When protests broke out across Iran in September, 26-year-old Mohammed Hassan Torkaman’s message was one of defiance.
“Personally, if I see even one symbolic protest in Babol, I will support it,” he wrote on Twitter.
The nature-loving student was shot dead by security forces during a demonstration just two days later – protests had broken out over the death of a young woman in police custody who was arrested for wearing her hijab “incorrectly”.
Months on, his family say they are still being harassed by the authorities in an attempt to silence them about what happened. It is an experience that human rights experts say is common for those whose loved ones died as a result of state violence in Iran.
For some families like Mohammad Hassan’s, however, remaining silent is not an option. And social media is providing them with a way to memorialise and seek justice for the dead.
Mohammad Hassan Torkaman’s story
Mohammad Hassan was a typical 26-year-old. He loved the outdoors, and could often be found exploring the forest with his friends. He was fascinated by space too, covering his home with posters of stars and far-flung galaxies.
His fluffy white Persian cat, Pashmak, was his pride and joy.
His brother says he was a calm, kind person who had great ambitions.
“He had big ideas and wanted to make an impact in the future,” his brother said.
Mohammed Hassan had moved to Babol five years ago to study at university. So on 21 September, his family in Shahin Shahr, Isfahan, didn’t know he had gone out to protest.
It was only when they received a worried phone call from one of his friends that they realised something awful had happened.
“I was in a terrible state of shock, so I remember everything like a nightmare,” his brother said.
The friend told them that he had been calling Mohammad Hassan after he failed to turn up to his house as expected. An unknown voice eventually picked up and said that Mohammad Hassan had been shot.
His father, a veteran and former prisoner of war during the conflict between Iran and Iraq, was so shocked by the news that he suffered a stroke and was taken into intensive care.
His brother says that when he went to see Mohammad Hassan’s body in the morgue, he saw a bullet wound in his head.
For three days, the authorities refused to release the body and only did so on the condition that the family would remain quiet about where he had been shot and held the funeral under strict security.
But even then, their ordeal was far from over.
“The events for the third and the seventh days were held under watchful eyes of the agents,” his brother said.
At the 40th day ceremony, the situation escalated.
“They were attacked by the security forces, plain clothes militia using stun grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, paintballs and batons. Many were arrested and wounded,” his brother said.
It’s now been months since Mohammad Hassan’s death and the memorial gatherings that followed. But relatives say the authorities are still harassing them.
“We are more or less threatened, we are monitored and controlled, some days they follow us, some nights they are stationed near our home,” his brother said.
Azadeh Pourzand, a human rights researcher at SOAS University of London, explains that Iranian authorities have a history of treating families of those killed by the state in this way as they fear the impact the killing could have.
“It’s ironic that the regime is so strong with its state violence as a repressive regime but is scared of the dead bodies it creates,” she told Sky News.
“It’s not new to see the burial ceremonies for victims of state violence being disrupted in this way. It’s used as a tool to further harass and silence families,” she said.
Azadeh says that for many years, this meant that the only cases that would garner attention were those in which the victim was already publicly known or of a certain societal status. It was therefore largely left to human rights organisations like the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center to document the stories of all of the others who died at the hands of the state.
Since 2002, the centre has run the Omid Memorial project which is a digital archive of all of those who have been killed by the state and acts as an online memorial.
“The project’s mission is to ensure that all victims of the state’s violation of the right to life are memorialised, that society acknowledges the harm done to them and their loved ones, to help start their healing process in the absence of justice,” said Roya Boroumand, who runs the centre.
The advent of social media, however, has meant that individuals are now empowered to do this themselves in ways that they were previously unable to. It means that social media pages dedicated to the memory of those who have been killed in Iran are increasingly common online.
Many of these accounts are run by bereaved family members. Three months after Mohammad Hassan’s death, two of his relatives set up Twitter pages that post on a daily basis, almost exclusively about Mohammad Hassan. They now have a combined following of over 27,000.
Among the posts are pictures of Mohammad Hassan as a child, as well as his gravestone and memorial shrine. Many include anecdotes about Mohammad Hassan and calls for justice.
The hashtag of Mohammad Hassan’s full name in Farsi, which features in each of the posts, has been tweeted over 143,000 times according to data collected by social listening platform TalkWalker.
“It is my duty and my family’s duty to be the voice of my brother’s unjustly shed blood. My father was the one who stood in front of Iraqi soldiers and defended his country. We learned our courage from him,” Mohammad Hassan’s brother said.
Other accounts dedicated to memorialising all of those who have died have also sprung up.
One page was initially created to pay tribute to the 1,500 protesters killed in 2019. The account now creates and shares memorials for those who have died during the recent protests and for those who have been executed. It has 27,000 followers on Instagram and a further 7,000 on Twitter.
“The government of Iran wants these things not to be mentioned at all, not to be heard at all. The government media denies this at all,” the page’s operator told Sky News.
“I am the voice of their grieving families,” they said.
“What we are seeing here is grassroots archiving and memorialising,” said Azadeh Pourzand.
She explains that these memorials are also about achieving justice for those who have died.
“The ultimate goal is: we are not going to forget and we are not going to forgive. We’re not going to let our loved ones’ blood go to waste. We are going to keep it alive, we are going to remember and we are going to seek justice,” she told Sky News.
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