Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman who bled to death on the street in Tehran during anti-government demonstrations, has become an international symbol of courage in defense of human rights but is less well-known at home.

Iranian state media waited until Tuesday to report the death, which occurred Saturday, and tried to suggest that government security forces were not responsible.

The Islamic Republic of Iran News Network said that authorities have been investigating the killing and that the bullet used to kill her was “unique.” The news item said that considering people were filming and taking pictures of the incident, they must have been aware that an “event” was about to take place.

The apparent intent of the news item was to deflect the widespread view that a member of the Basij, a government-organized paramilitary organization, was responsible.

Iranians abroad and many human rights defenders have raised Miss Agha-Soltan to iconic status.

On Tuesday, President Obama called the images of Miss Agha-Soltan’s death “heartbreaking.”

“We have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets. While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history,” he said at a press conference.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said on the Senate floor on Monday, “Today, I and all America pays tribute to a brave young woman who was trying to exercise her fundamental human rights and was killed in the streets of Tehran.”

Although some supporters of Iranian opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have put photos of Miss Agha-Soltan on posters at demonstrations, many Iranians still do not know who she is or what happened to her.

An Iranian demonstrator who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ali, for fear of government reprisal, told The Washington Times from Tehran, “Not many people are aware of Neda here. We’re too busy trying to stop others from becoming the international media’s next Neda.

“What happened to Neda was scary, but Neda wasn’t the only victim,” he added.

Graphic footage of the death of the 27-year-old student of philosophy became a phenomenon after appearing on social networking sites YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Although she has become the face of the opposition movement since her death, her fiance, Caspian Makan, told the British Broadcasting Corp.’s Persian service on Monday that Miss Agha-Soltan supported neither incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nor Mr. Mousavi.

“Neda’s goal was not Mousavi or Ahmadinejad,” he said. “It was her country and was important for her to fight for this goal.”

The photographs of her death have turned Miss Agha-Soltan into the most well-known martyr of the current protests.

Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the dead on the third, seventh and especially the 40th day after a death. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the 40th-day observance of the death of protesters often escalated into new protests, which would lead to more deaths, creating a cycle of confrontation that constantly increased the momentum of the revolution against the monarchy.

The Associated Press reported Monday that the Iranian government forbade a memorial service for Miss Agha-Soltan. Analysts are expecting the seventh and 40th days after her death to be critical days in Iran as events unfold.

With the Internet continuing to play an unprecedented role in the protests, dedication groups for Miss Agha-Soltan have begun to appear on Facebook and “Neda” has quickly become a “trending topic” on Twitter.

A Web site has been created for people to leave messages honoring Neda. User “Stijn” writes on, “It was not in vain.”

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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