The last time Farnaz heard her brother’s voice was over the phone, at an unknown number.
“He called me and said only one sentence: ‘I got caught’…I immediately understood what my dear brother meant and went to the vice squad (to look for him)”, the 22-year-old, who asked for a pseudonym to security reasons, CNN told CNN.
Farnaz said her older brother, an accountant, had taken part in demonstrations on Monday in Iran’s southeastern city of Kerman against what he calls the “oppressive government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi” when “clothed officers” infiltrated the crowd and ” forced people into police vans with morals.”
The anger in Kerman mirrors the 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 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died last week in custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police,” a notorious unit that enforces mandatory headscarf laws.
Amini’s suspicious death has become a symbol of the violent repression of women in Iran for decades – and protesters say the regime has blood on its hands again.
As of last week, semi-official news agencies have reported that at least 17 people have been killed in violent clashes between protesters and security forces. CNN cannot independently verify the death toll. In addition to protesters, two members of Iran’s paramilitary group were also killed.
In the frenetic hours following her brother’s disappearance, Farnaz and her parents traveled to the Kerman vice squad to demand answers.
Instead, they say they encountered a sea of other families who were also looking for loved ones – many of whom said they were threatened by the police.
It’s been more than four days since Farnaz saw her brother and she’s afraid he’ll never come home.
“My brother is being held captive by these cruel people and we can’t even find out about his condition,” she said.
CNN verified a video showing armed police clashing with protesters on Monday in Kerman’s Azadi Square — where Farnaz says her brother was taken.
On Thursday, the US sanctioned several vice squad and security officials it believes are responsible for Amini’s death.
Amini’s family last saw her alive on Sept. 13, when she was “beaten on the head” in the back of a car by Tehran’s vice squad before being driven away, her cousin Diako Aili told CNN.
CCTV footage released by Iranian state media shows Amini collapsing later that day in a “re-education center” in Tehran, where she was taken by vice squads to receive “guidance” on how 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 being treated told her immediate family that she had been admitted with “brain damage on arrival” because “the injuries to her head were so severe”.
Aili lives in Norway and has not spoken to Amini since July, but is in regular contact with her parents. He said none of his relatives had been allowed into the hospital room to view her body.
“She died in a coma three days later…a young 22-year-old woman with no heart disease or anything…she was a happy girl living in a not so good country, with dreams I’ll never know about,” Aili said. .
CNN was unable to independently verify Aili’s account with hospital officials.
Iranian authorities maintain that Amini died of a heart attack and have denied any allegation.
Last weekend, the government said an autopsy had been completed but was still under review.
An official investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death is “ongoing”, but it has done little to quell the unrest in the streets – as scenes of protests, striking in their geographic spread, brutality and symbolism, hit social media flood, in what appears to be the biggest display of public anger in Iran since demonstrations over rising food and fuel prices in 2019.
For Shima Babaei, who fled Iran in 2020 after spending time in Tehran’s infamous Evin Prison for not wearing a headscarf, Amini’s death is particularly unnerving.
“Her death reminds me of the brutality of the police, not only against me, but also thousands of Iranian women who have had these experiences. In the same building at the vice squad headquarters, they treated me like a criminal, handcuffed me and disgraced me,” the women’s rights activist, who now lives in Belgium, told CNN.
Babaei — who has a lot of social media presence in Iran — knows what it’s like to become an accidental symbol of protest. Her name became synonymous with the “Girls of Revolution Street” anti-hijab demonstrations that took place across Iran from 2017 to 2019.
But she says the mood seems different this time.
“I think this is the start of something. Women set fire to their scarves and remove all symbols of the regime from the streets… sooner or later, the Iranian people will achieve freedom and we will remember those who stand next to us.”
An internet blackout introduced on Thursday to quell the unrest appears to have had little effect. Human rights groups are now concerned about what the Iranian authorities might be doing now under the cover of darkness.
The Iranian military warned protesters, saying it was ready to “confront enemies” to defend the nation’s security, state news agency IRNA said, as protests erupted in several cities Thursday evening.
The military has “strongly condemned” the attacks on the police and will “defy the various plots of the enemies and defend the security and interests of the Iranian nation,” it added. At least 17 have been killed in the protests in the past week, according to Iranian semi-official media.
Following the November 2019 protests, hundreds of Iranians were arrested, tortured, imprisoned and in some cases even sentenced to death under national security laws, Amnesty International said.
Mansoureh Mills, who works on the organization’s Iran team, describes the current situation as a “crisis of impunity” made possible by international inaction.
“We are receiving reports of young people being deliberately shot with metal bullets and other ammunition, resulting in death or horrific injuries. This is the desperate attempt by the authorities to force Iranians into submission,” Mills told CNN.
For Aili – who follows the protests from afar – the fear he now has for his relatives in Iran who spoke out about Amini’s death is crippling.
He said the government had offered to provide for his family financially if they kept quiet about his cousin’s case, but they decided to get her story out.
“Why did you kill a 22-year-old girl who is innocent?”
“No one deserves to die just because they show her or say what they think… it’s a waste of life,” Aili told CNN.