A Death in Tehran (2009)

PBS Frontline

Neda Agha Soltan, shot and killed on the streets of Tehran in June 2009. Her death quickly becomes an international outrage.
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Documentary Description

At the height of the protests following Iran's controversial presidential election this summer, a young woman named Neda Agha Soltan was shot and killed on the streets of Tehran. Her death -- filmed on a camera phone, then uploaded to the Web -- quickly became an international outrage, and Soltan became the face of a powerful movement that threatened the hard-line government's hold on power. In A Death in Tehran, FRONTLINE revisits the events of last summer, shedding new light on Neda's life and death and the movement she helped inspire.

In response to the international outcry over Neda's death -- including President Obama's confirmation that he'd seen the "heartbreaking" video on YouTube -- the regime set about attempting to rewrite the story, pointing a finger at the CIA and outside agitators, the same forces they blamed for the mass street protests and allegations of vote rigging that led to the greatest upheaval in Iran since the revolution of 1979. FRONTLINE uncovers some video of Neda's killer -- a member of the Basij militia who'd been brought into Tehran by the regime's Revolutionary Guards to stamp out the "Green Revolution." A medical doctor in the crowd who had watched Neda die now watched as the crowd considered its own violence against the Basij militia member:

"They started to discuss what to do with him," the doctor recalled. "They grabbed his wallet, took out his ID card and started shouting, 'He is a Basiji member; he is one of them,' and started swearing and cursing him, and he was begging for people not to harm him or kill him. ... They believed the police wouldn't do anything to him as the Basiji are really powerful and he would have easily have got away, so in all of the chaos they decided to release him."

The Iranian government admits 11 protesters were killed on June 20, but doctors from three Tehran hospitals confirmed at least 34. Other bodies were buried by security forces without first being identified. In October, the regime tried to script the end of the story for Neda. But instead, Neda's mother made a very public stand. The government offered her financial help if she would blame Neda's death on opponents of the regime. All she had to do was to agree to call Neda a "martyr" for the Islamic Republic. But she refused, telling FRONTLINE: "Neda died for her country not so I could get a monthly income from the Martyr Foundation. If these officials say Neda was a martyr, why do they keep wiping off the word 'martyr' which people write in red on her gravestone?"

Interview with the doctor that tried to save Neda Agha Soltan

Interview: Arash Hejazi

So you used to be a doctor, and now you are a publisher. Can you talk a bit about yourself?

I was born in Tehran in 1971, in a middle-class family. ... I studied medicine in the university, and I graduated as a medical doctor. I worked as a GP [general practitioner] during my eight years' military service, and shortly afterwards, because of many factors including some corruption I saw in the system, I decided not to work professionally as a doctor anymore. ...

Why did you decide to become a publisher?

I had a passion for literature, and I had many ideas. I knew that Iran already had lot of good doctors who were practicing and doing their best, but there weren't as many good publishers around, and I thought maybe I should try here to make some change.

So you traveled back to Iran in June before the elections or after the election? When you went back, what expectations did you have?

I came to the U.K. last year in September to study this course in publishing. It's a course for a master's in publishing, and it was supposed to finish in September, but my classes finished earlier, in June, so I decided to go back to Tehran on my vacation to take care of a few things. ...

I didn't go back to Tehran on the election day because my family here wanted to vote, and as they were not going to accompany me, I thought we can all go to London and vote at the embassy there. The next day we flew back to Tehran.

From what you were hearing, were you excited? Were you thinking you were missing out?

Yes, because I followed every piece of news I received about the election from here. I was so excited with the wave of excitement with the people after a few generations of dead silence and how they participated, how they cooperated, how they supported each other, how they were all shouting for a common goal. That was very exciting for me, and I really wish I could have gone earlier, been part of their campaigns.

Did you know by the time you arrived in Tehran that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad had declared victory?

Yes. The elections were held on Friday, and in the afternoon, as soon as we returned from London, I checked the news, and I realized that Ahmadinejad had been announced as the winner of the election, which was very strange, because it was only a few hours before the things had been finished, and even in some parts they hadn't even started counting the votes.

So I was shocked, and during that night till the morning, I was checking the news all the time and the local news of Tehran to get more information. I was sure that there was some mistake. ...

How did you feel about Ahmadinejad winning?

I wasn't happy about it at all. As someone who had lived in Iran in the cultural sector -- we worked on books, magazines and journals and the culturals -- Iran faced its worst situation in the past four years. Many publishers, reporters, newspapers, magazines, cinema, theater, music, all these industries were on the verge of bankruptcy because of the fear of censorship going on in Iran during Ahmadinejad's presidency.

