CAIRO – Several dozen families camp outside Iran's daunting Evin prison, trying to learn the fate of loved ones who vanished in post-election turmoil. A month into the government crackdown, the number of killed and arrested remains unknown, but human rights groups believe the death toll is far higher than the official figure of 20.
Many of at least 500 known to have been arrested have disappeared in prisons, held in secret locations and barred from contact with families. Rights groups say perhaps dozens of others have not been heard of since the protests and their relatives still cannot determine whether they are now locked in a cell or dead.
Over the weekend, about 50 men and women held vigil in Tehran before the gates of Evin, the main prison for political detainees, waiting for news on whether their relatives are inside, a witness told The Associated Press. Some of the women read aloud softly from the Koran, others chanted "God is great" from time to time. But mostly they stood silent, the witness said.
"They will call you soon. Go home and wait for the phone to ring," a police officer told them. But the families remained in place. The witness spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution from authorities, and government restrictions imposed on the media barred photographing the gathering.
The crackdown on the gigantic rallies that broke out after Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election was chaotic. Not only regular police, but also plainclothes Basiji militiamen linked to the elite Republican Guards were involved in beating or firing on protesters, dragging some away in covered trucks to unknown locations.
The protests were sparked when opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi claimed he was the victor and that official results showing a victory for hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were fraudulent.
At the same time, security forces launched a sweep that continues weeks later against pro-reform politicians, lawyers, journalists, women's rights and other activists. Many were arrested from their homes or offices and the roundup effectively stripped away a senior level of the reform movement's political leadership.
It took 26 days for the family of Sohrab Aarabi to learn his fate after the 19-year-old disappeared during a June 15 protest. After weeks of asking at courts and prisons for him, his family was told Saturday that he had been shot in the chest during the protest and died, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported.
Aarabi was buried Monday in the vast Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran.
But confirmation of his death only raised more questions. His body did not appear before the coroner until June 19, and it was not known if he died immediately of his wounds, was hospitalized or was detained at any point, the group said, citing the family.
Hadi Ghaemi, spokesman for the rights group, said there could be "dozens or even hundreds" of missing people like Aarabi, based on accounts from inside Iran that his group is investigating.
"They are people who simply went off the radar screen. They could be in detention, because the government has not released a list of detainees. There's no confirmation if they are in prison or dead. Their families are searching everywhere and not getting answers."
Iranian police said 20 protesters were killed in Tehran during the crackdown. The country's general prosecutor said last week that 2,500 people were arrested around the country, and that of those 500 remain in prison. He promised the 500 would be brought into the judicial system soon — meaning they would be removed from secret locations and either put on trial or processed for release.
The government has produced no list of dead or arrested. Independent efforts to track the numbers are made even harder by families' fears of talking about their killed or detained loved ones. Opposition Web sites report that families of slain protesters are given their loved ones' bodies for burial only after promising that the funerals will be discreet and will not feature political chants.
"Many people believe that countrywide the death toll is 100 or more. The trend coming to us is that it could be several times what the government has admitted," Ghaemi said. His organization is working on compiling a list of the dead from sources in Iran.
Another group, the International Committee Against Executions, has compiled a list of the names of 61 killed, with details of how and where they died and where they were buried.
For 25 of them, the list gave the number of the section where they are buried in Behesht-e-Zahra. Also on the list were protesters killed in other cities, including Kermanshah, Shiraz and Isfahan, which would not be included in the figure given by the Tehran police.
About a third of the names were confirmed by family members as dead, the rest by friends or activists on the ground, said Farshad Hoseini, the group's Netherlands-based director. The list could not be independently confirmed.
Among those on the list are Aarabi and Neda Agha Soltan, a 27-year-old woman whose dying moments after she was shot during a protest were captured on video, turning her into an icon for the movement. The list also includes three women and four men killed when Basijis stormed a Tehran University dormitory on June 14, as well as Kianoosh Asa, a chemistry student it said was abducted from another dorm and found dead in a morgue 10 days later.
Meanwhile, relatives of many of those known to be imprisoned have been unable to find their loved ones, much less communicate with them. There are widespread fears that detainees held in special Revolutionary Guards facilities or other secret locations are being tortured or abused.
Mehdi Saharkhiz, who lives in the United States, said his family and friends in Tehran have been searching for his father — Isa Saharkhiz, a prominent journalist and a media adviser to defeated reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi — since he was arrested on July 3.
"Absolutely nothing. We don't know where he's kept," the younger Saharkhiz, a 27-year-old graphic designer in Wayne, New Jersey, told AP.
Mehdi had been heading on a vacation on July 2, but before he left he called his father in Iran to check in on him. Isa Saharkhiz had been in hiding since security forces searched his Tehran home early on in the turmoil.
"He told me to go ahead, everything seemed to be calm. So we left [on vacation]. As soon as we landed, I got e-mails from friends telling me to call home. When I did they told me he'd been taken," Mehdi said.
The detainees include prominent figures from the 1997-2005 reform government, including former vide president Mohammad Ali Abtahi and numerous former cabinet officials. Also still in custody are Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who has Iranian and Canadian citizenship, and Iranian-American Kian Tajbakhsh. In one of the most recent arrests, prominent human rights lawyer Shamsoldeen Issaei was detained by men in plainclothes over the weekend from his Tehran office, his wife has told pro-opposition newspapers.
Dozens of relatives of detainees gathered Tuesday in office of a human rights group in Tehran to exchange news. The wives of two of the most prominent detained pro-reform politicians, Mohsen Mirdamadi and Mostafa Tajzadeh, said they like many others had been unable to get any information about their loved ones' whereabouts.
"No official responded to us over the fate of detainees, this is a sign of lawlessness in the country," said Mirdamadi's wife, Zahra Mojarradi. "We went to the prosecutor general, but they said the case is not in their hands. It is said arrests were done by the Revolutionary Guards."