Nika Shahkarami has become one of the most known faces in Iran after she went missing on September 20 after attending protests in Tehran. Iranian authorities claimed she fell from a building later that night in an incident unconnected to the protests. But by analyzing over 50 videos obtained by CNN and speaking to six eyewitnesses, CNN has exclusive evidence that Nika was chased and then detained by police just a few hours before she went missing. CNN’S Katie Polglase reports.
A black-clad Iranian girl stands on top of an overturned garbage bin, waving her headscarf as it is engulfed by flames, amid chants of “death to the dictator.”
A moment later, video shows, she crouches to collect another scarf, from a friend, which she will also set on fire in front of the protesters.
The girl was 16-year-old Nika Shahkarami, from Tehran. A few hours after these scenes were recorded on September 20, in videos exclusively obtained and verified by CNN, Nika went missing. And more than one week later, her family learned that she was dead.
Iranian authorities claimed Nika’s body was found at the back of a courtyard on the morning of September 21. Her mother wasn’t given access to identify her until 8 days later. CCTV footage released by the authorities timestamped just after midnight as September 20 became September 21 showed the figure of a masked person they said was Nika entering a building that was uninhabited, and still under construction in Tehran.
A Tehran prosecutor initially said she died after being thrown from the building’s roof, and that her death “had no connection to the protests” of that day, but despite apparently declaring her death a homicide, he did not say whether there were suspects under investigation. State broadcasters reported that she “fell,” but did not provide evidence to support the claim it was an accident.
On Wednesday, after CNN asked the government to comment on the evidence in this investigation, an Iranian media report quoted a Tehran prosecutor as saying that Nika’s death was a suicide. Iranian authorities still have not responded to CNN’s repeated inquiries about Nika’s death.
Authorities never explained why Nika would enter that building on her own, and Nika’s mother has said she doesn’t believe the masked person is Nika. Her mother has said she believes Nika was killed by the authorities, but the authorities have never said whether Nika was in their custody at any point
But dozens of videos and eyewitness accounts obtained exclusively by CNN indicate that Nika appears to have been chased and detained by Iranian security forces that night. One key eyewitness, Ladan, told CNN she saw Nika being taken into custody at the protest by “several large-bodied plainclothes security officers” who bundled her into a car.
Moments earlier, this witness, while stuck in Tehran traffic, filmed a video that purportedly shows Shahkarami ducking behind a white car and yelling “tekoon nakhor, tekoon nakhor” — which means “don’t move, don’t move” — to its driver before running away from the brief shelter it gave her.
Seven people who knew Nika and spoke to CNN confirmed it was her. The same footage, filmed at 8.37 p.m. on September 20, also shows anti-riot police on motorcycles, patrolling the area.
“I wanted to save her, but I couldn’t,” said Ladan. “There were about 20 or 30 Basijis on motorcycles on the sidewalk,” she said, using the local name for the paramilitary organization that has been at the forefront of the state’s crackdown on protesters.
“Shahkarami was throwing rocks at them. I was scared and I even went past her and said, ‘Be careful dear!’ because there were a number of plainclothes police in the streets going through the cars looking for her.
“Fifty meters ahead they got her,” Ladan added.
Ladan came forward to CNN after realising that the teenager she had filmed and spoken to was the one whose death had been reported days later. CNN exclusively spoke to several witnesses who were at the Tehran protest on September 20 with the help of activist group 1500Tasvir.
Other videos, including the scarf-burning ones, are evidence that Nika was at the forefront of the protests earlier in the night, before the crackdown started — fearlessly leading chants and throwing rocks, according to several testimonies.
That would have made her a target for security forces, including members of Iran’s feared Basij militia, as they started to descend into the area around the University of Tehran and Keshavarz Boulevard where most of the protesters gathered that evening, witnesses said.
“I remember how brave she was because she would go up on the garbage bin and wouldn’t come down. She also burned her head scarf,” said Najmeh, a protester who was with Nika at the demonstration.
Police Is Firing Tear Gas And Pellet Shots.
Students had gathered near Laleh Park around 5 to 6 p.m. on September 20 to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died last month in state custody after being detained by the country’s morality police, allegedly for how she was dressed.
The scene was one that has become familiar in Tehran in recent weeks: young people, mostly women, chanting “death to the dictator,” burning headscarves and throwing rocks toward security forces.
At one point, a trash bin was brought over and overturned to block the road. Nika hopped on top along with a couple of others, video footage showed.
“She burned her head scarf and waved it. I told her not to wave it because you could burn yourself, just hold it until it burns,” said Nima, who was also at the protest and saw the events unfold. “Then she took the headscarves of the two friends who were with her and burned those as well.”
Conflicting In Accounts.
While Iranian authorities insist Nika died on the grounds of that uninhabited building, her mother Nasrin told Etemad, an independent Iranian newspaper, in an interview published on October 10 that she believes her daughter “was at the protests and killed there.”
Iranian security forces arrested eight people who were workers in the building which Nika allegedly entered a few hours after eyewitnesses saw her at the September 20 protests, state-aligned news agency Tasnim reported on October 4. Tehran’s prosecutor Ali Salehi said a judicial criminal case had been launched and expressed his condolences to Nika’s family, state run IRNA said.
Mohammad Shahriari, the head of criminal prosecution of Tehran province, initially said Nika’s injuries corresponded with having been “thrown down,” citing an autopsy that revealed multiple fractures in the area of the pelvis, head, upper and lower limbs, hands, feet and hip, Tasnim reported.
Atash and Nika’s uncle, Mohsen, have been subsequently arrested by Iranian safety forces and compelled to make a false assertion, according to BBC Persian, citing a supply shut to the household. Following the BBC’s reporting, when reached by CNN, Atash requested not to be contacted once more, citing security issues.
While the household searches for solutions, the individuals who have been with Nika on that day are additionally nonetheless reeling from her loss of life.
“The situation was very scary, and everyone thought of escaping,” Dina stated. “I can’t forgive myself for Nika’s death. She was a child.”