The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Killing of another teenage protester gives Iran uprising a new symbol

In Paris on Sunday, a woman holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a rally in support of Iranian women. The death in Iran of protester Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, 16, has also gained attention. (Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
4 min

Sixteen-year-old Sarina Esmaeilzadeh loved to share her life with the world online. On her video blog, the charismatic teen sang, danced, cooked, did her makeup and celebrated the end of exams. On Sept. 22, Esmaeilzadeh went to join the protests sweeping the country and was beaten to death by Iranian security forces, rights groups say.

As her case gained attention online, Iranian authorities denied any responsibility Friday, claiming she died by suicide by jumping off a roof. But the details of Esmaeilzadeh’s death in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran, fit into a broader pattern of security forces targeting, arresting and, in some cases, killing minors as Iran’s anti-government uprising enters its fourth week.

Esmaeilzadeh “died after being severely beaten in the head with batons,” according to Amnesty International, which reported her death Sept. 30 and said she was one of at least 52 people killed by security forces up to Sept. 25, an account later corroborated by other rights groups.

On her blog, Esmaeilzadeh would occasionally lament the discrimination women face in Iran. Teenagers “need freedom” to live a good life, she said in a video posted May 22. But she couldn’t, she said, “because of some of the restrictions that are specifically put on women,” such as the mandatory hijab and being barred from sports stadiums. Iranians could expect “nothing else” from the government except welfare handouts, she said.

“It’s no longer 20 years ago when apart from ourselves we hadn’t seen any other teenager,” Esmaeilzadeh, dressed in a colorful shirt of cartoon prints, told the camera. “And it’s only natural that as a human you would look toward the better option.”

Esmaeilzadeh’s case is eerily similar to that of 16-year-old Nika Shakarami, who also died during protests last month. Her family alleges she was killed by security forces after burning a hijab, while Iranian authorities claim she fell off a roof. Shakarami’s death, and the apparent attempts to cover it up and intimidate her family, fueled further outrage.

It was the unexplained death of another young woman, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iran’s morality police that first sparked the nationwide protests in mid-September. Despite a violent crackdown and internet shutdowns, the popular unrest has continued, posing the greatest challenge to Iran’s clerical leaders in several years.

“I can see that the protests have spread further after the killings increased, especially with the killing of Nika and Sarina,” Negin, a 36-year-old art teacher at a Tehran high school who has joined protests, told The Washington Post. She spoke on the condition that only her first name be used to protect her security.

Negin said one of her male relatives had initially dismissed the protests as “a bunch of spoiled kids making a mess.” But he was very saddened by Esmaeilzadeh’s death, which he compared to Iran losing a great poet.

Iranian censorship and reporting restrictions make casualty counts difficult to verify, but rights groups have identified more than two dozen children who have been killed in demonstrations. Many of the minors lived in long-marginalized areas of Iran, including Kurdistan and Baluchistan provinces, where the state’s crackdown has been most severe.

Esmaeilzadeh reportedly went to protest Sept. 22 with several friends after class. She did not return that night.

Reports of Esmaeilzadeh’s death and videos from her blog soon began to circulate online. One video of the teen singing a song by the Irish musician Hozier reached the singer on Friday, he said.

“We talk about freedoms with no understanding of what it means to pay the ultimate price in fighting for it,” Hozier tweeted. “This brave girl was only 16 years in the world…”

Under pressure, Iranian authorities said Friday that the teen died by suicide by jumping from a five-story building. State TV also aired an interview with Esmaeilzadeh’s mother, who said her daughter had once tried to kill herself using pills. She confirmed the official cause of death.

But Iran has a long history of forcing confessions and airing them on state TV, according to rights groups. Shakarami’s mother said her family was pressured to make false statements about her daughter’s death.

State TV was later briefly hacked Saturday by a group calling itself “Adalat Ali,” or Ali’s Justice. The hackers interrupted a news bulletin with slogans in support of the protests and pictures of slain demonstrators, including Esmaeilzadeh.

“The main core of this revolution is Sarina and her generation,” said Negin. “A group which is fully aware of their rights, is in touch with the world and knows really well what they are deprived of. … They don’t have the fears of [my] generation.”