Iran Arrests Students Protesting Reburial of War Dead on University Campus

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TEHRAN, Feb. 24 -- Dozens of Iranian students were arrested Monday after they protested a government decision to rebury troops who died in the Iran-Iraq war on the grounds of a Tehran university, Iranian student Web sites reported. The semiofficial Fars News Agency said that "a few people tried to create problems and prevent the burying of the martyrs" but did not mention arrests.

Students said 70 people were arrested in the altercation at Amirkabir University of Technology. Cellphone clips posted on YouTube show the reburial ceremony and two groups of people shouting and shoving.

Protesters say they fear that the government will use the presence of war graves on campuses as a pretext for official suppression of demonstrations, political or otherwise.

According to Fars News, the leaders of the protest had links to a student group that has organized demonstrations in the past, calling for more democracy but also better living conditions on the prestigious university's campuses.

Student protests have become rare since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005 and measures were imposed under which students can be suspended or expelled from state-funded universities if they participate in activities -- such as demonstrations -- that are deemed "against the system." There are about 2 million university students in Iran.

On Monday night, friends and family members waited in front of the police station where many of the arrested demonstrators had been brought.

"We were filmed first, and many of us were arrested while leaving the university campus," said a student who was waiting for a friend's release, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Amirkabir University's news Web site,, which is controlled by the students who organized the demonstration, said that 20 students were transferred to Tehran's Evin Prison and that the others had been released overnight. It also reported the arrests of five student leaders Tuesday.

When Ahmadinejad became mayor of Tehran in 2003, he proposed that remains of troops killed in the war be reburied at each of the city's squares as a tribute to their sacrifice. The city council opposed the idea at the time.

Since last year, remains of the fallen have been reburied at two other major universities in the capital, including at Tehran University last month. Groups of students opposed the moves, saying they were intended to influence the atmosphere on campuses. Iranians are expected to behave decorously in the presence of graves of fallen troops.

Monday's reburial ceremony was widely advertised in Tehran, with big promotional posters lining main streets. The remains of unknown soldiers were driven through downtown Tehran before being brought to their new resting places by student members of the Basij, a volunteer paramilitary force controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, photos published by the semiofficial ISNA news agency show. Plainclothes police officers also filmed the event.

"This is a scheme to create rallying points at universities for student supporters of the government. They would say that anybody who criticizes anything will in fact be criticizing the revered martyrs of the war," Abdullah Momeni, a former student leader, said in an interview Tuesday. "Universities are the last places in this country with a grain of freedom and the ability to express opinions."

"The students have deep respect for the martyrs," Momeni added. "It's the government that is abusing them for political games."

The troops who died in the Iran-Iraq conflict, a bitter eight-year-long trench war in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians died, are revered in Iran. They are commemorated with public murals in almost every town, and large cities have special cemeteries devoted to them.

Some students voiced criticism of Monday's protesters.

"They should not have protested against this," Yahya Bakhtiari, a journalism student and Basij member, said. "Martyrs are considered to be our benefactors -- they have given their lives. The least we can do is respect them. . . . They should be buried in public places, and they should be remembered."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company