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Story Publication logo July 13, 2009

Sohrab Erabi: A New Martyr for Iran's Protesters?


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After a hotly contested presidential election that resulted in street riots and a disputed claim to...


Reproduced with permission from The Christian Science Monitor.

In Iran, the burial Monday of 19-year-old student Sohrab Erabi has caused a fresh flood of sympathy similar to that occasioned by the killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death at a protest last month was caught on video and watched by millions around the world.

In a country steeped in the martyrdom culture of Shiite Islam, some are trying to link Mr. Erabi's death to a greater legacy. But many Iranians shy away from characterizations reminiscent of the rhetoric imposed over the past 30 years by the Islamic Republic.

"He isn't a martyr," writes Maryam Namazie, a human rights activist based in Britain, in an e-mail. "Many of the people killed during the recent protests are opposed to an Islamic regime and religion's brutal role in every aspect of their lives. Neda and Sohrab represent another face of Iran, one that refuses to kneel even after 30 years of medievalism and brutality."

Erabi was reportedly killed on June 15, when a member of Iran's ideological basiji militia opened fire on a crowd of protesters close to central Tehran's Azadi Square, according to his aunt Farah Mohamadi, who was informed of his death by security forces.

"There's a lot of conflicting information about his death," she told BBC Persian. "I sense that they're scared to say whether he died in prison or if he was hurt by gunfire at the march and bled to death later in [the] hospital."

Without an identity card on his body, he went unrecognized for nearly a month, according to the Farsi-language blog

Typically, individuals who sacrifice their lives for the sake of Islam or one of its precepts are called martyrs.

"It has to do with the idea of death for a noble cause, one which is not in vain but has rewards both in this world and after death," says Asef Bayat, a professor of sociology and Middle East studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "It is at the same time an attempt to connect Sohrab Erabi's death to a familiar legacy, that of the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad who died in his struggle against injustice."

An additional 190 people arrested late last week

Erabi's mother, Parvin Fahimi, had made numerous inquiries at prisons and courts since he disappeared, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. On Saturday, she was finally called in by officials and asked to identify her son in several photographs of corpses.

"The lack of transparency and calculated delay in releasing the information about [Erabi's] unexplained death only raises anxieties about scores of others who are among the disappeared as well as those who have been held in incommunicado detention, with no contact to family members or lawyers, many for almost a month," said the group in a statement. "An additional approximately 190 persons were arrested following the most recent demonstrations on 9 July."

Erabi was buried on Monday in Tehran's enormous Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, one of the largest in the world, monitored by large numbers of plainclothes security forces. Within hours, videos circulated on YouTube showing Erabi's head-scarved mother sobbing as he was laid to rest. About 500 people attended the service and short speeches were given by Erabi's male relatives.

"I think they told them [Erabi's male relatives] not to kick up too much of a fuss," said Mrs. Mohamadi. "No one told me this, but you'd think that's what happened given how quickly it ended."

Attempt to connect Erabi to greater legacy

In Iran, at least 20 people have been killed so far in countrywide rioting protesting the June 12 presidential election that returned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power with a 63 percent share of the vote. Defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi contested the election and is refusing to relinquish his claim despite a partial recount of the votes by the Guardian Council, that found no evidence of vote-rigging.

During the 1979 Islamic revolution, dead demonstrators were dubbed martyrs, inspiring crowds of religious Iranians who felt that the ruling shah's troops were seeking to suppress Iran's Islamic identity. Attitudes are more muted this time, with few of the casualties being universally accepted as martyrs.

"There is a cultural divide with many not wanting to use the term because they feel the term has been overused by the government and is infused with religion," says Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign of Human Rights in Iran. "But calling someone a martyr can also merely signify that this person did not die in vain but his death had a purpose."

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