x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Blood that will not wash away

The video of Neda Soltan's death has emerged as a galvanising force for those protesting against the declared outcome of Iran's presidential election.

In life she was an ordinary young woman, the daughter of a Tehran civil servant, who played the piano and hoped to be a tour guide after finishing her studies at university. In death Neda Agha Soltan has become a martyr, a threat to the Islamic regime and a symbol of the struggle to overturn the results of a presidential election the reformers claim was rigged. All week the horrifying video clip of Soltan's shooting has been watched repeatedly by millions of people on the internet while protesters in Iran and around the world have carried her smiling photograph on placards. One of them reads "Angel of Iran".

And yet when Soltan, believed to be 26 or 27, stepped out of the car on the hot afternoon of June 20 she just wanted some fresh air because she had been stuck in traffic in the Amir Abad district of Iran's capital, a few blocks from the main protest. Within minutes the crack of a sniper's rifle rang out and she collapsed, murmuring to the music teacher travelling with her: "I am burned." It just happened that an unnamed passer-by, one of the thousands of Iranians who have been recording amateur footage of the extraordinary aftermath of the June 12 elections and posting them online, had a camera on his mobile phone.

He filmed the last 40 seconds of Soltan's life as she lay next to a white car, a rush of people surrounding her slim figure and imploring her not to be afraid. The jerky footage shows her staring blankly into the space above her, seemingly oblivious to the screams that grow louder when the blood begins to pour from her nose and mouth. Her body relaxes as the final seconds of her life fade away. "People tried to take her to the nearest hospital, the Shariati hospital, but it was too late," her fiance, Caspian Makan, told the BBC Persian service.

The day of her death Iranians were out on the streets in a defiant response to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Friday sermon in which he insisted that the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won the election and no more dissent would be tolerated. "It was clear she was shot from the rooftop. From a technical point of view it was only possible that she was shot through the neck, just below the neck," said Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, speaking from Paris.

"There were no security forces present in the vicinity but there was a shooter of the Basiji [the pro-government volunteer militia] on the rooftops in plain clothes," he said. There are conflicting accounts of what Soltan, a philosophy student at Tehran Azad University, was doing in the area. Some claim she was on her way to protest and supported the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Others say she was an innocent bystander.

But Mr Ghaemi, who said he had spoken to eyewitnesses in Tehran, said it was not clear why Soltan had been killed because she did not appear to be holding a mobile phone, which would have made her an obvious target for security forces trying to prevent people from recording the violence. That day at least 10 people were killed. The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported that about 240 people were in jail. In total at least 17 others have been killed, but no one has captured the imagination of Iran and the world like Soltan.

The footage of her last moments on earth is a grotesque invasion of an intensely private moment, but it is also the most powerful image to emerge from Iran at a time when the authorities have clamped down on media coverage by banning foreign journalists, shutting down mobile phone communications and blocking websites. It was almost immediately posted on YouTube and since then it has spread like fire on the internet.

"People are defending the regime on Iranian and Arab TV, that it is a unique regime, it is a democracy, but people will now understand what it really is," said Ali Reza Nourizadeh, the head of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London and a commentator. "They have Neda's blood on their hands and they cannot wash it away." The impact of the video has been compared to that of the lone man blocking a column of tanks during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, who became the symbol of courage against the ruthlessness of the Chinese state. Or the image of the man falling from one of the towers in New York on September 11.

For Iranians, steeped in a culture of martyrdom because of their Shiite faith, Soltan's death has extra significance. Throughout Iran's history the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in the battle of Karbala in 680, has been invoked repeatedly during times of distress. The authorities would be well aware of that. The senseless death of a beautiful young woman could galvanise the opposition, which exposes another fundamental tenet of the current crisis: the struggle between reformers led by Mr Mousavi and the old guard, represented by Mr Ahmadinejad, to lay claim as defenders of a just Islamic system.

Mosques have been ordered not to allow the traditional memorial services held on the third, seventh and 40th day after a death during which family and friends gather to grieve their loved one. "On Monday afternoon we had planned to hold a memorial service at the mosque but the authorities there and the Basiji wouldn't allow it because they were worried it would attract unwanted attention and they didn't want any more trouble," Mr Makan said.

Instead Soltan was buried quietly at the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran. "They asked us to bury her in this section where it seemed the authorities had set aside spaces for graves for those killed during the violent clashes in Tehran last week." The Islamic Revolution was finally set off by the violence and passions ignited during the 40th day ceremonies, when Iranians would mourn those killed by the Shah's secular forces and then riot on the streets.

Back then, the Shah could not order his security forces to enter the sacred spaces of a mosque to break up the gatherings. "But now the clergy in the mosques are controlled or appointed by the authorities," said Mr Ghaemi. "We have spoken to hospitals and there are bodies in morgues that are not being returned to the families because memorial ceremonies are not being allowed. It is ironic, because they are undermining their own religious virtues."

Her family may not have the chance to mourn her according to the proper Islamic rites, but the eulogies for Soltan continue from friends, strangers and world leaders. On Tuesday the US president, Barack Obama, mentioned her in a speech that acknowledged the courage of the protesters and condemned the violence. "Above all, we've seen courageous women stand up to the brutality and threats and we've experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets," he said.

The protests have also taken on the form of poetry, in keeping with ancient Persian literary traditions. One popular and anonymous poem circulating around the internet reads: Stay, Neda- Look at this city At the shaken foundations of palaces, The height of Tehran's maple trees, They call us 'dust', and if so Let us sully the air for the oppressor Don't go, Neda" Whether the outrage she has provoked will be enough to force change in a dispute that is now at an impasse remains to be seen.