Neda Agha-Soltan’s death at the hands of an Iranian Basiji militiaman during anti-government protests in Tehran last June was watched by millions on the Internet, and came to symbolize an oppressed nation’s struggle for liberty. Excruciating to watch, the beautiful young woman’s final moments, as she looks wide-eyed into a cellphone camera before blood pours from her mouth and she loses consciousness, starkly exposed the Iranian regime’s willingness to use force against its own citizens who were unwilling to accept a seemingly rigged presidential election. Soon her name and face were held aloft on banners in Tehran and around the world.
A college at the University of Oxford named a scholarship after her. An Iranian factory reportedly tried to mass-produce statuettes of her likeness and was shut down.
For Caspian Makan, however, Neda’s death was infinitely more painful and intimate. It broke his heart.
“We completed each other,” he says in an interview with Maclean’s in Toronto, where he now lives. “There was a strange force that brought us together and made us so close in such a short time.” Caspian was Neda’s fiancé. They had met on vacation in Turkey only two months before last year’s election and planned to marry. Neither voted. The candidates were insiders approved by Iran’s religious leadership, and Neda and Caspian dismissed the election as illegitimate. But a movement grew around reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and exploded into mass demonstrations after the election, when victory for incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced before the polls had closed. Riot police surrounded the Interior Ministry, and Basij swarmed into the streets, beating women with clubs. Neda joined the protesters.
“I tried to stop her. I asked her not to go,” Caspian says. “The reason is simple. I loved her, and I knew that the regime rapes and tortures and kills. I didn’t want her to face that.” Caspian argued with Neda. He said the demonstrators were demanding their votes be counted, but she hadn’t cast a ballot. Neda said the protest movement was growing and would soon target the Islamic Republic itself. “She wanted freedom, the overthrow of the regime,” says Caspian. “She said that all of us are responsible, that every person can make a difference.”
Caspian joined the demonstrations too, but secretly, without Neda’s knowledge. He is a photographer and wanted to document what was taking place and send footage to foreign media. He knew admitting he was putting himself in danger would make it harder to ask Neda to stay home. And so the two lovers attended the same protests, but lost to each other in the crowds.
On June 19, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued an ultimatum to the opposition: end the protests, or you will be responsible for the consequences. It was understood in Iran as Khamenei’s personal approval for the violence that followed.
Neda was one of at least 18 people murdered the next day. Most were shot. At least one was beaten to death. Another died in prison. Neda was on the outskirts of a demonstration in the company of her music teacher and family friend, Hamid Panahi, when a bullet struck her chest and knocked her backward onto the street. Panahi and Arash Hejazi, a doctor who happened to be nearby, kneeled over her. Hejazi tried to hold Neda’s blood in her body. It flowed through his hands.
“Neda, don’t be afraid. Neda, stay with me.” Panahi said.
“I’m burning. I’m burning,” she responded, and died.
The surrounding crowd seized a man on a motorbike. They stripped and beat him. He shouted, “I didn’t want to kill her.” An identity card taken from his wallet identified the man as Abbas Kargar Javid, a Basij member given a three-day licence by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to operate in Tehran. Someone took a video and photos. The crowd let him go.
Caspian didn’t yet know Neda was dead. He spent all that night looking at photographs he had taken of the demonstrations. He had a sick feeling in his stomach that he couldn’t explain. Early the next day he got a call from Neda’s cellphone. It was her sister, Hoda. “Neda’s gone,” she said.
“For a while I was just screaming uncontrollably. I don’t know how I got to their house,” says Caspian. “It’s been a year since that day. And each moment is like the moment before. Until the day I die, this event will be fresh for me, as if it just happened.”
Neda’s death changed Caspian. “It caused me to fight openly,” he says. He gave interviews to state media in which he condemned Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. He questioned the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. He spoke to foreign media, and said the same. In an effort to protect him, some foreign journalists chose not to print or broadcast his harshest statements.
It didn’t make a difference. Caspian was arrested and spent 65 days in the notorious Evin Prison, where Canadian Zahra Kazemi was murdered seven years ago. He was one of thousands of political prisoners in Iran by then. Many—men and women—would be raped and tortured. At least six died in detention. More than 100 people were murdered in the aftermath of the election, some shot while demonstrating, others when security forces and Basij thugs attacked their university dormitories with batons, guns, and boot heels.
Caspian was released on bail. A show trial was almost certainly in the works, but Caspian didn’t wait for it. Smugglers guided him across the mountains to Turkey. In Ankara, Canadian diplomats accepted his refugee application and brought him to Canada. He’s grateful for this.
“I wanted to be in a country where there is freedom of speech and freedom of thought,” he says.
Caspian and Neda had planned to come here last September to exhibit some of his photographs. Instead, he’s focusing on political activism. Caspian thinks the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed but must be overthrown. He advocates tough sanctions, travel bans on regime officials, and Iran’s isolation in international organizations. He says the Iranian regime’s control of information should be targeted so Iranians can access accurate news about their country and the rest of the world. Dictatorship, he says, thrives on ignorance and wilts the more it is exposed.
Caspian relates all this quietly, speaking in even tones and clasping his hands together in his lap, just below the base of his dark tie. He tears up slightly when showing a reporter newly released video footage of Neda’s final moments. His voice drops when he describes learning of her death. He smiles once, when asked if he believes the Islamic Republic will fall. “I have no doubt,” he says.
The Iranian government has done everything possible to weaken Neda as a symbol of popular resistance.
At her funeral, Neda’s music teacher, Hamid Panahi, was defiant. “They know me,” he said. “They know where I am. They can come and get me whenever they want. My time has gone. We have to think about the young people. When they kill an innocent child, that is not justice. That is not religion. In no way is this acceptable.” The government did come for him. He was arrested, interrogated, and then brought back to the scene of Neda’s death, accompanied by state television. He said there were no government security forces or Basij militia nearby when Neda was shot.
Arash Hejazi, the doctor who tried to save Neda and the second key witness to her death, decided he couldn’t stay silent. He flew to London, where he could speak the truth freely to the BBC and other media. There is a moment in every life when a person’s integrity is tested, he later explained. This was his moment. Hejazi is still in exile. He has received death threats. The Iranian government, through its embassy in Britain, suggests he was involved in the “pre-made scenario” of Neda’s murder.
Neda’s mother, Hajar Rostami Motlagh, was offered money from Iran’s Martyr Foundation if she would say opponents of the Islamic Republic murdered her daughter. She turned it down. “Neda died for her country, not so I could receive a monthly pension,” she told Voice of America’s Persian language service.
Caspian, during his darkest days in Evin Prison, after suffering solitary confinement, beatings, psychological torture, and the threat of execution, was told to admit publicly that the People’s Mujahideen, an Iranian opposition group, killed Neda. He refused. “If I had done something like that, I would not have been worthy of Neda,” he says. “I started on a path, and I knew what I was doing was right. I had to continue on that path, even if the end of that path was death. The most important responsibility I have is to continue on Neda’s path. Her path is liberty and striving for human rights. That path is not just for Iranian people, but for all freedom-loving people.”
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, three days after the election, stood on a balcony, clasped his hands together above his head, and blew a kiss to his supporters below. He dismissed those who filled the streets to oppose him and the Islamic Republic as “so much dust and dirt brushed aside.” Then, as now, he underestimated the latent glory of Iran, the courage and resolve of those who will one day free their country.