The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Death of 16-year-old protester adds new fuel to Iran uprising

People demonstrate in solidarity with Iranians near the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday. The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old who was detained Sept. 13 by the police unit responsible for enforcing Iran’s strict dress code, has led to protests around the world. (Julien Warnand/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The death of a 16-year-old girl during Iran’s ongoing anti-government protests — and the apparent attempt by authorities to cover it up — has given demonstrators another rallying cry.

Nika Shakarami disappeared in Tehran on Sept. 20 after burning her headscarf in protest and being followed by security forces, her family told BBC Persian, citing the account of a friend who was with her at the time. The government then refused to disclose her whereabouts, stole her body for a secret burial and pressured relatives to make false statements about how she died, the family alleges.

Her story is eerily similar to that of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose death on Sept. 16 in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” provided the first spark for the largest demonstrations Iran has seen in several years. Authorities said Amini had a heart attack after being arrested for an alleged violation of Iran’s strict dress code, releasing edited footage as evidence. But her family believes she was abused, and at her funeral, mourners yelled, “Death to the dictator” — a taboo reference to Iran’s supreme leader — before being attacked by police.

The protests now sweeping the country are a formidable challenge to Iran’s clerical leadership, reflecting decades of pent-up fury over poverty, repression, gender segregation and human rights violations. Iran’s leaders blamed the West for the popular uprising and have launched a violent crackdown, cutting internet access and killing at least 80 people, according to rights groups. Authorities have also threatened the families of those arrested and killed, seeking to intimidate them into silence.

Despite the danger, Shakarami’s aunt, Atash Shakarami, shared news of the teen’s disappearance on social media. Soon, her story began to circulate online and gain attention in Iran. A video of Shakarami wearing black baggy pants and a black T-shirt, her jet-black hair cut short, while singing a Persian love song went viral.

For days, Iranian authorities did not publicly comment on the case, but the family says they were privately pressured to keep quiet.

Shakarami’s aunt told BBC Persian that the teenager left the house on Sept. 20 with a water bottle in her bag, supposedly to visit her sister. The family later realized she was going to protest and probably took the water to rinse tear gas from her eyes.

They lost contact with her around 7 p.m. Sept. 20, the aunt said, and her Instagram and Telegram accounts were deleted that night. Security forces often demand detainees give them access to their social media accounts.

The family filed a missing persons report and searched for her in hospitals and police stations. But they heard nothing until 10 days later, when they found her body in a morgue.

“When we went to identify her, they didn’t allow us to see her body, only her face for a few seconds,” Atash Shakarami told BBC Persian.

As a condition for releasing the body, authorities demanded that the family bury her privately — a common tactic to avoid the funeral turning into a protest, as in the case of Amini.

The family brought her body to Shakarami’s father’s hometown in the west of Iran on Sunday, but they never got the chance to hold a funeral. That same day, authorities took back Shakarami’s body and buried her in a village about 25 miles away. They also arrested her aunt, Atash Shakarami.

Realizing they could no longer ignore her case, Iranian authorities finally commented Tuesday on Shakarami’s death, claiming that her body was found Sept. 21 in the backyard of a building after she had fallen to her death. Authorities also said they had arrested eight workers allegedly at the building when she died, according to Tasnim News. The news agency is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp whose police force, the Basij, have been a key part of the crackdown on protesters. Fars News, which is also IRGC-affiliated, released video footage Wednesday that it said showed Shakarami entering the building, though the person is not identifiable.

State television also aired footage Wednesday of Shakarami’s aunt corroborating the government narrative, saying that the teen fell from the roof of the building. Her uncle appeared as well and criticized the protests. But as he spoke, a shadow appeared and someone seemed to whisper in Persian, “Say it, you scumbag!”

Iran’s government has long made use of forced confessions, according to rights groups, and on Thursday, Shakarami’s mother told Radio Farda, the Persian arm of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, she was also being intimidated.

“They killed my daughter, and now they are threatening me into a forced confession,” she said.