Nika Shahkarami: How a slain 16-year-old became a figurehead of the Iran protests

Nika Shahkarami, a 16-year-old girl who died after going missing for 10 days after participating in protests in Tehran, has become a new focal point of the growing anti-government protest movement in Iran. News of her death, and the treatment of her family at the hands of Iranian authorities, sparked outrage and galvanized fresh protests as demonstrations stretch into their third week.

The Iran protests initially erupted after the funeral of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s modesty laws. At first, demonstrations centred around protesting Iran’s strict dress code that dictates how women can dress, but have since expanded into broader calls for a regime change.

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Iranian security forces have used tear gas and opened fire on protesters to quash dissent, leaving dozens dead and hundreds injured — though the true number of casualties has been disputed. Iranian women and girls have been leading the protests, with numerous videos circulating on social media showing people burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in defiance of the country’s strict modesty laws.

Shahkarami’s death, which many activists in Iran believe happened at the hands of Iranian authorities, has become another rallying cry in the protest movement. Protesters see her death as emblematic of the way Iran’s government treats women in the country.

“Nika’s death will definitely fuel the fire of anger,” a female protester in Tehran said over the Telegram messaging app, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. “What they did to Nika is a true example of what the Islamic Republic does to us.”

The death of Nika Shahkarami

On Sept. 20, Shahkarami joined the protests in Tehran like many other youths her age.

In an interview with BBC Persian, the teen’s aunt, Atash Shahkarami, said her niece left their house around 5 p.m. local time and that they were in contact until around 7 p.m. Atash spoke to one of Shahkarami’s friends and learned that the teen had posted a story on her Instagram page showing her burning her headscarf, Atash said.

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According to her aunt, Shahkarami told her friend that she was being followed by security agents that night. After that, her family lost contact with her.

Shahkarami was missing for 10 days after attending the protest until her family found her at a morgue in a Tehran detention centre.

“When we went to identify her, they didn’t allow us to see her body, only her face for a few seconds,” Atash told BBC Persian.

@mahhsaamini

RIP ANGEL. #nikashakarami NikaShakarami, 17, was killed in Iran’s violent crackdown on protests triggered by the death in custody of #MahsaAmini #مهسا_امینی #fyp #foryou #justiceformahsa

♬ Fallen down – Slowed – 「Incørrect」

According to Iran’s judiciary, Shahkarami went into a building on the night she disappeared and was found dead in the yard outside the next morning.

CCTV footage that claimed to show Shahkarami’s last moments shows an unidentifiable person walking through an alley and pulling down their face mask before entering a building.

Tehran judiciary official Mohammad Shahriari said on Wednesday that a post-mortem of Shahkarami’s body showed that the teen suffered “multiple fractures … in the pelvis, head, upper and lower limbs, arms and legs, which indicate that the person was thrown from a height,” as reported by the BBC.

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However, a death certificate for Shahkarami, which was obtained by BBC Persian from a cemetery in Tehran, states that the teen died after “multiple injuries caused by blows with a hard object.”

In response to growing outrage, the Iranian government launched an investigation into Shahkarami’s death on Tuesday.

“A case has been filed in the criminal court to investigate the cause of Nika Shahkarami’s death,” said Tehran public prosecutor Ali Salehi, as reported by The Guardian. “An order to investigate the case has been issued.”

On the same day, eight workers from the building where Shahkarami was allegedly last seen were arrested.

Shahkarami’s aunt, Atash, has spoken extensively to media about her niece’s death. She said that Shahkarami’s Instagram and Telegram accounts were deleted on the day she went missing. According to BBC Persian, Iranian security forces are known to demand access to detainees’ social media accounts so that certain information can be deleted.

Atash also told BBC Persian that Revolutionary Guards told the family that Shahkarami was in police custody for five days before being handed over to prison authorities.

Multiple reports have said that Atash and Shahkarami’s uncle, Mohsen, were detained by Iranian authorities on Sunday after posting online about their niece and speaking to the media. These reports have not been confirmed.

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On Wednesday night, state TV aired a recorded message from Atash saying, “Nika was killed falling from a building.” According to BBC Persian, Atash also confirmed that her niece’s body was found outside the building that government officials had flagged as the site of her death. Mohsen denounced the protests in the televised message.

These comments contradicted their previous statements about Shahkarami’s death and a source told BBC Persian that Atash and Mohsen’s messages were “forced confessions.” The source alleged that these statements were recorded “after intense interrogations and being threatened that other family members would be killed.”

Atash and Mohsen have since been released.

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On Sunday, on what would have been the teen’s 17th birthday, Shahkarami’s family transported her body to be buried in her father’s hometown of Khorramabad.

A source close to the family told BBC Persian that they had agreed under duress to not hold a public funeral for their daughter. The source also said that Iranian security forces “stole” Shahkarami’s body from Khorramabad and secretly buried it in the nearby village of Veysian.

Online footage shows hundreds of protesters descending on Khorramabad’s cemetery on Sunday, chanting anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator.”

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Shahkarami is just one of many young women and girls who have been killed during the Iran protests so far.

Hadis Najafi, 22, was shot dead by security forces on Sept. 21 after attending a protest in Karaj, according to her family. Her sisters say she was shot in the head and neck with live ammunition and suffered injuries from birdshot that was fired from a shotgun.

“They wouldn’t return the body for two days, asking her father to say she had died of a heart attack out of fear,” two sources close to the family told BBC Persian.

Hadis recorded a video message during the protest in which she said, “I hope in a few years when I look back, I will be happy that everything has changed for the better.”

Her family says she was shot dead almost an hour after recording that video.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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