Screenshots from a mobile phone video shows 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, who bled to death after being shot during a demonstration.

Photos © DPA/ZUMA Press

'We need our country back'

Worried Iranian-Americans stay connected to strife through TV and the Web

By André Coleman , Carl Kozlowski , Joe Piasecki 06/25/2009

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Neda Agha-Soltan wanted to protest against the results of the June 12 Iranian presidential election. Instead, Neda became a martyr.
Before being gunned down Saturday by an Iranian militiaman, the 26-year-old, like thousands of other young Iranians, believed that hardline incumbent and openly anti-Semitic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had somehow rigged the election against less conservative former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, guaranteeing another four years of human rights violations in Iran. But before she could lift her sign at a rally that she attended with her father, Neda was shot in the chest and killed. Video footage of the tragedy shows Neda staring into the camera while blood gushes from her mouth and nose. The video has been viewed millions of times since it was posted on YouTube Saturday and subsequently shown hundreds of times on news networks.

“Hopefully, Neda has given a lot of people hope and in some way can uplift the people in the streets to keep up their marching and protesting,” said Pasadena Human Relations Commission member Nat Nehdar, a native of Iran whose family left the country in 1952.

Other Iranian expatriates like Nehdar hope that Neda’s death will inspire change in Iran, where 17 people as of Monday died in daily clashes with government forces since the election —10 in protests on Saturday in which 100 people were injured and 457 arrested, according to Associated Press — after the electoral council proclaimed Ahmadinejad the winner with about 67 percent of the vote.

Witnesses told AP that police used live rounds, batons, tear gas and water cannons to break up the demonstrations held by supporters of both candidates. On Monday, baton-wielding police again used tear gas on demonstrators and fired live bullets at them, prompting Great Britain to evacuate its diplomats and citizens working there.

“Many people don’t understand Iran is run by a bunch of hypocrites who claim to be people of God, but are running the country their own way,” Nehdar, who is of Jewish ancestry, told the Weekly. “People have no voice or rights. A great percentage of Iranian people are pro-Western and they should not be deprived of their rights and forced to live under a regime that only benefits the regime.”

According to Nehdar, the protests in Iran are as much about the way young people and the middle class feel about how hardliners are running the country as about the elections.

Since taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad has openly proclaimed that Israel should be “wiped off the map” and has refused to end Iran’s nuclear program, while criticizing the United States and attempting to build stronger relationships with Russia, China and several Arab countries.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, treatment of detainees and prisoners has worsened since 2005, with the group claiming the Iranian government “routinely tortures and mistreats detained dissidents.”

In addition to beating, arresting and shooting protesters, the government has been tracking down and arresting bloggers using online platforms like Twitter and Facebook to update followers on the conflicts. The government has also ordered all foreign journalists — even if they are Iranian — to remain in their hotels, banning them from taking pictures or reporting on the incidents. On Monday, even prayers for Neda, whose name literally means “call” or “voice” in Farsi,” were banned.

With the government crackdown on coverage, the San Fernando Valley-based satellite news network Channel One has been using citizen journalists to fill the void.

Channel One has broadcast populist anti-government sentiment into Iran for several years, programming that over the past several months has inspired smaller expressions of dissent. Since the election protests began, many viewers have been calling in reports to the station or submitting video footage of the demonstrations. Some of the video footage was shot using cameras concealed in pens that were distributed in Iran through Channel One affiliates.

“What they are saying is it was not only Neda. So many other people have died. We are asking for the names of who these martyrs are and we are [also] broadcasting the names of the [soldiers] killing our kids,” said a Channel One executive who asked not to be named to avoid endangering family members still living in Iran.

Vida Sathi, a Channel One donor who has lived in Glendale for 19 years, has been taking part in demonstrations at the Westwood Federal Building. “The message is we need our country back. The government is illegitimate and murdering people by the dozens. The people are hostages [to the government],” she said.

“I think that Iran won’t be the same anymore and I strongly believe that the elections were rigged and I think that the slaughter that is going on right now should stop immediately,” said John Johmeri, owner of Lovebirds restaurants in Pasadena and Alhambra, who left Iran in 1974.

“It could go two ways. Twenty percent of me says it’s going to resolve positively and Iran will be more open, and 80 percent says no way, they will kill more and will be an even more closed society. I appreciate the fact that the US has not [unilaterally] responded. We don’t want this holistic movement that has already started in Iran to be tainted by the US. If the US mingles in there, it gives the government a chance to say this is US-inspired, not a real grassroots movement.”

Sathi also believes that President Obama should remain cautious about speaking about the protests in relation to American foreign policy goals.

“We do not want the United States dictating to our people what to do and not to do. The tactic [Obama is] using is absolutely correct. He is behind the people, not the government,” Sathi said.

Intern Megan Sebestyen and Editor Kevin Uhrich contributed to this report.


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