Turmoil follows silent protest
16 Jun 2009 13:15
Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Article 27 [Freedom of Assembly] states that "Public gatherings and marches may be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam." Photo/TehranBureau
By AFSHIN SALIMPOUR in Tehran | 15 June 2009
[TEHRAN BUREAU] Dusk on Monday witnessed the most shocking scenes so far from the aftermath to Iran's disputed election. Events have have now escalated to a level of intensity unprecedented since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
State media today reported 7 killed in what they described "an attack on a military post." The reality was far less clear cut, as suggested on Iran's own English language news Web site PressTV.com, which reported that an "unidentified gunmen" had fired shots into the crowd after a "peaceful rally."
That "peaceful rally" ended in gunfire, explosions and the ominous sight of flaming Molotov cocktails spinning through the air.
With five reportedly killed at the Tehran University dormitories the night before, it was all the more surprising that anger had not boiled over immediately. On Monday afternoon at least, far from venting the rage which might have provoked a police reaction, the peoples' anger was displayed on hand-drawn placards carried in silence.
"University Alley, University Alley, murder scene, murder scene" was the written message held aloft on a makeshift paper banner. Rather than ring out in the air, the rhythmic message reverberated inside the minds of all who read it.
Students who witnessed the previous night's attack had described "pressure groups" -- a euphemism for Iran's unofficial paramilitary police, the Basij -- entering both the male and female dormitories of the university in full force, with tear gas canisters, batons and motorcycles.
A defiant silence was perhaps the only adequate response to an attack of such brutality. Hundreds of thousands of people convened on Tehran's symbolic central artery, Islamic Revolution Street, for a peaceful march to Freedom Square.
Former Iranian Prime Minister and this year's foremost presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi himself was to address the crowds in his first public appearance since election night. In the end, his voice was relayed to a handful in his immediate vicinity with a portable megaphone.
A girl stood motionless, high up on the fence separating the two lanes of the road. Facing the oncoming crowd, her dark eyes stared meaningfully over a surgical face mask, both hands raised in a victory salute. She wore her protest on a printed tunic over her manteau -- the standard covering which Iranian women must wear to conform with Iran's Islamic dress code.
"Where is my vote?" read the slogan in both Farsi and English.
Silence was also a shield. A provision in Iran's constitution states that marches and gatherings may be held as long as they do not disturb "Islamic principles." Supporters interpreted this as permission to protest without slogans, without chants. Even the handful of motorbikes which overtook the marchers kept engine noise down to a minimum.
Every few dozen meters another motionless human public announcement stood facing the crowd. They held written slogans in one hand and fingers to their lips with the other. The intensity and purpose of a crowd which had chosen almost without exception to hold back from
vocal expression was heavy in the air, as was the tangible sense of a common cause.
Yesterday's march was undoubtedly the largest anti-government protest Iran has seen for over thirty years. A decree from the authorities earlier in the day had denied permission for the march to take place but the sheer weight of numbers made any crackdown impossible. Mothers
with children and men and women of all ages mixed with students and young people.
That word had spread to so many in such a short period of time made a mockery of government attempts to restrict communications. Iran's mobile phone text message system has been disabled nationwide since polling day on Friday and internet services such as Facebook and
Twitter have been blocked.
Despite that, the crowd today was easily comparable to the marches held every year on the 11 February to mark the anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979, which signaled the end of the Shah's monarchy. The difference was that at pro-government rallies, the attendance of schoolteachers, students, government workers and Basij paramilitaries is compulsory.
The handful of police which were visible on the route stood in groups of three or four taking in the spectacle. The motorcycle-riding riot police which had charged full-throttle into Saturday's protests were nowhere to be seen. When the procession passed a Basij base, there was a call to be especially slow, quiet and to hold up the two-fingered victory salute.
However, the fear expressed by numerous marchers on the way was that security forces would crack down after dark once protesters had begun to disperse. In the end, it began with several large fires visible on the northern edge of the square while tens of thousands of people were
only beginning to head home.
The sound of pistol shots was followed immediately by a human wave descending on a point in the crowd where, witnesses reported, a group of unidentified plain-clothed attackers had opened fire and killed one man. The flames rose higher, the sound of automatic gunfire rang across the square and the spinning flame of a Molotov cocktail hurtled toward the wall.
After a day of silent protest, another night of turmoil in Tehran had begun.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau