, Iranian republic”; an echo of a slogan from the 1979 revolution with the word “Iranian” replacing the word “Islamic” that was used 30 years ago.
Official restrictions prevent Reuters and other news organizations from reporting outside their offices.
Later, as night fell, Tehran residents shouted “Allahu Akbar” — “God is greatest” — from balconies and rooftops.
Mousavi and another reformist candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, say the authorities rigged the June 12 vote to ensure the re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Supreme Leader Khamenei has upheld the result and demanded an end to protests over the election, which tipped Iran into its worst internal crisis since the 1979 Islamic revolution and exposed deep rifts within the establishment.
“I don’t understand the meaning of dispatching police forces and security agents to surround those who want to mourn,” said Karoubi at the cemetery, where Neda’s family was marking the 40th day since her death.
Neda was shot as Mousavi supporters clashed with riot police and Basij militiamen in Tehran. Authorities say the bullet that killed her was not a type used by Iranian security forces and say the incident was staged to blacken their image.
Neda’s mother said her daughter was an innocent bystander.
“It was all about being young and feeling passionate about freedom,” her mother told the BBC. “She wasn’t political, she didn’t belong to any party or group ... Every other young Iranian was there and she was one of them.”
Iranian media have reported the deaths of several other protesters. Rights groups say hundreds of people, including senior pro-reform politicians, journalists, activists and lawyers, have been detained since the election.
Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami has denounced the killings and arrests. “Blood has been shed,” he said on Wednesday, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency. “Detainees have faced illegal and un-Islamic behavior. Those responsible should be punished,” he added.
The authorities have said many have been released but the head of a parliamentary committee said this week that 200 protesters and 50 political figures remained in custody.
Among them is disabled reformer Saeed Hajjarian, who was transferred on Thursday to a “state-owned” house from the jail where he had been held since he was arrested on June 15, the semi-official Mehr news agency reported.
“State-owned” houses belong to security-related organizations, including Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and the Intelligence Ministry, analysts say.
“Detainees who are kept in such places, are actually under tight security supervision ... it does not mean they have been freed,” said an analyst, who asked not to be named.
The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards, Brigadier General Abdollah Araghi, had warned on Wednesday against any gathering to mourn protesters killed in last month’s huge demonstrations.
“We are not joking. We will confront those who want to fight against the clerical establishment,” he said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.
Ahmadinejad is under pressure even from his allies over his initial choice of vice-president and his decision to dismiss the intelligence minister, who had criticized the president for failing to obey the supreme leader promptly on the issue.
For a week Ahmadinejad had ignored Khamenei’s order that he drop his choice of deputy, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, a man who outraged hardliners last year by saying Iran had no quarrel with Israelis, only with their government.
Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Jon Boyle