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Family frantically searched for Iranian woman after arrest

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SULIMANIYAH, Iraq — When Mahsa Amini was arrested 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 his cousins, Irfan Mortezai, who lives in neighboring Iraq, received the message from his distraught brother.

“She has been arrested by the morality police,” the brother wrote from the family’s hometown of Saqqez, in the mainly Kurdish west of Iran.

Mortezai had not seen his cousin, whom he refers to as Zhina, her Kurdish name, in years. Not since he fled his home country in 2020 to join Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in Sulaymaniyah province in northern Iraq. But he knew how important it was to try to reach her: he had been arrested in Iran and he had been in prison there for two years before leaving the country.

He joined other family members in calling relatives and friends in Tehran in an effort to find a way to see her in custody during those fateful hours.

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“We tried by all means to reach her, but the Iranian authorities did not allow us to do so,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I couldn’t reach her.”

A few days later, on September 16, the news came that Amini, 22, was dead.

What happened next shocked Mortezai and the rest of the family: His death sparked large-scale protests across Iran that captured global attention.

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Women protesters in Iran and around the world would make a show of removing their headscarves and cutting their hair in solidarity with Amini.

Mortezai said the family is going unnoticed amid the protests, wary of Iranian security officials, but proud that Amini has become “a symbol of the fight against injustice and oppression.”

The family has said a witness told them Amini was beaten while in custody and blamed authorities for her death. Police said she had a heart attack and fell to the floor of the station and died after being in a coma for two days.

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Iranian state television has suggested that at least 41 protesters and policemen have been killed in the subsequent riots. An AP tally of official statements by authorities put at least 13 dead and more than 1,400 protesters arrested.

Mortezai said he was surprised when he got the message that his cousin was dead. “He was full of anger, he didn’t know what to do, he just wanted revenge.”

Mortezai, 34, is a member of Komala, one of several Kurdish opposition parties based in Sulimaniyah.

While his extended family is linked to opposition groups, Amini’s side is not, he said.

“She was not a politician, her father is a normal government employee 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 house in the city of Saqqez, before his departure from Iran. They spoke on the phone not long after that. More recently, her family had told him that she had been accepted to a university to study law.

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“She was beautiful, always smiling,” he said. “Full of life.”

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