So once you arrived in Tehran on the Saturday, what did you do then?

... I went ... to our office, because I was really nervous about everything that was going on, and I wanted to find out more, and I wanted to see my colleagues there whom I knew for sure knew more about the situation. ... We talked for many hours, and they explained everything that had been going on to me, and everybody was so shocked. We heard that there was riots going on in the streets in the same day in the Vanak Square, where people had been beaten and the anti-riot police had been using tear gas amongst the people. ...

We saw pieces of news in the international media -- nothing, of course, in the official media. So I was rapidly being drawn into the context we were facing. There were people who believed there was fraud in the elections, and they were protesting against it. ...

... Did you want to just go out on the streets?

Not on the first day, because I didn't really know what was going on. ... By the evening we realized there were more protests going on, especially political protests, from the leaders of the Green Movement. They were really concerned about the ballot counts, but they were inviting people to calmness because they thought there would be legal ways -- file a protest, follow up on their protests. So they asked people to calm down and wait and see what was going on. On the Saturday night, I went home exhausted.

[In] the morning I really checked up the news. That was the time when we realized there were other things going on. That was the civilian journalism, which was sending out clips, videos, news out of Twitter, Facebook and their camcorders, camera phones. And at the same time the government was counterattacking these efforts by slowing down the Internet, filtering every single Web site that could be considered controversial.

That was the first time in Iran that the political struggle was opening to a cyberstruggle?

Yeah. I cannot remember something like that happening before. There were dispersed protests going on, but they weren't this extensive, they weren't this strong, and not as many civilians were involved in that. ... People who were in the Vanak Square that day were calling their friends at home, and they were tweeting about the news, and now the guards are coming this way, they were beating up that way. So we had a report of every second of those protests that day.

Do you remember how that week passed?

Yeah, yeah, very clearly. The next day I was following up the news again, and it was the first time the supreme leader congratulated the president. So it scattered many hopes that some follow-ups would be going on, and so people were furious, more furious. [Mir Hossein] Mousavi declared that there was a fraud; [Mehdi] Karroubi declared that there was a fraud. People were in the streets. There were scattered protests still, but not accumulated yet.

[On Monday] Mousavi invited people to rally from Imam Hossein Square to Azadi Square, which is a huge distance. We heard they were putting pressure on Mousavi to cancel the event. ... That day, everyone was planning to go to that rally, because their hopes were falling down, and they knew the people had to take action. ...

Mousavi announced that the rally is canceled, but as there were no way to inform people that it is canceled, he has to go there in person and declare that the protests have been canceled. And that news encouraged people again, [because] they knew Mousavi was going. ...

I went to the rally. I was part of those several million people on the streets which was a very peaceful, nonviolent protest. The police didn't really get involved. ... [What] I saw was very peaceful. There were signs and slogans and the signs of victory walking in the streets with their Green symbols. It was a huge crowd. The mayor of Tehran announced there were 3 million; I believe there were more. But yeah, that was the Monday which hopes were regained again. ...

Do you think that if Mr. Mousavi stayed there after the demonstration and not left, it might have become a more forceful demonstration and would have changed things?

... My feeling was that yeah, because on that day the people realized the importance of peaceful demonstrations, nonviolent demonstrations. In the past two or three days some violence had happened, but all of a sudden everything turned into one common goal: We are there; we are nonviolent; we are not looking for any violence; we are here peacefully. We just want our votes back. That's our only claim at the moment. We don't want anything else; we want a recount.

That Friday, do you remember [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei's speech?

Yeah, very much. ... I was in the car, and I was listening to his speech on the radio. It was devastating. ... All of a sudden, all the hopes crashed down by him saying there has been no fraud in the election, and I declare that these protests are not appropriate, people have to go home, and if they come out whatever happens is their own responsibilities.

That was a declaration of war to his own people. He should have expected that bloody Saturday. It was inevitable, because he had just insulted millions of people.

I was furious. I couldn't drive anymore. I pulled aside and waited for a few minutes because I knew I would crash the car if I continued driving. I took some short breaths, and then I started driving again. ...

Saturday was really the determining day, because we knew that something was going to happen after Khamenei's remarks about people not going into the streets and taking responsibility if something happened. We knew that he had allowed his guards to open fire on the crowd; that was what it meant. ... If people didn't go in the street, it would show that they are intimidated, and it was really important to know what was the stand of the people, how would they react to this remark, and did Khamenei have the same authority he had before or not.

So we knew that we are following the news by second, and I explicitly forced my colleagues that today nobody is going out. Nobody will go out today because it's extremely dangerous. ...

