In Iran, a Woman Named Neda Becomes Opposition Icon in Death

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

TEHRAN, June 22 -- A video clip showing the violent death of a 26-year-old woman during Saturday's riots in Tehran has captured the world's attention and turned her into an icon for Iranians who are leveling an unprecedented challenge against their theocratic government.

Neda Agha Soltan, whose first name means "the calling" in Farsi, was killed by a gunshot to the heart, and her agonizing death in the street was filmed by at least two bystanders using cellphone cameras.

The clips have been distributed worldwide on sites such as YouTube and inside Iran via Bluetooth. Opposition protesters have carried pictures of her bloodied face to demonstrations and mourning ceremonies, where she is hailed as "a martyr" -- a status with deep resonance in Shiite Islam, Iran's dominant faith.

In the videos, Agha Soltan is dressed traditionally -- wearing a head scarf and a coat that extends past her knees. Seemingly out of nowhere she is struck by a bullet, then falls to the ground and starts bleeding heavily from her nose and mouth.

A man can be heard shouting "Neda, don't be afraid" and "Stay with us" as her eyes roll back and her face becomes covered with blood.

It is not clear who killed her. Bystanders say she was shot by members of Iran's voluntary paramilitary force, the Basij. The government has accused "terrorists" of killing at least 10 people during Saturday's protests by hundreds of thousands of Iranians who favor annulling Iran's disputed presidential election, which was officially decided in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government also describes the demonstrators as rioters and has accused them of working for "foreign agents" after being instructed by the international media. Many of the demonstrators are supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

At the family's modest travel agency, where Agha Soltan once worked, tense relatives declined to comment. According to sources close to the family, authorities have told them not to talk to the news media. The government has cracked down hard in recent days on its most vocal opponents. BBC Persian, a Web site run by the BBC in Farsi, Iran's national language, quoted a man it described as Agha Soltan's fiance on Monday.

"Neda's goal was not to support Mousavi or Ahmadinejad, she was just in love with her country," said the man, Kasamin Makan. "She was a young woman, but gave a big lesson to everybody. . . . Neda just wanted to have freedom for everybody."

Makan said that his fiancee was not participating in the protest when she was killed but was simply stepping out of her car after being caught in traffic.

"We buried the body in a small area in the Zahra Cemetery in the late afternoon" on Sunday, he said. He said others who had been killed at the protests were being buried at the same time.

"This is politics," said a shopkeeper who works near the family's travel agency and who declined to give his name. "It's so dirty. Innocent people, like Neda, get squashed."

Worldwide, people with no connection to her felt touched by Agha Soltan's violent death.

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