I Won't Be Silenced: Grieving Mother Keeps Memory Of Son Lost In Iran's 2019 Crackdown Alive

Maryam Behtarpur lived a quiet life with her husband and three children in northwestern Iran, when her world was turned upside down in November 2019.

That was when her eldest son, 27-year-old Farzad Ansarifar, was killed while returning from work just as the state was cracking down on protests against the country's repressive clerical establishment.

The family spoke up about his killing, demanding justice and accountability, in a direct challenge to the regime. And like other relatives of activists slain during the 2019 crackdown, they have faced pressure from the authorities and been prevented from holding public memorials to honor those lost.

In Behtarpur's case, the authorities responded by taking away her loved ones, one by one, in an effort to silence the family.

On February 19, Farzad's father, Amin Ansarifar, a veteran of Iran's 1980-88 war with Iraq, was arrested on charges of "spreading propaganda" against the Islamic establishment. Prior to his arrest, Ansarifar testified online at a tribunal in London that heard evidence from him and other witnesses about the crackdown on anti-establishment protests two years ago.

A day after his arrest, on February 20, his youngest son, 24-year-old Arman Ansarifar, was detained too. The two remain in prison.

Just days later, Farzad's sister, Farzaneh Ansarifar, was reportedly sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Farzaneh, who had been detained several times over the past two years for speaking up about her brother's killing, got four years and six months in prison on charges that include "assembly and collusion against the state" and "spreading propaganda" against the establishment. According to Iranian laws, she has 20 days to appeal.

Behtarpur says her family's only crime was their refusal to remain silent about Farzad's death. The authorities "said that if you talk to the media, we will imprison you. Do not talk, do not raise your voice," Behtarpur told RFE/RL's Radio Farda earlier this week.

"They killed our son [for no reason]. We are grieving him. We had nothing to do with counterrevolutionaries (a term Iranian officials use to refer to critics and those opposing the clerical establishment). We had nothing to do with these issues. We were minding our own business," Behtarpur added.

She says the Iranian authorities have ruined her life and the lives of her loved ones.

"My son was returning from work, they killed my son.... Then they came and imprisoned my husband and my son. They issued a prison sentence against my daughter. They harass us enormously," Behtarpur said.

Behtarpur's son, Farzad, was one of six people who were killed in Behbahan in the southwestern province of Khuzestan on November 16, 2019. He was shot in the back of the head as people across the country were protesting against a sudden rise in the price of gasoline.

The protests, in which many participants chanted against Iranian leaders, spread to more than 100 cities and towns.

Authorities responded with lethal force, killing at least 324 people, including bystanders and children, according to figures released by Amnesty International. The London-based rights group believes the real number of those killed is higher.

Tehran also imposed a near-total Internet shutdown to stop the free flow of information amid the demonstrations.

Ansarifar, a construction worker, was shot near his home. His family has said that he had heard some noise and went to see what was happening. A few hours later, they identified his body in a morgue.

The family filed an official complaint but it was never acknowledged by the authorities.

Farzad's father, Amin Ansarifar, told the tribunal in London in November that in the past two years the family had called on Iranian officials to bring those responsible for Farzad's killing to justice. The tribunal, which was organized by rights activists, does not have any legal standing.

"We said several times: show us the person who shot our son, maybe it was the enemy, maybe it was intentionally, tell us who it was, we need to know why he was shooting, why he killed my son," Amin Ansarifar said during his online testimony in which he could be seen sitting with a picture of his slain son behind him. "We asked the Intelligence Ministry these questions but unfortunately they didn't give us an answer. They said they didn't know."

Amin Ansarifar was among a handful of witnesses from inside Iran who testified during the tribunal under their real names, and without covering their faces. "We want to know why [they] killed my son, we want to know who ordered the shooting," he said.

Amin Ansarifar added that his daughter had come under increased pressure for seeking justice for her brother's death. "[The authorities] told her: 'Why you are after [justice]? Be silent.'"

Behtarpur has called on the authorities to release her husband and youngest son, and to drop the case against her daughter.

She laments that, due to the jailing of her husband, who was the family's breadwinner, she could be soon evicted from their home because of her inability to pay the rent.

She says her husband, who has shrapnel in his body from his days fighting against Iraq, suffers greatly from his war injuries. "For years, we struggled because of his war injuries, now do something to release him and stop harassing us so much," she said, adding that she refuses to be silenced.

Human Rights Watch said on the second anniversary of the protests that the authorities had failed to provide any real measure of accountability for the violent crackdown.

In the past two years, dozens of people who were arrested during the unrest have been sentenced. Some of those who condemned the crackdown have also been pressured and sentenced to prison.