A black Iranian girl stands on top of an overturned trash can, waving her headscarf as it is engulfed in flames, amid chants of “death to the dictator.”
A moment later, a video shows, she crouches down to collect another scarf, from a friend, which she will also set on fire in front of the protesters.
The girl was Nika Shahkarami, aged 16, from Tehran. A few hours after these scenes were recorded on September 20, in videos obtained and verified exclusively by CNN, Nika went missing. And more than a week later, her family learned that she had died.
Iranian authorities claimed that Nika’s body was found in the back yard on the morning of September 21. Her mother was not allowed to identify her until 8 days later. CCTV footage released by the authorities stamped just after midnight on September 20 becoming September 21 showed a masked figure they said was Nika entering a building where no one lived, and which is still being built in Tehran.
Tehran’s prosecutor initially said she died after being thrown from the roof of the building, and that her death had “no connection to protests” that day, although he apparently declared her death a homicide , did not say if there were any suspects. under investigation. State broadcasters reported that she had “fallen,” but did not provide evidence to support the claim that 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 have still not responded to CNN’s repeated inquiries about Nika’s death.
Authorities never explained why Nika would enter that building alone, and Nika’s mother has said she does not believe Nika is the masked person. Her mother has said she believes Nika was killed by the authorities, but the authorities have never said if Nika was in their custody at any time.
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 which purports to show Shahkarami ducking behind a white car and shouting “tekoon nakon, tekoon nakon” – which meaning “don’t move, don’t move” – to her driver before running away from the brief shelter he gave her.
Seven people who knew Nika and spoke to CNN confirmed it was her. The same footage, filmed at 8.37 pm on September 20, also shows anti-riot police on motorbikes, patrolling the area.
“I wanted to save her, but I couldn’t,” said Ladan. “There were about 20 or 30 Basijis on motorbikes on the pavement,” he said, using the local name for the paramilitary organization that has been at the forefront of the state’s crackdown on protesters.
“Shahcarami was throwing rocks at them. I was scared and 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 it,” added Ladan.
Ladan came forward to CNN after realizing that the young man she had filmed and spoken to was the one whose death was reported days later. CNN spoke exclusively to several witnesses who were at the Tehran protest on September 20 with the help of the 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 clashes 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 dreaded Basij militia, as they began descending on the area around Tehran University and Keshavarz Boulevard where most of the protesters gathered that night, witnesses said.
“I remember how brave she was because she would go up on the rubbish bin and she wouldn’t come down. She also burned her headscarf,” said Najmeh, a protester who was with Nika at the demonstration.
CNN is using pseudonyms for all witnesses quoted in this investigation, due to the risk to their safety.
Students had gathered near Laleh Park around 5 to 6 pm 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 allegedly being detained by the country’s morality police about 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 at security forces.
At one point, a rubbish bin was brought over and turned over to block the road. Nika jumped to the top along with a couple of others, video footage showed.
“She burned her headscarf 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 too.”
In other videos from that night geolocated and verified by CNN, Nika is shown hurling rocks at riot police. She carries a distinctive CAT rucksack and wears a black mask and hat on her head. Sounds that appear to be gunshots can be heard.
Between 7 and 8 pm, the security forces clash intensified, witnesses said. “They fired tear gas and pellet shots and grabbed protesters. Almost all of us faced them and ran away,” said Reza, another witness.
As anti-riot and Basij forces filled the streets, protesters began moving in all directions to escape the clashes.
Another witness, Dina, who spent part of the protest walking alongside Nika, told CNN she saw Nika in front of a gas station not far from Tehran University, where the group of protesters had gathered after fleeing from tear gas launched by the security forces. . Others managed to capture on video those being detained by what appeared to be plainclothes officers.
Reza added: “I saw with my own eyes security forces hitting women with batons, and they grabbed many of them and took them to police vans.”
It was in this context of the extreme repression of the protest that Nika was last seen by the witnesses who spoke to CNN – and another nine days would pass before her family had official word of her whereabouts. Videos verified and geolocated by CNN prove that the girl, in the last witness footage given to CNN showing her live, was engaged by security forces on three sides.
“I think Nika got stuck that night when we were running away. Because she was very young,” said Dina.
While Iranian authorities insist that Nika died on the grounds of that deserted building, her mother Nasrin told Etemad, an independent Iranian newspaper, in an interview published on October 10 that she believed her daughter “was in the protests and had to kill there.”
Iranian security forces arrested eight people who were workers at the building Nika allegedly entered just hours after eyewitnesses saw her at the protests on September 20, state-aligned news agency Tasnim reported on October 4. Tehran 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, head of Tehran’s state criminal prosecution, initially said Nika’s injuries were consistent with being “thrown down,” citing an autopsy that revealed multiple fractures to the pelvis area, head, upper and lower limbs, hands, feet and hip, Tasnim reported.
He added that “an investigation shows that this incident had no connection with the protests. No bullet holes were found on the body. ”
CNN has repeatedly asked for comment from Iranian authorities on whether Nika was detained at the protests that night and whether other women were attacked and put in police vehicles. CNN also asked the Tehran prosecutor’s office about the status of the criminal investigation into Nika’s death. No responses were received prior to publication of this story.
On Wednesday, the online news outlet Mizan, which is linked to the Iranian judiciary, published a report saying that Nika’s death was a suicide, citing a prosecutor from p.
However, a death certificate first seen by BBC Persian and verified by CNN states that Shahkarami died of multiple injuries caused by blows with a hard object.
In the Etemad interview, Nasrin said she had spoken by phone to Shahkarami several times on the day she disappeared. The background noise during the calls showed that she and the other protesters were fleeing from the security forces, added Nasrin. in
Nika also mentioned a few locations she was in – Enghelab Square, Keshavarz Boulevard and Valiasr street – according to Nasrin, which matches the videos geolocated by CNN.
Nasrin last spoke to her daughter just before midnight, she said, after which all her attempts to call Nika indicated that Nika’s phone had been disconnected. Nika’s Instagram and Telegram accounts were deleted, according to Nika’s aunt and several protesters who spoke to CNN.
For days, her family say they went to police stations, prisons and hospitals looking for traces of her, to no avail. Finally, on September 30, Nika’s mother and brother were asked to identify Nika’s body, he told BBC Persian. in
On October 6, in an interview with Radio Farda, Nasrin claimed that although she and other family members were looking for Nika in the days after her disappearance, one person gave her Nika’s national identification number and told her “she got the IRGC her. , they wanted to question him slowly.”
That matches what Shahkarami’s aunt, Atash, by BBC Persian shortly after she disappeared. “An unofficial source from the IRGC themselves contacted me and said, this child was in our custody a week ago, and after we finished questioning and building the case file, 1 or 2 days ago we transferred (her ) to Evin Prison,” said Atash.
Atash and Nika’s uncle, Mohsen, were subsequently arrested by Iranian security forces and forced to make a false statement, according to BBC Persian, citing a source close to the family. Following the BBC reports, when reached by CNN, Atash asked not to be contacted again, citing security concerns.
As the family searches for answers, the people who were with Nika on that day are also still reeling from her death.
“The situation was very scary, and everyone was thinking of escaping,” said Dina. “I can’t forgive myself for Nika’s death. She was a child.”