In the afternoon, as the hour for the protests grew closer, many offices in the Iranian capital began shutting down or running with a bare-bones staff. Workers began leaving to assemble at protest sites, traveling by way of the clogged subway, by cab or on foot. “I’m not scared,” said a banker as he headed for the sprawling Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where many opposition “martyrs,” including the iconic Neda Agha-Soltan, have been buried. He says the planned memorial service was especially poignant for him because he saw a protester shot at Azadi Square on June 20, the same day Agha-Soltan was killed a few kilometers away on Kargar Street.
The opposition scheduled protests on July 30 to mark the 40-day anniversary a religiously significant date in the Islamic mourning cycle of the death of 26-year-old Agha-Soltan, whose last moments were captured on video, which circulated around the world. The regime has been deeply concerned about the commemoration of her death. Similar 40-day anniversaries in 1979 fueled the unrest that led to the ouster of the Shah and onset of the Islamic revolution.
On Wednesday, the Tehran commander of the élite Revolutionary Guards threatened serious consequences for would-be protesters who planned to march in the streets. “We are not joking,” he declared to the semi-official Fars news agency. “We will confront those who want to fight against the clerical establishment.” The same day, Press TV, a state-sponsored broadcast station, reported that “an underground network providing foreign media outlets with photos and footage of the post-election unrest has been identified and arrested in Iran.” Despite such threats and the existence of undercover Basij within the crowds, witnesses said that protesters were defiantly snapping videos and pictures with cell-phone cameras during Thursday’s demonstrations.
The original plans for the memorial ceremony had been abruptly changed by opposition organizers on Wednesday night, switching from the massive Imam Khomeini Mossala grounds to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery some 20 kilometers south of the city center, close to the international airport and Ayatullah Khomeini’s tomb complex. Agha-Soltan’s mother, who was originally slated to attend the ceremony, did not go. “For reasons I can’t say, I cannot attend the ceremony of my own daughter,” she told ABC News.
Even without Agha-Soltan’s mother, the cemetery gathering was an emotional one. Many remarked on the large number of new denizens of Behesht-e Zahra. One 27-year-old student who had buried his father just last month said he saw dozens of graves in the cemetary’s newest sector presumably, he said, of young protesters killed in the violence following the disputed June 12 presidential election. “There were green ribbons hanging by many of the graves,” he said, in reference to the color used by the opposition movement. “Some were just days old.”
By the time opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi arrived at the cemetery on Thursday afternoon, thousands of protesters were there, swarming around and chanting, “We support you.” Another presidential candidate turned opposition head, Mehdi Karroubi, planned to join Mousavi, but it was not immediately clear whether he was in attendance. The crowd began chanting, “Neda is not dead; the regime is dead,” and “Death to the dictators!” One witness said rocks were thrown by protesters as they defied orders by the security forces to disperse. Several were arrested, including the political activists Saeed Shariati and Shayesteh Amiri and filmmaker Jafar Panahi, according to news reports and opposition websites, although this could not be independently confirmed. Meanwhile, Basij agents were seen videotaping the crowds. Many feared the recordings would be used to identify and arrest protesters.
By 4 p.m., security officers in riot gear forced Mousavi to leave before he could begin the prayer service at Agha-Soltan’s grave. The Basij and Revolutionary Guards then shot off tear gas and began beating protesters with batons, witnesses said. The cemetery grounds were sealed off shortly thereafter.
The crowds dispersed throughout central Tehran. By 6 p.m., hundreds were gathered at main squares including Vali Asr, Vanak and Haft e-Tir, and the streets surrounding the Mossala grounds complex, where a Karroubi adviser said the opposition planned to hold a candlelight vigil. There the protesters confronted hundreds of Revolutionary Guards, who had sealed off the north side of the complex. Meanwhile, the capital’s Haqqani expressway was jammed with cars a strategy used by the protesters in recent weeks to stop the motorcycle Basij gangs. Many
vehicles were honking their horns, their passengers waving the peace sign out the window.
The Basij did not hesitate to go after the protest cars. The back window of one black sedan had been completely smashed in; other cars were abandoned after similar attacks. A group of Basij were seen trying to bash in the window of one car, but the gang retreated because there were too many other cars around. One of the Basij, however, reappeared later holding a license plate in his hand, almost certainly to help identify the owner of the offending car.
Download the new TIME BlackBerry app at app.time.com.