All of a sudden everybody stood up and said, "We don't care if you don't let us go out; we want to go out." By phone we heard that things were going on: People were on the streets; they were shouting, "Death to the dictator." The shouts were very high, so they decided to go out. And I said, "OK, so if you are going out, I will come with you, because I want to make sure that you do nothing stupid." And that is why we went out in the streets. ...

As soon as we went out, we smelled the smell of tear gas, so we walked on that alley that ends to Karegar Street, from our office, and there we saw the crowd. It was a very strange scene, because I had seen some similar scenes before, especially during the student protests several years back. But this was strange because there [were] people -- women, men, old, young. From the student protests they were all students, same age range, but this was completely different. Even the old men who couldn't walk, even old women. Some wore very strict hijabs; some didn't. Some men were very Western-dressed; some were really conservatively dressed. So there were people from every part of the community, and they were standing there fearlessly.

The anti-riot police on their motorcycles with red caps and everything, they were standing about 200 yards away. ... Then the anti-riot police moved towards the people and started throwing tear gas directly towards the people, not the air. One of the police fired a tear gas that fell into the house of an old woman who lived there, and she started shouting, "You idiots you cannot even aim." So people started laughing and booing, but then that I think a little bit provoked the anti-riot police, and they rushed towards the people. So people scattered in different directions again. ...

When did you first see Neda?

Neda was among the crowd, standing there among the crowd ... in front of the anti-riot police. I saw her just as soon as we arrived there because she was there with an older man. She was very close to us, so I noticed her. Sometimes she shouted, "Death to dictator," or something, but she wasn't an active part of that crowd. ...

When we moved back into the alley, she and her music teacher walked back, too, and started walking back with us towards the end of the alley. So I think I noticed her about 10 to 15 minutes before she was shot. ...

Did anything about her stick out?

Yeah. She was wearing a sun hat. She had a big smile on her face, a mixture of smile and fury, and her music teacher was trying to convince her that she should stay back, while she didn't really. ... She was very curious to see what was going on, really going on. She was very brave, because when the anti-riot police moved, we were one of the first people who started moving. She was one of the last people who entered the alley.

Were Basijis [government paramilitary force] in the area?

I didn't notice them at the moment; there were only the anti-riot police. But afterwards, yeah, we realized that they were around, and later we realized they were among us, some Basijis, whose members were among us.

What kind of weapons did the law enforcement carry with them?

The official law enforcement, they used tear gas. They had batons. I didn't see any firearms on them, but I am not an expert in this. But they weren't using firearms.

Where was it that you first saw shots getting fired?

When we reached the end of the alley, I was shouting at my friends to go back in the office, and that was when we heard the blast from in front of us, and everybody was a bit shocked. I asked: "What was that? Was it a gunshot?" And one of my friends I think said no. They said they are using plastic bullets, and they wouldn't use real bullets.

But another friend all of a sudden told me, "Look at this girl; she is vomiting with blood." I turned back to Neda, who was standing just besides me. I saw that she wasn't vomiting blood; it was blood gushing out of her chest. So instantly I realized that she was shot. And that was when I got involved. ... I instinctively moved towards her and helped her music teacher lay her on the ground and tried to give her primary medical care.

Did you [see] where the shot was fired from?

I know it was from in front of us, but I didn't see the location where it was shot from. As soon as I noticed she was shot, I was just involved with her. I just looked around to see if the shooter was around, made sure we were safe, and then I started putting pressure on her wound.

So did this all come from in front of Neda or from behind her?

From in front of her, definitely.

You are absolutely sure about that?


As a doctor, can you tell us what happened to Neda internally?

I don't know the type of weapon that was used, and although the government claimed that some forensic medicine report exists, it has never been published, and she was buried the day after she was shot, so there wasn't much time for an autopsy or anything. So that remains a mystery.

But I know she was shot in the chest below the neck, and the extent of bleeding and the pressure of the bleeding indicates instantly to me that her aorta was shot, and her lung as well, because the blood had been flowing through her nose and mouth as well, so her lung was shot as well. ... She had no chance, and in less than a minute, her body was drained out of the blood. ... She died very quickly. ...

What happened to Neda next?

The rest you can see in that video. She laid on the ground. She lost her consciousness after I think 30 seconds, and she passed away pretty soon. Her heart stopped beating after one minute.

And then when I realized there is nothing else I could do, I stood back, and then the fear overwhelmed me, because all of a sudden I had to come back from the professional status to an individual, and I realized that everybody really was in danger. People started shouting that someone has been killed, and a car came by and offered to take her out. People carried her body into the car, and the car went away with the music teacher. They were planning to take her out to a hospital. ...

