AFP: Riot police used tear gas and batons to break up a demonstration in Tehran on Thursday and clashed with mourners at a defiant graveside commemoration for people killed in election violence, witnesses said.
By Jay Deshmukh
TEHRAN (AFP) — Riot police used tear gas and batons to break up a demonstration in Tehran on Thursday and clashed with mourners at a defiant graveside commemoration for people killed in election violence, witnesses said.
It was the first major violence between security forces and demonstrators in three weeks in Iran, where tensions are still running high over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last month.
Police moved in as crowds massed around a major open-air prayer venue in central Tehran and a major thoroughfare nearby, defying a ban on a planned opposition mourning ceremony, witnesses said.
They used tear gas and batons against thousands of protesters marching on Vali Asr Street who were shouting "Death to the dictator!", "Free the political prisoners!" and slogans in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, they said.
Clashes had erupted earlier at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery south of Tehran, where hundreds of police with batons and belts beat some members of an estimated 2,000-strong who hurled stones at security forces, witnesses said.
Iranians were marking the 40th day since the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman who came to symbolise the public uprising over Ahmadinejad's June 12 victory which the opposition says was rigged.
Witnesses said dozens of policemen were deployed on Tehran's Kargar Street where Neda was killed on June 20.
A graphic Internet video of Neda bleeding to death was seen around the world and triggered an outcry over the sometimes brutal crackdown on demonstrators.
Some Iranian hardliners claim Neda's killing was "staged" to denigrate the regime and they seek to divert the blame from Islamist vigilantes cracking down on protesters.
Crowds at the cemetery shouted: "Today is a mourning day. Loyal Iranians are the mourners today."
People gathered around Neda's grave which was decorated with candles and flowers as police attacked demonstrators and arrested several mourners, including prominent film director Jafar Panahi and his family, a witness said.
Police forced Mousavi out of the graveyard just minutes after his arrival and although they initially surrounded fellow campaigner Mehdi Karroubi, he was able to give graveside readings from the Koran.
Mousavi and Karroubi, who both stood against Ahmadinejad in the election, have waged a defiant campaign since the announcement of the official results, which triggered the worst crisis in the 30-year history of the Islamic republic and created deep rifts among the nation's ruling elite.
Mousavi, a prime minister in the post-revolution years who was Ahmadinejad's main challenger, has consistently refused to acknowledge his rival's victory, saying it was a "shameful fraud."
In the latest show of defiance, thousands of people flashing victory signs gathered around Vali Asr street and the Grand Mosalla, an open-air religious venue which was to be the scene of a memorial ceremony banned by the authorities.
"Some protesters also set fire to roadside rubbish bins, while anti-riot police on motorbikes rode into the crowds in an attempt to disperse them," a witness said. "Police also smashed window panes of several cars."
A motorbike was said to have been set alight.
Hundreds of motorists sounded their car horns, a protest tactic regularly used by Mousavi supporters.
Witnesses said later that most demonstrators had dispersed from the Vali Asr area and the cemetery.
The foreign press remains banned from covering such demonstrations as part of tough restrictions imposed in the post-election turmoil.
Hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets after the election and in the ensuing violence about 30 people were killed, scores wounded and several thousand arrested, Iranian officials say.
The political crisis has also seen Ahmadinejad come under fire even from his own supporters and he has been warned to obey supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or face the consequences.
In recent days, the authorities have made gestures towards the opposition, including releasing about 140 protesters and promising to free more of the some 250 still behind bars.
But twenty "rioters" are to go on trial from Saturday on charges including attacks on government and military offices and contact with "enemies" including exiled opposition group the People's Mujahedeen.