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Iran Protester Dies in Custody, Sparking Memories of 2009 Abuse

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VOA —A 22-year-old Iranian protester has died in custody, according to two Iranian lawmakers, intensifying fears of a repeat of the prisoner abuse that followed similar protests in 2009.

A reformist member of parliament, Mahmoud Sadeghi, says he was told the detainee, identified as Sina Ghanbari, committed suicide. Another lawmaker, Tayyebe Siavashi, said the detainee had been arrested in Tehran.

Details of the incident were not immediately clear, but it was thought to be the first death of a protester in custody as a result of the current demonstrations sweeping the country.

Iranian authorities have arrested more than 1,000 people in response to the demonstrations that broke out nearly two weeks ago. At least 21 people have been killed in the unrest.

Sadeghi has called for an investigation into Ghanbari's death, and says he warned authorities against abuses such as those that took place following the 2009 protests.

'Devastating to hear'

No matter the cause of Ghanbari's death, it reflects poor conditions inside the prison, says Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.

“The prison guards and authorities are responsible for the lives of prisoners while in custody, and it’s devastating to hear that once again Iranian authorities have failed to protect lives,” Ghaemi told VOA.

Iranian prison guards routinely use intimidation, including physical and psychological pressure, on detainees, according to Ghaemi. “For some people, it's unbearable and they reach a point they can't endure,” he said.

There were widespread reports of torture and murder in Iranian jails following the violent crackdown on the 2009 protests over a disputed presidential election. Iranian officials later acknowledged three detainees were beaten to death.

Although the more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani is in office, the basic power structure in Iran has not changed since 2009, said Alex Vatanka, who specializes in Iran at the Middle East Institute.

“It doesn’t matter who is president,” said Vatanka. “The revolutionary guards, the intelligence branch of the revolutionary guards, the judicial branch, the law enforcement — none of those entities are answerable to the president.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who came to power in 1989, holds ultimate authority in Iran. Religious and political leaders hold other key positions, but must be vetted by the clergy.

Rising food prices

Rouhani, who has sought to relax the country’s strict social controls, on Monday took a more conciliatory approach to the protesters, suggesting they had in some cases legitimate grievances.

“One cannot force one’s lifestyle on future generations,” Rouhani said, according to the ISNA news agency. “The problem is that we want two generations after us to live the way we like them to.”

The protests began as a response to rising food prices, but quickly turned into sometimes violent displays of discontent with Iran’s conservative leaders.

“Some believe that people only want money,” Rouhani said. “But would someone be fine having a good monthly pay and have internet access fully blocked, or have his movements outside the house restricted, or not have the right to speak?”

The protests are believed to have died down. But some people continue to speak out, including outside Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where many of the protesters are believed to be held.

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5:10 PM - Jan 8, 2018
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For some, Ghanbari's death is a sign that the violence may have just begun.

“A 22-year-old who had just been picked up for protesting against the authorities? I find the idea that this person would commit suicide to be unlikely,” Vatanka said. “I have a number of red flags that go up, and I think that would be the sentiment across Iran, particularly given what people went through in 2009.”