Mourners met with force as they flock to Neda's grave

Iran's opposition leaders barred from ceremony marking 40 days since protester's death

Forty days after the death of Neda Soltan, the young Iranian woman whose harrowing last moments during a post-election protest were filmed and seen around the world, Tehran was the scene of extraordinary clashes yesterday as police used force to crush an opposition-backed memorial service for the student and other victims of violence.

Mirhossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential candidate and de facto opposition leader, was prevented by a phalanx of police from paying his respects at the grave of Ms Soltan, where large crowds had defiantly gathered for a ceremony to mark the 40th day since her death, a key moment of mourning in Shia Muslim tradition.

"Neda is alive! Ahmadinejad is dead!" many chanted as the tussle played out.

The other defeated candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, had to flee the cemetery after trying to deliver a speech near the grave while two leading Iranian film directors, one of whom was Jafar Panahi, nominated for an Oscar for one of his films, were arrested when they attempted to put flowers on the student's grave.

The demonstrations later spread to other parts of the Iranian capital with protesters chanting "Death to the dictatorship!", but police used batons and tear gas to charge the crowds and disperse them. Thousands had also assembled at the Grand Mosalla mosque, a key prayer venue, and other coordinated locations in the centre of the city, but police and security forces were posted in intimidating numbers at all the main intersections.

The heavy-handed response of the Islamic regime reflected a fierce determination to prevent mourning ceremonies for victims of post-election violence from turning into a vehicle for an unstoppable cycle of anti-regime protest.

Both sides would have been keenly aware that yesterday's events were laden with symbolism. Ms Soltan and 23 other slain protesters are buried in Behesht-e Zahra, the vast cemetery where, along with thousands who died during the 1979 revolution, thousands of soldiers "martyred" during the Iran-Iraq war are buried. The graveyard is one of the most important symbols of Iranians' suffering for independence. In 1977 and 1978, the forty day mourning ceremonies held there for anti-Shah protesters provided the monarch's opponents, under the guise of religious events, with a mechanism for huge demonstrations that eventually culminated in the revolution.

Yesterday's crackdown reflected both an intense fear within the regime's leadership of allowing history to repeat itself, analysts said, and a wish to scare off ordinary members of the public from coming onto the streets. "The regime is trying to demonstrate that it is not going to let even the smallest demonstration go ahead", said Dr Suzanne Maloney, of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "Any political rally at the place where the martyrs of the revolution and the war are buried would have been an unthinkable challenge to the legitimacy of the regime".

The continuing difficulty for the regime however, she stressed, is that while it is willing to use enough force to deter casual followers from joining the protests, it will be difficult indefinitely to escalate force to put off the committed core of those now demanding political freedoms and even an end to the Islamic regime.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is already facing a backlash from critics within the conservative political elite who are furious at his handling of the election and its aftermath.

"Clearly there are a large number of people in Iran who are willing to risk their safety to demonstrate. Force can keep a lid on this for a while but further deaths and an opposition leader with clear agenda for change would present a real problem for the regime," said Dr Maloney.

For opponents of President Ahadinejad, yesterday's defiance was an opportunity to demonstrate their refusal to accept his declared victory in the June 12 elections, or to be cowed into silence despite weeks of arrests, beatings, detentions, disappearances and the imminent threat of show trials of leading reformists.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...