Iranian Government Says Neda Soltan's Murder Was 'Staged'

The murder of 26-year-old protester Neda Soltan was staged, Iran's chief of police said Wednesday — a statement that rights groups and Iran watchers are calling a propagandistic lie.

Soltan became the icon of protesters in Iran following her bloody shooting June 20, which shocked the conscience of world leaders and millions more who watched videos posted online that showed her slowly bleeding to death.

Soltan's family and those with her at the time of her death said that members of the paramilitary Basij militia drove by on a motorcycle and shot her in an alley near a major protest in Tehran.

But, according to Iran's Press TV, police chief Esmaeil Ahmadi-Moqadam declared Wednesday that the shooting was a "prearranged scenario" — a "premeditated act of murder" that could not have been committed by Iranian police.

The White House called that allegation part of Iran's "ongoing campaign of misinformation" about the country's widely-disputed June 12 presidential elections, which returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to office and sent hundreds of thousands into the streets in fury over what they claim was a stolen election.

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"I think the notion that the death of an innocent woman would be staged is — even with them — it's shocking," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.

Moqadam led the investigation following an order from Ahmadinejad inquiring about the "suspicious" nature of the shooting. The Iranian president said even before the investigation that anti-government "elements" were behind the killing — presumably fingering either foreign agents or even the protesters themselves.

Iran analysts said the government's line was part of a "systematic lie" on which Iranian propaganda is based.

"They cannot deny [Soltan's killing] anymore, so they are trying to fabricate a scenario in which they are not accountable and Ahmadinejad now becomes someone who is seeking the truth," said Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The story has been completely changed upside-down," said Khalaji, who noted the 30-year-old regime's history of turning victims into violators. "The people who were oppressed — now they are accused of killing."

Soona Samsami, executive director of the Washington-based Women's Freedom Forum, said that it was part of a move to make the anti-government protesters appear illegitimate.

"Governments all around the world were shocked (by Soltan's killing), so that's why the Iranian regime in order to defuse that, in order to discredit that" invoked a foreign plot to explain the murder of an unarmed music student.

"No one anymore within Iran buys any of these stories," she said.

President Obama noted Neda's killing during a press conference three days after the shooting: "I think that when a young woman gets shot on the street when she gets out of her car, that's a problem."

Obama said that he was "appalled and outraged" by the violent government crackdown on dissent and protest. "I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

That crackdown continues to expand in Tehran and elsewhere as more than 2,000 protesters have reportedly been detained by government forces since the election. Many of those have been beaten or tortured in prison, according to reports.

Iran's opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, told supporters Wednesday "it's not yet too late" to push for their rights, and joined reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami in condemning the regime for what both said was tantamount to a coup.

Riot police fought with up to 3,000 protesters near the Ghoba Mosque in Tehran on Sunday in the latest major clash. Witnesses said that police used tear gas and clubs to break up the crowd and that some demonstrators suffered broken bones. They alleged that security forces beat an elderly woman, prompting a screaming match with young demonstrators who fought back.

Iran experts linked the Soltan investigation's findings and accusations to the broader attacks on pro-reform groups and protesters.

Soltan "became the icon of the new face of human rights advocacy in Iran," Khalaji told "Now they cannot do anything but lie."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.