Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bodysnatchers: Iran regime exploits protester that it killed

I originally wrote this piece for Tehran Bureau which posted it on February 15.

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

Saneh Jaleh, 26, was killed on Jamalzadeh Street, north of Azadi Street which was 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 AM, Wednesday morning.

Opposition forces, with Jaleh's friends and classmates at the forefront, are leading a counter-offensive 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 accepted to speak on the record by telephone, referring to the pro-regime militia which 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...'

Until yesterday, the last major protest in Iran took place on Ashura (the commemoration of Imam Hossein's martyrdom), 27 December 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.'

The 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 semi-official news outlets like Fars made unsubstantiated accusations against a broad group of likely culprits that included the CIA, the Mujaheddin Khalgh Organization, 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 semi-official 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 faculty 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 entitled 'The Bus' in Azma magazine, which has been accused in some quarters of being a part of the 'soft war' against the Islamic Republic. He was a native of Kurdistan province and 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.'

'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 Ghom.
The 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 (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 went on to say, 'We will not rest until the agents and instigators of this savage act are identified.' 

Towards 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 Qoran 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 which killed the young woman came from a weapon which is not used by the Islamic Republic's security forces.

Fars News, close to the IRGC, 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 groupuscule,' said Ghassemi, using the regime's term for the MKO.

By early afternoon, the president of the Arts University, Saeed Kashn Fallah, was quoted by Tabnak news, close to former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, 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 Qoran at the Arts University.' Tabnak concluded the piece by writing, 'The Monafeghin terrorist groupuscule 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 pre-empt 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 PM. 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 which had been supposedly issued 3 years ago had a higher serial number than those issued 2 years ago. Bloggers posted scanned images of genuine Basij cards from two years ago to prove their point.

Soltani 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 un-chivalrous character (najavanmard). Let us take this step in our own home, until we take the next ones.'