The last time Farnaz heard his brother’s voice was on the phone, on an unknown number.
“He called me and said a single sentence: ‘I’ve been caught’… I immediately understood what my dear brother meant and went to the morals police station (for the look),” the 22-year-old, who asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons, told CNN.
Farnaz said his older brother, an accountant, joined protests in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman on Monday against what he calls the “oppressive government of Ayatollah Ali.” Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi,” when “plainclothes officers” infiltrated the crowd and “forced people into morality police vans.
Anger in Kerman mirrors scenes unfolding across Iran – as people take to the streets amid chants of ‘death to the dictator’, in a dramatic show of defiance against the regime following the death of Mahsa Amini , 22, who died last week in the custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police”, a notorious unit that enforces compulsory headscarf laws.
Amini’s suspicious death has become a symbol of the violent oppression women have faced in Iran for decades – and protesters say once again the regime has blood on its hands.
Since last week, semi-official news agencies have reported that at least 17 people have died in violent clashes between protesters and security forces. CNN cannot independently verify the death toll. In addition to the protesters, two members of the Iranian paramilitary group were also killed.
In the frantic hours after his brother disappeared, Farnaz and his parents went to the Kerman branch of the vice squad to demand answers.
Instead, they say they encountered a sea of other families also looking for loved ones – many of whom said they had been threatened by police.
It has been over four days since Farnaz has seen her brother, and she fears he will never come home.
“My brother is being held captive by these cruel people and we cannot even know his condition,” she said.
CNN has verified video showing armed police clashing with protesters Monday in Kerman’s Azadi Square – where Farnaz says his brother was taken.
On Thursday, the United States sanctioned several vice and security officials it says are responsible for Amini’s death.
Amini’s family last saw her alive on September 13, when she was “punched on the head” by Tehran vice police in the back of a car before being chased away, his cousin Diako Aili told CNN.
CCTV footage released by Iranian state media showed Amini collapsing at a ‘re-education’ center later in the day in Tehran, where she was taken by morality police officers to receive ‘counseling’. “about the way she was dressed.
Two hours later, she was transferred to Kasra Hospital in Tehran.
According to Aili, doctors at the Kasra hospital where Amini was treated told her immediate family that she was admitted with “brain damage upon arrival” because “the head injuries were so severe”.
Aili lives in Norway and hadn’t spoken to Amini since July but is in frequent contact with her parents. He said none of his relatives were allowed into the hospital room to view his body.
“She died in a coma three days after that…a 22 year old young lady with no heart disease or anything…she was a happy girl living in a not so good country, with dreams that I never know anything,” Aili said.
CNN could not independently verify Aili’s account with hospital officials.
Iranian authorities maintain that Amini died of a heart attack and have denied any wrongdoing.
Last weekend the government said an autopsy had been carried out but was still being reviewed.
An official inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death is ‘underway’ but it has done little to quell the unrest in the streets – as scenes of protests, striking in their geographical spread, ferocity and symbolism, are flooding social media, in what appears to be the biggest display of public anger in Iran since protests over soaring food and fuel prices in 2019.
For Shima Babaei, who fled Iran in 2020 after serving time in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison for not wearing a headscarf, Amini’s death is particularly troubling.
“His death reminds me of the savagery of the police, not only against me, but against thousands of Iranian women who have had these experiences. In the same building of the vice squad headquarters, they called me a criminal, handcuffed me and dishonored me,” the women’s rights activist, who now lives in Belgium, told CNN.
Babaei – who has a huge social media presence in Iran – knows what it’s like to become an accidental symbol of protest. Her name has become synonymous with the “Girls of Revolution Street” anti-hijab protests that took place across Iran from 2017 to 2019.
But she says the mood this time seems different.
“I think this is the start of something. The women are setting their headscarves on fire and eradicating all the symbols of the regime from the streets…sooner or later the people of Iran will achieve freedom and we will remember those who stand by our side.
A blackout introduced by authorities on Thursday in a bid to quell the unrest appears to have had little effect. Human rights organizations are now worried about what the Iranian authorities might do next under cover of darkness.
Iran’s military issued a warning to protesters and said it was ready to ‘confront enemies’ to uphold the nation’s security, state news agency IRNA said, as protests erupted in several cities on Thursday evening.
The army “strongly condemned” the attacks on the police and “will confront the enemies’ various plots and defend the security and interests of the Iranian nation”, he added. At least 17 people have died in protests over the past week, according to semi-official Iranian media.
After the November 2019 protests, hundreds of Iranians were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and even sentenced to death in some cases under national security laws, according to Amnesty International.
Mansoureh Mills, who works in the organization’s Iranian team, describes the current situation as a “crisis of impunity”, made possible by international inaction.
“We are receiving reports that young people have been intentionally shot with metal pellets and other ammunition, causing death or horrific injuries. This is the authorities’ desperate attempt to bully Iranians into submission,” Mills told CNN.
For Aili – who is watching the protests from afar – the fear he now has for his relatives in Iran who have spoken out about Amini’s death is paralyzing.
He said the government had offered to take care of his family financially if they kept quiet about his cousin’s case, but they decided to publicize her story.
“Why did you kill a 22 year old girl who is innocent?”
“Nobody deserves to die just because they show hair or say what they think…it’s a loss of life,” Aili told CNN.