Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Doctor Who Defied Tehran


At the height of Iran's bloody civil unrest this year, a young doctor named Ramin Pourandarjani defied his superiors. He refused to sign death certificates at a Tehran prison that he said were falsified to cover up murder.

He testified to a parliamentary committee that jailers were torturing and raping protesters, his family says. He told friends and family he feared for his life.

And on Nov. 10, the 26-year-old doctor was found dead in the military clinic where he lived and worked.

The family of Dr. Pourandarjani, who occasionally treated prisoners in fulfillment of Iran's obligatory military service, says he was killed for his refusal to participate in a coverup at the notorious Kahrizak detention center, widely criticized for its unsanitary conditions.

In a series of interviews over three weeks, Dr. Pourandarjani's family spoke in detail for the first time about their son's mysterious death.

Iranian officials first blamed the doctor's death on a car accident, then a heart attack, then suicide and then poisoning, according to family members and government statements.

The controversy over his fate is transforming the doctor into a martyr for the opposition movement challenging the legitimacy of Iran's rulers. In a sign of his mounting symbolic importance, on Dec. 8 Iran's national prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, was pressed by local reporters at a news conference for answers. He said the case remains under investigation.

Mr. Mohseni-Ejei couldn't be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations said the case is being probed and declined to answer questions.

"I sent off my young, healthy and beautiful son to military service, and I got his dead body back," says his mother, Ruhangiz Pourandarjani, who lives in the northwest city of Tabriz. "Anyone who says he committed suicide is lying and should be afraid of God."

In Iran, protestors now carry the doctor's picture in street marches and chant his name along with that of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman whose shooting death in June was captured on video and broadcast world-wide. A popular new slogan at some marches: "Our Neda is not dead, Our Ramin is not dead, it's the Supreme Leader who is dead," a reference to Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mothers of individuals killed in Iran's antigovernment protests this year have formed a support group, Grieving Mothers, who march silently Sunday afternoons at Laleh Park in Tehran holding pictures of their dead children. This month, security officials arrested 15 members. They were freed a few days later when crowds gathered near the jail, demanding their release.

The opposition says more than 70 Iranians have been killed since June in a crackdown on the protests that erupted after the nation's disputed presidential election. The government says 17 people have died, including a dozen of its own security forces.

Iran denies allegations that jailed protesters were tortured or raped and blames the deaths in Kahrizak on a meningitis outbreak. The prison has been closed in the wake of torture allegations there.

An influential Iranian parliamentarian and former health minister, Masoud Pezeshkian, is pressing for a full investigation of Dr. Pourandarjani's death. The claim of a suicide by "someone who was a witness in Kahrizak, and has no background for mental illness, is suspicious," he told local news agencies.

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