The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Iran is still waging war on the victims of its crackdowns

Mothers for Justice photographed in 2021 in the city of Karaj, Iran. (Morteza Damvar)
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Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights campaigner. She hosts “Tablet,” a talk show on Voice of America’s Persian service.

On April 1, Nahid Shirpishe posted a video on her Instagram page detailing how agents from the Iranian secret police had recently broken into her home in the city of Karaj, outside Tehran, and trashed the room of her deceased son. She explained why she wasn’t planning on cleaning up the mess: “I want to keep this room as evidence of the spitefulness and meanness of an illegitimate regime.”

Shirpishe’s only apparent offense? Her efforts to keep alive the memory of her son Pouya Bakhtiari, who was shot at age 27 by security forces during the anti-government demonstrations of November 2019, when (according to a Reuters report) some 1,500 protesters were killed by the regime. In death, Bakhtiari has become one of the faces of the protests.

Most Americans might not have heard of Shirpishe. In Iran, however, she has become a symbol of resistance — measured not least by the ferocity of government efforts to silence her almost three years after her son’s death. She and other members of her family have been threatened, arrested, interrogated and beaten up for demanding information about who killed her son. When the family tried to hold memorial services for Bakhtiari in 2019, security forces raided the event and beat up the mourners. Last year, the State Department’s report on human rights condemned Iranian authorities for their treatment of Shirpishe and her family.

Female protesters, especially the mothers of those killed by the security forces, are proving particularly irksome for the regime. Ultimately, it might be these mothers who will bring lasting change to Iran. Shirpishe and dozens of other activists and mothers — often known collectively as “Mothers for Justice” — have taken part in vigils, held mourning ceremonies and posted video clips on social media, striving to keep the memories of their dead children alive. The authorities have responded by prohibiting memorial ceremonies and mourning rituals for the families of those who were killed in protests.

There are global historical precedents. In Argentina, the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) gathered in Buenos Aires in the city square of that name in the 1970s and ’80s, when such gatherings were forbidden. They held up signs asking for their disappeared children to be returned, even while knowing that most of them had been killed. In Chile, mothers also gathered in Santiago, holding pictures of their disappeared children, asking where they were, refusing to forget them.

The bravery of those mothers undermined the aura of invincibility of the military dictatorships in Argentina and Chile and helped usher in democratic governments.

Over the past month, other activist mothers in Iran have been targeted by the state. On Feb. 22, security forces stormed the home of Shahnaz Akmali and her daughter Maryam Karimbeigi, confiscating their laptops, mobile phones and all the pictures of her son and other victims of the 2009 protests. For the past 12 years, Akmali has been determined to get an acknowledgment that her son Mostafa, 26, was shot by the security forces during the 2009 anti-election-fraud protests that brought millions of Iranians into the streets.

Akmali has paid a price for her activism. Over the years, she has lost several jobs. In 2019, she was forced to serve a year in prison for “propaganda against the state” in connection with her activities to organize other mothers who were also victims of political violence by the regime.

Threats, intimidation and arrests are just the cost of doing business for these families. The government ban on any form of commemoration, tribute or mourning ceremonies for their loved ones has forced some of these families to bury their children in faraway towns and villages. Pejman Gholipour was only 18 when he was shot in a Tehran province during the November 2019 protests — but his mother, Mahboubeh Ramezani, was forced to bury him in a village 200 miles from her home. When she held a memorial last November, the security forces descended onto the village and detained all the mourners.

Fathers are not immune either. Manouchehr Bakhtiari, Pouya’s father, is still in prison. While waiting for his trial, Bakhtiari was sentenced to 3½ years in prison without being informed of the charges, or the date of the trial, or having access to a lawyer. His crime: not keeping silent about the killing of his son Pouya.

Farzad Ansarifar was killed by security forces in November 2019. His family has never given up seeking justice for him. Farzad’s father, Amin, was arrested in February and charged with spreading propaganda against the state.

“We are like hostages in Iran,” Nahid Shirpishe told me. “First they kill our loved ones, then they harass or arrest us when we demand justice.”

Tehran’s continuing war against the victims of political violence is a reminder of the dismal state of the human rights situation in Iran — even as Western countries prepare to return to the negotiating table for nuclear talks with the regime. The West chose to overlook the evil nature of the Taliban and Vladimir Putin — with consequences that should now be apparent. It shouldn’t make the same mistake with Iran.