The car went away, and I was standing aside in a very shocked situation, because I have seen death before, several times as my profession, but the circumstances of her death was so unfair that I couldn't believe what I had already undergone, [what] I had seen. You can understand the state of shock I was in. ...

I realized that a crowd was pulling someone towards us, and the person was shouting that "I didn't want to kill her," and the people had started beating him, throwing him on the ground. They took off his clothes, his shirt.

And then some other part of the people got involved and said, "No, we don't want to beat him; we are not like these killers." He was still shouting: "I swear to God that I didn't want to shoot her. I didn't want to kill her."

Did you get a good look at his face?

Yeah, very much, because I was there, and I didn't leave. I wanted to see what happens next, because I was really furious. ...

Then they started discussing what they should do with him. They searched his body; they took out his wallet; they took out his ID card and started shouting, "He is a Basij member; he is one of them," and started swearing and cursing.

He was begging the people not to harm him, not to kill him. ...Then the discussions ... started [about] what to do with him. They couldn't give him to the police, they believed, because first of all, they would expose themselves, which was extremely dangerous at the time that day; also because they didn't believe the police would do anything to him, because the Basij is very powerful and could easily [have] gone away. They couldn't really hurt him there because it didn't make sense to hurt him.

And so all of a sudden in the chaos, they decided to release him, and they took his ID cards and released him.

How did he leave?

He just started running. He ran away without his shirt, and he turned into the first alley out of there, and then I don't know what happened to him. ...

Did you ever go back to that spot?

Yeah, the next day, because our offices is located nearby, and the next day and the days I was in Iran. It was a terrible experience to see that spot every day.

And it was clean?

Yeah, it was clean, completely clean.

What significance does that spot have for you now?

... People have been tortured; people have been raped. These are the allegations and claims. People have been killed in the prisons or in the streets. Seventy-two names have come out of people who have been shot in the streets, and the government has always claimed these are all lies and they have never used weapons against their own people.

For me personally, it's a sign that they are lying, because I saw the truth. I saw what happened, and I saw how cruel they were when they attacked the people and how they murdered an innocent girl in cold blood, without any faults. She was there. She wasn't armed. She wasn't doing anything. ...

... What was your thought process in the next few days?

I went home that night, and I went to my parents' place again because I didn't want to be alone that night, and my clothes were soaked in blood. When I was driving home, I was careful not to go through the main streets, lest I would be noticed by the police. So driving back home was an experience in itself.

But when my father opened the door and saw me full of blood, he thought something had happened to me, and he was scared. From the corridor before I saw my mother, I explained to him very rapidly what had happened, and he said, "Just change your clothes before your mother sees you, because she would faint if she sees you." I took one of my father's shirts and I put it on, and just before I went into the house, and when I entered I sat down. ...

I was really furious, and something had blocked my throat. I couldn't speak because I couldn't explain anything. I had many unanswered questions in my head. When I sat on the sofa, my mother and my father tried to talk to me, as they wanted to know what had happened. I answered with very short sentences without explaining much. At the end they turned on the TV. It was CNN, and we saw that the film was being shown there with me in it, and it was only a few hours after it had happened.

Did you instantly recognize that film?

Yeah, instantly, because they were explaining about a girl that was shot in Tehran streets. That grabbed my attention. I turned around, and I knew the place; I knew myself; I knew the girl; I knew the location. So I told my parents, "That's me, and you don't need me to explain anything else."

How did you feel when you saw yourself on the video on CNN?

How can I explain? I was scared, of course; I was terrified. And at the same time, I don't know, there was some kind of some sort of satisfaction inside me because at the same time I realized, OK, I am there; my face is evident; this gives me some leverage that I can testify for this incident someday. I wasn't planning to do that in the beginning. Instantly I felt that OK, I can bear witness to this, and people would believe me.

And you think you can testify one day?

Right now I have done what I had to do. I have testified publicly, not in a court of justice but publicly. I have said and I have repeated it several times, and that's what I am going to repeat in any court if someday that comes. But I think the main court of justice is the people and the common sense. I think I have bore witness to them already.

When did you decide to identify yourself and come forward and identify yourself as the man in the video?

It was very complicated, because I was in Iran. ... I knew that they wouldn't recognize me instantly, the government, because it was a bit blurred. I knew that if they could get a hold of me after, you know, the widest breadth showing of that video all over the world and government trying to discredit it. Immediately first they said it was fake; they claimed Neda was an actress. And when they realized they could no longer hold onto that claim, [they claimed] that she was shot by the BBC correspondent [Jon Leyne] or CIA planned her death. They were trying to discredit her whole story that she was shot on that day. ...

