The trees are few, the swirling dust pervasive and the summer heat almost unbearable. This is Behesht-e Zahra, the country's largest and most notorious cemetery. Some 12 miles (20 km) south of the bustling capital, this is a sprawling city-within-a-city that most Iranians try to avoid visiting. The only sound here is the constant wailing from crowds of mourning women in head-to-toe chadors.
But since the disputed June 12 presidential election, its most recent plot of graves, No. 257, has become a magnet for the opposition. On July 30, thousands of people traveled here for an abortive memorial turned protest for 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death was captured on video and seen by millions around the world. Security forces ordered opposition leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to turn back and then started beating the mourners. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of opposition supporters still secretly visit Agha-Soltan's grave, despite the threat of harassment or arrest by the Basij paramilitary vigilantes.
Since the violent crackdown that followed the election, the dead have been coming here in greater numbers. In late August, a reformist news site published claims that 28 protesters and detained dissidents, their bodies still frozen in ice blocks, were buried in unmarked graves at Behesht in mid-July. On Aug. 30, Tehran officials agreed to investigate the claims, following on the heels of a parliamentary investigation into the same allegations. That same day, Mousavi visited the cemetery for a memorial to Saeida Agahpour, one of the 28 people said to have been buried here.
As one of the largest cemeteries in the world, with millions of graves, and being an hour's drive from central Tehran, the authorities may have thought this piece of desert would be the perfect place for opposition martyrs to lie in obscurity. But on an afternoon in late August, several mourners milling about Plot 257 were able to point to Agha-Soltan's grave (Row 41, No. 32), where there is recently turned earth, a puddle at one side and strewn plastic water bottles at the perimeter. First-time visitors can get word-of-mouth directions from opposition sympathizers who have taken the trip out here.
A black metal sign serves as a makeshift tombstone, sticking out of the orange soil. But unlike many nearby graves, there are scattered rose petals over Agha-Soltan's site. As a visitor took out a camera, a man perhaps an undercover security agent or merely an overzealous citizen emerged and angrily shouted, "No pictures!"
Agha-Soltan's name is on the tombstone, but not her date of death: June 20, or Bloody Saturday, a day after the Supreme Leader's Friday prayer sermon spoke of a crushing response to any further street demonstrations. Two young women, wearing nail polish and jeans under their mandatory manteaus, knelt beside the grave and openly cried, in defiance of an unspoken law not to congregate here.
The allegations of secret burials have joined accusations of confessions coerced by torture, male and female rape, and prison beatings allegations that have left the conservative ruling bloc fractured and on the defensive. Over the weekend, many hard liners, ostensibly supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, were aghast at reports that 25-year-old Mohsen Ruholamini, son of a senior aide to conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezai, was allegedly beaten to death at Kahrizak prison in South Tehran, a few kilometers away from Behesht.
According to a Tehran resident with a contact at the shuttered prison, four converted warehouses each held approximately a thousand prisoners, with individual partitions packed to the brim with men, many of whom were forced to stand up because of the lack of room; food and water were also in tight supply, according to the source. On a recent day, the road leading up to Kahrizak was closed, and there seemed to be no activity in the neighborhood, which is dotted with green fields.
The initial government response to these allegations deny and dismiss backfired once Karroubi began to produce eyewitness testimonies in the newspaper he owns. Now the regime is reversing strategy and trying to placate growing indignation among the populace and political hierarchy. Last week, Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei vowed that "no crime or atrocity will go unpunished." On Aug. 31, the semi-official Mehrs News Agency said the government admitted that Ruholamini had died in prison. The chief youth organizer of Mousavi's campaign was also released after two months in jail.
For the many young people in the opposition, no measure of reconciliation will erase the fact that dozens of protesters, many in their 20s, have ended up at Behesht. On a visit to the cemetery, a young man walking past Agha-Soltan's grave muttered a quick blessing. Another sympathetic visitor stopped to assure him, "She's a martyr. She has already been blessed by God."