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Saneh Jaleh and the Battle for a Slain Protester's Memory


16 Feb 2011 01:20Comments
SanehJalehWithCigarette.jpgRegime attempts to exploit legacy of theater student killed in 25 Bahman demonstrations.

[ dispatch ] A day after a university student was shot to death during anti-regime protests in Tehran, a battle is being waged for his soul.

Saneh Jaleh, 26, was killed on Jamalzadeh Street, north of Azadi Street, the main fulcrum of demonstrations on February 14.

News outlets close to the government now claim that he was a supporter of the regime and that he was shot by agents provocateurs controlled by various opposition groups. The regime announced it would organize a funeral procession for Jaleh, from the Arts University of Tehran, where he studied theater, to Tehran University at 9:30 a.m., Wednesday morning.

Opposition forces, with Jaleh's friends and classmates at the forefront, are leading a counteroffensive to prevent what they see as the cynical exploitation of the slain protester. They have called on all those who oppose the appropriation of Jaleh by the government to convene at the Arts University near Vali Asr crossroads half an hour earlier.

"He was definitely not a Basij member," said Hatef Soltani, one of Jaleh's friends and former fellow students who agreed to speak on the record by phone, referring to the pro-regime militia that has employed violence to subdue previous rallies. "He participated in past demonstrations, particularly on Ashura," added Soltani. "He managed to escape harm that day, but this time..."

Before yesterday, the last major protest in Iran took place on the Day of Ashura -- the commemoration of Imam Hossein's martyrdom -- December 27, 2009.

Asked why he was ready to divulge his own name and possibly endanger himself, Soltani simply said, "Well he was also a human being who is no longer with us, come what may."

SanehJalehOfficialShot.jpgThe barrage of what appears to be a well-orchestrated disinformation operation is reminiscent of the regime's attempts to blame anyone but its security forces for the death of Neda Agha Soltan during the unrest of 2009. In June of that year, state media and semiofficial news outlets like Fars made unsubstantiated accusations against a broad group of likely culprits that included the CIA, the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization (MKO), the Greens themselves, and BBC correspondent Jon Leyne. The regime also widely distributed an edited interview showing Agha Soltan's father saying that his daughter was not a member of the Green Movement.

The photo of Saneh Jaleh used by official and semiofficial outlets close to the government -- stern and glum with a short beard -- does not quite correspond to the rakish young man with a mischievous glint in his eyes that appears in numerous candid shots that his friends have distributed.

Similarly, Jaleh's background does not quite mesh with that of a Basij member or government supporter. He was in his third year of studies in the field of dramatic arts at the Department of Cinema and Theater at Tehran's Arts University. He was also interested in writing fiction, according to Soltani, and published at least one short story, "The Bus," in Azma magazine, which has been accused in some quarters of being a part of the "soft war" against the Islamic Republic. A native of Kurdistan province, he was a Sunni. "I think he was from the town of Bijar or Paveh," said Soltani. "In any case, he spoke both Turkish and Kurdish."


Jaleh with Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri; Arts University President Saeed Kashn Fallah

"He was not what you would call an active militant in politics [mobarezeh siassi], but you have to be somehow political when you engage in protests," said former fellow theater student Soltani. Jaleh's opinions led him to accompany his university's student association on a visit to the late dissident Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who spent a good portion of the past 20 years under house arrest in Qom.

SanehJalehAtUniversity.jpgThe progression of the official presentation of Jaleh from devout student to regime sympathizer to full-fledged Basij militia member has left a trail on cyberspace, implicating news agencies, the head of the Arts University of Tehran, and the Basijeh Daneshjouyi -- the Student Basij organization.

The Arts University's public relations office released a cautious statement on Jaleh's death early in the day, saying that it was with a "heart filled with sorrow and pain" that it had to announce the "martyrdom of Saneh Jaleh, one of the dear and devout children of this university." The statement continued, "We will not rest until the agents and instigators of this savage act are identified."

Toward noon, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) spoke of Jaleh as a "martyr who was killed yesterday during the riots of the seditionists," a catchphrase for those who oppose the regime. Although Hadi Ghassemi, in charge of public relations for the Student Basij, was quoted in IRNA's report, he never said that Jaleh was a Basij member. IRNA added, "Jaleh was a guardian of the Qur'an and a religious person and was considered a supporter of the regime." The article planted the first seeds of the scenario that the regime would be promoting: "This young man was killed with a bullet fired from a small arm." In the case of Neda, the regime's news agencies insisted that the bullet that killed the young woman came from a weapon which is not used by the Islamic Republic's security forces.

Fars News, close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also quoted Hadi Ghassemi around noon, but this time the Student Basij spokesperson had more to say. Jaleh had been the "target of a direct shot from the Monafeghin [hypocrites] terrorist cell," said Ghassemi, using the regime's term for the MKO.

SJAllegedBasijCard.jpgBy early afternoon, the president of the Arts University, Saeed Kashn Fallah, was quoted by Tabnak news, close to former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, and Fars News as saying that "Jaleh was a third-year student of theater at the Arts University, who was killed by terrorist agents of the Monafeghin during the illegal gatherings in Tehran yesterday." He added, "Jaleh was a Basiji student and guardian of the Qur'an at the Arts University." The Tabnak piece concluded thus: "The Monafeghin terrorist cell also targeted four other fellow citizens with direct gunshots. They are being treated in hospitals."

By this point in the day, contrary voices were being raised to denounce the regime's campaign to exploit Jaleh and to invite the people to preempt the official funeral service on Wednesday morning. "The height of shamelessness," one Internet user wrote on the Balatarin news aggregator. "Our next meeting...tomorrow to bury Green martyr Saneh Jaleh," wrote blogger Arezooabedini. It was time for the official news outlets to go to the next level.

Fars News, which has been known to make creative use of Photoshop, published what it purported to be Saneh Jaleh's Basij membership card at 2 p.m. (see image at left). But some inconsistencies in the document were quickly pointed out by Internet users. Blogger Irandust2000 wrote that the stamp on the photo bore the name of the town of Paveh, but that the back of the card had a postal code for Tehran. Irandust2000 said that the postal codes on the back of Basij cards correspond to the city where they are issued and that this discrepancy indicated that the individuals who had prepared the document had not waited for a proper Basij card from Paveh to be sent to Tehran. Also, the alleged card, supposedly issued three years ago, had a higher serial number than those issued two years ago. Bloggers posted scanned images of genuine Basij cards from two years ago to prove their point.

SanehJalehCloseup.jpgSoltani and other friends of Jaleh have set up a Facebook group called "Green martyr Saneh Jaleh" to protect the memory of their slain comrade and to provoke a popular backlash.

Though the most immediate task of the group is to invite people to convene at the Arts University funeral service tomorrow to prevent the regime from burying Jaleh as a Basiji, one member posted another request.

"I read the words of [Arts University President] Saeed Kashn Fallah," he wrote. "Friends of the university community! Let us begin housecleaning from the university and...demand the removal of this unchivalrous character [najavanmard]. Let us take this step in our own home, until we take the next ones."

Homylafayette, a Tehran Bureau contributor, blogs here.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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