After that I was really nervous. ... I knew that if they understood that I was in that video, they would come after me; they would force me to confess or not confess, even collaborate to say that it was one of the protesters or the BBC or some correspondent or CIA or MI6 or whatever they would be looking for. I knew it was extremely important to lay low for a while and don't come forward about my identity.

But then two or three days after that, Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of the famous book The Alchemist -- he is a very good friend of mine -- he noticed me in that video, and after talking to me, he sent me an e-mail, and I told him very confidentially that I was the person in the video, and I asked him to keep it very confidential at the moment. But the next day he put a post on his Weblog and he said he knew the person in that video who is a doctor and who showed Iran to him, who invited him to Iran in 2000. So maybe he didn't think that people would recognize me like that, but at the same time maybe he thought that kind of visibility would protect me.

But after seeing that, I was really concerned. That's when I decided to leave much earlier than I had planned. So I called the agency, and I had to see if I could fly as soon as possible out of Iran to the U.K., and fortunately I found a ticket for the next day, and I flew out of Iran Wednesday, June 24. ...

When I arrived at home, I already received I don't know how many, 100 e-mails from the press and the media all over the world wanting to get in touch with me. ...

I realized that this was the moment. I knew in every life there comes a moment that the integrity of some person would be tested, and I realized that day that this was the moment in my life that I had to choose whether to keep myself safe or prove my integrity. So I decided that now that the truth had been distorted by the government of Iran and now that nobody had stepped forward to bear witness to all the violence that was going on in Iran, it was my responsibility to do that. Otherwise I couldn't have lived with myself. ...

It sounds like the incident has cost you a lot.

Yeah, very much. I have never regretted what I have done, but when I did it, I knew it would cost me a lot. ... Two days after [I was interviewed by the BBC], the chief of police of Iran announced that I was being prosecuted by the Ministry of Intelligence of Iran and Interpol. ... I thought they might try to discredit me, they might try to provide some false witnesses, but I didn't expect that at all. ...

I called the police here and said if Interpol is looking for me, I am not hiding, you know where I live, and they said, "We will check immediately." Then I received a call that no, Interpol has nothing to do with this, but we will look into [the situation] with more details. The next day Interpol officially announced that no, they had not received any request, and the things don't work like that. ...

Then the Ministry of Intelligence went to our office in Tehran, and they interrogated my colleagues for a few days there. They checked my office and confiscated some of my documents. Then they went to my father's office, and they interrogated him for a while. They even threatened him. After that I thought, OK, now that we have received a threat, I would lay low. I wouldn't give any more interviews because I have said what I need to say and I didn't need to overexpose myself, and everything would pass.

But after a while, our publishing house is now facing huge problems. They are not allowed to distribute their books. They have told me that our license, which is under my name, cannot be extended unless I am being fired from that publishing house and unless someone else becomes the license holder of that publishing house.

I cannot go back to Iran. I had received threats even here, anonymous threats, which concern me a little bit about my personal security and safety. And that's just because I talked. I worked in literature all my life, and I always talked about and preached about the power of words. I never realized how powerful words can be. ...

The authorities have talked about a terrorist element being present at the scene. If you remember back to that day, do you notice anything out of the ordinary?

... These are just claims and allegations to distract the attention of people to what is important. There weren't any terrorist elements involved; there were people. All those people on the streets were ordinary civilians who were protesting for their basic rights. They wanted their integrity back. They wanted to live in a country where the leaders wouldn't insult the people and humiliate them.

And they were people -- they weren't armed. I didn't see a single knife or firearm among the people or anywhere else, just by the police. These are just desperate efforts to discredit a story that cannot be discredited.

An identity card of a Basij has been released on the Internet. He is accused of being the officer who confessed to killing Neda on the scene. Is that the person you saw?

Yes, I have already confirmed his identity in my blog and in a few interviews. ... I immediately recognized him, and I even sent the photograph to a few friends who were present at the scene, and I wanted to make sure that they, too, would recognize him and they would confirm the identity as well. ...

Do you think you can go back to Iran?

After all these threats and the Ministry of Intelligence announcing that they are looking for me, I wouldn't go back, especially after seeing ... what they call courts, the court sessions now. ... If I go back now, I would be arrested on the spot, I guess, and then I would be another victim of their tortures and confessions. So no.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said in an interview that Neda's killing was a suspicious incident that they are investigating. What do you think he means by that?

... No official report has been published by the forensic medicine department, by the judiciary. No one has been summoned for investigation. I have announced that this guy could be the shooter -- I never said that he was the shooter, but he could be the shooter at least -- and no interrogation has been performed on him. So I don't know what Mr. Ahmadinejad means by investigation. What does that mean? Nothing has been done so far. ...


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