SULIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) – When Mahsa Amini was detained in the Iranian capital for wearing her veil too loosely, her family sprang into action, calling relatives, friends, contacts – anyone who could help.
One of her cousins, Irfan Mortezai, who lives in neighboring Iraq, got the message from his distraught brother.
“She has been arrested by the morality police,” the brother wrote to him from the family’s hometown of Saqqez in mainly Kurdish western Iran.
Mortezai had not seen his cousin, whom he refers to as Zhina, her Kurdish name, for years. Not since he fled his homeland in 2020 to join Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in Iraq’s northern Sulaymaniyah province. But he knew how important it was to try to reach her – he had been arrested in Iran and spent two years in prison there before leaving the country.
He, along with other family members, called relatives and friends in Tehran trying to find a way to see her in custody during those fateful hours.
“We tried in every way to reach her, but the Iranian authorities did not allow us,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I couldn’t reach her.”
A few days later, on September 16, the news came that the 22-year-old Amini had died.
What happened next stunned Mortezai and the rest of the family: Her death sparked major protests across Iran that have captured the world’s attention.
Female protesters in Iran and around the world would turn out to take off their headscarves and cut their hair in solidarity with Amini.
Mortezai said the family is lying low amid the protests, wary of Iranian security agents, but that they are proud Amini has become “a symbol of standing up against injustice and oppression.”
The family has said a witness told them Amini was beaten while in custody and has blamed authorities for her death. Police said she suffered a heart attack and fell to the floor of the station, dying after being in a coma for two days.
Iranian state television has suggested that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed in the ensuing unrest. An AP tally of official statements from authorities counted at least 13 dead, with more than 1,400 protesters arrested.
Mortezai said he was shocked when word reached him that his cousin had died. “I was full of anger, I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted revenge.”
The 34-year-old Mortezai is a member of Komala, one of several Kurdish opposition parties based in Sulimaniyah.
While his branch of the family is linked to opposition groups, Amini’s side is not, he said.
“She was not political, her father is a normal civil servant and her mother is a housewife, they stayed away from (political) parties,” he said.
The last time he saw Mahsa was at a family gathering at his aunt’s home in the town of Saqqez before he left Iran. They spoke on the phone not long after that. Recently he had heard from her family that she had been admitted to a university to study law.
“She was beautiful, always smiling,” he said. “Full of life.”