Iran General NewsIranian student protester Neda Soltan is Times Person of...

Iranian student protester Neda Soltan is Times Person of the Year

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ImageThe Times: Neda Soltan was not political. She did not vote in the Iranian presidential election on June 12. The young student was appalled, however, by the way that the regime shamelessly rigged the result and reinstalled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Times

Martin Fletcher

ImageNeda Soltan was not political. She did not vote in the Iranian presidential election on June 12. The young student was appalled, however, by the way that the regime shamelessly rigged the result and reinstalled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ignoring the pleas of her family, she went with her music teacher eight days later to join a huge opposition demonstration in Tehran.

“Even if a bullet goes through my heart it’s not important,” she told Caspian Makan, her fiancé. “What we’re fighting for is more important. When it comes to taking our stolen rights back we should not hesitate. Everyone is responsible. Each person leaves a footprint in this world.”

Ms Soltan, 26, had no idea just how big a footprint she would leave. Hours after leaving home, she was indeed shot, by a government militiaman, as she and other demonstrators chanted: “Death to the dictator.”

Arash Hejazi, a doctor standing near by, remembers her looking down in surprise as blood gushed from her chest. She collapsed. More blood spewed from her mouth. As she lay dying on the pavement, her life ebbing out of her, “I felt she was trying to ask a question. Why?” said Dr Hejazi, who tried to save her life. Why had an election that generated so much excitement ended with a government that claims to champion the highest moral values, the finest Islamic principles, butchering its own youth?

A 40-second telephone clip of Ms Soltan’s final moments flashed around the world. Overnight she became a global symbol of the regime’s brutality, and of the remarkable courage of Iran’s opposition in a region where other populations are all too easily suppressed by despotic governments.

Her name was invoked by Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and other world leaders. Outside Iranian embassies huge crowds of protesters staged candlelit vigils, held up her picture, or wore T-shirts proclaiming, “NEDA — Nothing Except Democracy Acceptable”. The internet was flooded with tributes, poems and songs. The exiled son of the Shah of Iran carried her photograph in his chest pocket.

She was no less of an icon inside Iran, whose Shia population is steeped in the mythology of martyrdom. Vigils were held. Her grave became something of a shrine, and the 40th day after her death — an important date in Shia mourning rituals — was marked by a big demonstration in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in Tehran that riot police broke up.

It was not hard to see why Ms Soltan so quickly became the face of the opposition, the Iranian equivalent of the young man who confronted China’s tanks during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations 20 years earlier. She was young and pretty, innocent, brave and modern. She wore make-up beneath her mandatory headscarf, jeans and trainers beneath her long, black coat, and liked to travel. She transcended the narrow confines of religion, nationality and ideology. She evoked almost universal empathy.

The story of her death was so potent that the regime went to extraordinary lengths to suppress it. It banned a mourning ceremony, tore down black banners outside her home, and insisted that her funeral be private. It ordered her family to stay silent.

In the subsequent weeks any number of leading officials, ayatollahs included, sought to blame her death on British and American intelligence agencies, the opposition, and even the BBC — accusing its soon-to-beexpelled Tehran correspondent, Jon Leyne, of arranging her death so that he could get good pictures.

The regime announced investigations that, to no one’s surprise, exonerated it and all its agents. It managed to coerce Ms Soltan’s music teacher into changing his story, but it failed to do the same with Mr Makan, despite imprisoning him for 65 days — many of them in solitary confinement. Released on bail, he fled the country — making a five-day overland journey to escape.

Dr Hejazi also fled, back to Oxford where he had been taking a postgraduate course in publishing. There he confirmed in an interview in The Times that Ms Soltan was shot by a Basij militiaman on a motorcycle. But the regime still hounds him. It has harassed his family in Tehran, is trying to close his publishing company in the capital, and has accused him of helping British agents to kill Ms Soltan. It stages demonstrations outside the British Embassy demanding his extradition. He would be arrested the moment he returned to Tehran, meaning that he, his wife and infant son are now exiles.

When The Queen’s College, Oxford, established a scholarship in Ms Soltan’s name the regime sent the university a furious letter of complaint.

Back in Tehran, the regime tried to buy off Ms Soltan’s parents by promising them a pension if they agreed that their daughter was a “martyr” killed by foreign agents.

Her mother, Hajar Rostami Motlagh, was outraged. “Neda died for her country, not so that I could get a monthly income from the Martyr Foundation,” she said. “If these officials say Neda was a martyr, why do they keep wiping off the word ‘martyr’ in red which people write on her gravestone? … Even if they give the world to me I will never accept the offer.”

Soon afterwards, government supporters desecrated her grave. The regime has not arrested or investigated Abbas Kargar Javid, who was caught by demonstrators seconds after he shot Ms Soltan. The crowd, unwilling to use violence, and with the police the enemy, let him go — but not before they had taken his identity card.

Six months on, it is obvious that Ms Soltan did not die in vain. The manner of her death, and the regime’s response, has shredded what little legitimacy it had left. She helped to inspire an opposition movement that is now led by her generation, which a systematic campaign of arrests, show trials, beatings, torture and security force violence has failed to crush, and whose courage and defiance has won the admiration of the world.

As the new year approaches, the so-called Green Movement appears to be gaining confidence and momentum. It no longer seems impossible that the regime could fall in 2010. If and when it does, Ms Soltan will be remembered as the pre-eminent martyr of the second Iranian revolution.

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