TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Iranian police fired tear gas and beat protesters to disperse thousands chanting “Neda lives!” Thursday at a memorial for victims of post-election violence held at the gravesite of the woman whose death made her an icon of the pro-reform movement, witnesses said.
The new wave of unrest showed the opposition’s continuing ability to harness anger over the crackdown, and more protests could erupt around the inauguration next week of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government has been virtually paralyzed by the crisis.
Thursday’s memorial gathering marked the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period for Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old music student who was shot to death June 20. Her dying moments were filmed and circulated widely on the Internet, making her name a rallying cry for the opposition.
“Neda is alive! Ahmadinejad is dead!” chanted protesters, many holding up single red roses tied with green ribbons, the signature color of the opposition.
Plainclothes forces dispersed the crowd with tear gas and batons — and with chants of “Death to those who are against the supreme leader,” according to witnesses and state television.
The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisal. The government has banned media from covering some events, including Thursday’s memorial.
Demonstrations that drew thousands more later spread to other parts of the capital, Tehran, and more clashes with security forces erupted. Police fired tear gas, shots in the air and paintballs at hundreds of protesters on Vali Asr Street and other major avenues, witnesses said. Protesters set tires and trash cans ablaze in response. There was no word on casualties.
The opposition claims Ahmadinejad’s election victory was a fraud and his government has been virtually paralyzed by the 7-week-old crisis. The president has come under attack from both the opposition and his own supporters, who were angered by his appointment of a controversial first vice president he was later forced to sack.
The government says 30 people have been killed in the crackdown, though human rights groups say the true number is likely much higher. Hundreds were arrested in the sweeps, including young protesters, politicians and longtime critics of the government.
Soltan and at least 24 others killed in the crackdown are buried at Behesht-e Zahra, the vast cemetery on Tehran’s southern outskirts, according to rights groups tracking the dead.
The site holds great symbolic weight. Many of those killed during the 1979 Islamic revolution are buried there, and the revolution’s leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has a gigantic mausoleum complex nearby. Those killed in Iran’s 1980-1988 war with Iraq are also buried in the cemetery, and families frequently visit the graves.
During the revolution, the deaths of protesters prompted similar marches after the 40-day mourning period, which were often answered by security forces attacking mourners in a cycle that helped fuel the street uprising.
Police barred opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi from joining the crowd around Soltan’s grave Thursday, witnesses said. Mousavi and his supporters claim he is the true winner of the election.
An amateur video of Thursday’s memorial showed thousands marching through the cemetery, chanting and flashing victory signs. Some wore green T-shirts — the color of Mousavi’s movement.
When Mousavi tried to approach the grave, hundreds of police surrounded him as supporters chanted “Yaa Hossein, Mir Hossein” — comparing their leader to the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, who is the most revered Shiite saint. Police forced Mousavi to leave, said witnesses who asked not to be identified out of security concerns.
Afterward, his supporters remained at the grave, chanting, “Death to the dictator,” as the crowd swelled to several thousand.
The police charge came when an ally of Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi — who was also a candidate in the election — tried to give a speech. Karroubi had to flee the site, and several of his aides were beaten and harassed, according to pro-opposition Web sites.
After the clash, thousands of supporters continued to pay their respects at Soltan’s grave. Passengers riding the subway from the cemetery to central Tehran chanted slogans against Ahmadinejad, shouting, “Traitor Mahmoud, we want you to become homeless,” witnesses said.
Police arrested two prominent Iranian filmmakers when they tried to lay flowers at Soltan’s grave — Jafar Panahi, whose film, “The Circle,” criticized the treatment of women under the Islamist government and is banned in Iran, and a female documentary maker, Mahnaz Mohammadi.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly criticized the use of force to disperse the mourners, saying it was “particularly disturbing … to break up a group of people who are trying to exercise an important ritual under Islam, the mourning after 40 days.”
Thousands more gathered at the main Mosalla mosque in central Tehran, with heavy security forces nearby and at other major intersections.
Though massive protests and deadly clashes erupted in the days and weeks after the disputed election, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard and its allied Basij militia have since adopted a zero-tolerance stance. Demonstrators have managed to hold several smaller protests in recent weeks, however.
Thursday’s protests showed the opposition movement still has momentum, fueled by growing anger over abuses of detainees and continuing arrests. Ahmadinejad is scheduled to take his oath of office before parliament on Aug. 5 and there is talk in some opposition circles of demonstrations in front of parliament and calls to wear black in mourning.
Ahmadinejad’s government has been paralyzed by a double blow — the election crisis and heavy criticism from within his own conservative camp over his appointment of Esfandiar Rahim Mashai as first vice president.
Mashai came under attack by conservatives for once calling Israelis friends of Iran, and Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered Ahmadinejad to dismiss him in a humiliating setback. That was seen as a bid by Khamenei to prevent his hard-line supporters from splintering in the face of the opposition attack on the country’s clerical leadership. The top clerics were already deeply divided over the election outcome and the crackdown.
Allegations of torture against jailed protesters have become an embarrassment to the clerical leadership, bringing criticism from top clerics and even fellow conservatives.
Hundreds were arrested in the sweeps, including young protesters, politicians and longtime critics of the government. Many have been held in secret locations, without contact with relatives. In recent weeks, the bruised bodies of several young protesters have been handed over to families. The opposition has said detainees were tortured to extract false confessions for the courts.
Soltan’s mother, Hajar Soltan, said she was waiting for her daughter’s killers to be arrested and brought to justice.
“Her death has been so painful,” she told the British Broadcasting Corp. “Words can never describe my true feelings. But knowing that the world cried for her, that has comforted me. I am proud of her. The world sees her as a symbol and that makes me happy.”