What Happened at Baharestan Square?

Reports from Wednesday protests in Tehran include harrowing though unconfirmed accounts of axe-wielding thugs, brutal assaults against civilians and mass detentions. Baharestan Square was reportedly the scene of a messy attempt to stage a pro-opposition rally, but accounts of what took place are hard to verify. At least one victim’s family may have been taken into custody and bans on public mourning have been reported.

One post on Twitter, certain to anger authorities and as yet not independently confirmed, reads “in Baharestan we saw militia with axe chopping ppl like meat – blood everywhere – like butcher”. There is no third-party verification for what is alleged to have taken place there, but numerous accounts allege the Basij militia used brutal force to break up demonstrators who sought to gather and hold any ground in the square.

The intensification of Iran’s media blockade means nearly all reporting coming from Iran regarding ongoing demonstrations is coming from non-institutional sources, bystanders with cell-phones and anonymous online messages. There are news reports the family of Neda Soltan, the 26-year-old woman shot and killed by security forces, has been targeted by authorities.

Soltan’s family has reportedly been forced from their home and her body was never returned to them. Neighbors have reportedly said the funeral has been canceled and the family has been prohibited from making any public display of mourning for her.

The targeting of Soltan’s family appears to be part of a pre-emptive campaign by the leadership to smear Soltan, the demonstrators around her and foreign media, in an effort to prevent opposition groups from rallying around her. The Guardian newspaper reports that:

The government is also accusing protesters of killing Soltan, describing her as a martyr of the Basij militia. Javan, a pro-government newspaper, has gone so far as to blame the recently expelled BBC correspondent, Jon Leyne, of hiring “thugs” to shoot her so he could make a documentary film.

It also appears that while the family has either been “forced out” or disappeared by the authorities, neighbors have been receiving threatening phone calls. One neighbor reportedly expressed an atmosphere of deep fear and systematic intimidation:

We are trembling. We are still afraid. We haven’t had a peaceful time in the last days, let alone her family. Nobody was allowed to console her family, they were alone, they were under arrest and their daughter was just killed. I can’t imagine how painful it was for them. Her friends came to console her family but the police didn’t let them in and forced them to disperse and arrested some of them. Neda’s family were not even given a quite moment to grieve.

The “stranglehold on media”, as worded by Rachel Maddow, appears by all accounts to be intensifying. It is unclear whether individuals are shying away from online postings out of fear or whether the government has successfully shut down major international online communications. There are also some reports that foreign hackers have caused the website of Pres. Ahmedinejad to crash.

The government’s intensifying blocking of any and all non-official media reports appears to confirm allegations there is a deliberate and sustained attempt to coordinate harsh security actions with a cloak of secrecy. Press organizations and opposition supporters have called on the government to restore media freedoms if it wants to demonstrate it plans to honor the rule of law.

UPDATE, 15:30 GMT: According to the Times of London:

Relatives of several detained protesters have confirmed that the interrogation of prisoners is now being headed by Saaed Mortazavi, a figure known in Iran as “the butcher of the press”. He gained notoriety for his role in the death of a Canadian-Iranian photographer who was tortured, beaten and raped during her detention in 2003.

“The leading role of Saeed Mortazavi in the crackdown in Tehran should set off alarm bells for anyone familiar with his record,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch.

Mortazavi appears to be an integral figure in the government’s crackdown on dissenters. It is reported he oversaw the arrest of close aides to top opposition figures like former president Mohammad Khatami. He has a history of being involved in religious persecution, detaining women for allegedly “immodest” clothing, and is said to have overseen the detention of Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist detained for purchasing wine, then charged with espionage and sentenced in a secret trial. (Saberi was eventually released.)

The notorious nature of Mortazavi’s reputation as an interrogator and torturer suggests the government plans to use the harshest means possible to crush what is now being called by some in the press “the uprising”. The increasingly hardline stance taken by officials also appears to lend credibility to reports of extreme violence in the streets, the kind “chaos and bloodshed” Ayatollah Khamene’i had promised.

More reporting on Iran crisis, from Cafe Sentido:

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