Funeral Security, Tehran-Style


Ezatollah Sahabi, 81, a prominent Iranian dissident died in a hospital in Tehran on Monday 31 May, after spending a month in a coma. The following day his daughter, Haleh Sahabi, 54, was allowed out of prison to attend the funeral of her father. The road to the northeastern Tehran suburb of Lavasan was controlled by two police checkpoints on Tuesday night before the funeral on Wednesday morning. 

Ezzatollah Sahabi was among the leaders of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, a member of the Revolutionary Council and Iran’s first government which resigned in protest at the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran. He spent his last decades as a dissident, in and out of prison. Sahabi was also leader of Nationalist-Religious Coalition from 2003. He was famous for his political and economic analysis of Iran, and also for his many years of imprisonment in both the pre-revolution and post-revolution eras.

Sahabi’s daughter, Haleh, a women’s rights activist, joined the "Green Movement" that held major protests in Tehran over allegations of fraud in the June 2009 presidential election. Haleh Sahabi was among a group of government critics who was arrested in front of the parliament during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s swearing-in ceremony — and sentenced to two years in prison.

Security forces were present at Sahabi’s house in Lavasan all that night as Haleh and other family members mourned the loss of their father. Haleh read verses of the Qur’an beside her father’s body that night. Even though security agents requested the family bury the body overnight, Haleh rejected their demands.

Even so, the next morning the family was forced to hold the funeral ceremony an hour earlier than planned and announced, at 7am. Some relatives and friends had already arrived in Lavasan and others were on the way. There was a strong security presence in the neighborhood which was strengthened from the early hours in the morning. The official forces promised to let the mourners observe the rituals.

The coffin was brought out of the house to be carried according to Islamic rituals. Haleh walked in front of the coffin carrying a picture of her father. Minutes later there was a scuffle between a so-called plainclothes man who wanted to grab the picture and Haleh, who refused to do so. Meanwhile some security forces wanted to take the coffin away from the crowd — which led to the coffin falling down. Seconds later Haleh was punched to the ground and the coffin taken away by security forces.

"I had never seen so many police forces in my life. We were walking in front of the crowd together with Haleh as she was holding her father’s picture. An agent came to seize the picture forcefully and Haleh resisted. Then she fell on the ground. They thought it was a kind of exaggeration. They beat her harshly asking her to stand up. She didn’t move. We sprinkled water on her face, but Haleh didn’t breathe at all," said an eyewitness to Radio Farda on condition of anonymity.

Ezatollah Sahabi’s body was taken away by an ambulance to the cemetery while another car took the lifeless body of Haleh to a hospital — but she had already died of cardiac arrest.

Haleh Sahabi’s son, Yahya Shamekhi, described what happened at the funeral, saying, "When we took the body of my grandfather out for the funeral, security forces tried to stop the ceremony. That made the atmosphere very agitated and a heated argument began." Talking to Mizan, a website close to the Nationalist-Religious Coalition, he said, "They forcefully grabbed the body and took it away. Then my mother fell down and become unconscious. Doctors told us later that she died because of a heart attack."

Ezatollah Sahabi’s body was buried by agents without the presence of his family and friends. The crowd went to the cemetery but found the doors closed. Several police vans and minibuses were parked on the both sides of the road. Riot police controlled the area. As the burial finished, the doors were opened letting people get in the cemetery.

Meanwhile rumours spread about Haleh Sahabi’s death. A considerable number of people stayed in the cemetery and eventually were dispersed by riot police using batons. Some people were arrested too.

As the crowd went back to Sahabi’s house, the news of the death of Ezatollah Sahabi’s daughter was confirmed.

Hours after her death, Haleh’s body was delivered to her family in Tehran. For the second time, the security forces interfered asking the family to bury the body overnight. Sahabi family decided to bury Haleh in Lavasan that night next to her father’s body.

Security forces’ presence in Lavasan were strengthened as the sun went down. According to Jaras, an opposition website associated with the Green Movement, about 2000 people gathered in the cemetery late Wednesday night to hold the funeral ceremony for Haleh Sahabi. And again, some people were detained as they left.

The strict atmosphere was maintained on Thursday as the security forces closed the mosque in which a ceremony was planned in memory of Ezatollah and Haleh Sahabi. Police clashed with people and detained some as on the streets leading to Hojjat Ibn al-Hassan mosque.

State TV announced Haleh Sahabi’s death was due to a heart attack as "she was sick at the time the funeral was going on" — rejecting reports of any clashes during the ceremony between security forces and the mourners.

Alireza Janeh, head of security at the Tehran governor’s office, told the semi-official ISNA news agency that Haleh Sahabi had died of heart problems exacerbated by "stress and hot weather".

By contrast, eyewitnesses including Haleh’s uncle and Ayatollah Montazeri alleged that she fell down after she was hit in the stomach and lungs — and that that fall caused the cardiac arrest.

Haleh Sahabi’s death occurred just 10 days before the 12 June anniversary of the 2009 election. Then the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad angered supporters of Iran’s opposition movement and sparked massive protests that were followed by a tough government crackdown.

The day before Haleh Sahabi’s death, Green Movement activists had already called for a silent protest in Tehran on 12 June for the release of movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest for over four months. The recent incidents following Ezatollah Sahabi’s death and the brutality from security forces have inflamed the situation. Opposition websites and people on social media websites like Facebook and Blatarin have increased their activities, calling for massive protests on the anniversary day of 2009 presidential election. Right now, Iranians are expecting that on 12 June, lots of people will show up on the streets of Tehran — and that they will do so in the heavy presence of security forces and riot police.


Like this article? Register as a New Matilda user here. It’s free! We’ll send you a bi-weekly email keeping you up to date with new stories on the site. And you can like New Matilda on Facebook here.

Want more independent media? New Matilda stays online thanks to reader donations. To become a financial supporter, click here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.