The family of Mahsa Amini – the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose death in police custody three weeks ago sparked protests across Iran – say they have received death threats and have been warned not to get involved in the demonstrations.
Mahsa became a symbol of Iranian repression after her arrest by the morality police, who accused her of wearing her hijab improperly. Her face, and her story, are now known around the world.
“Our family have been under immense pressure from the Islamic Republic’s officials, so we don’t talk to human rights organisations or channels outside of Iran and inform anyone from the outside world about her passing,” her cousin Erfan Mortezai tells me when we meet across the border in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.
Erfan is a Peshmerga fighter for Komala, an exiled Iranian Kurdish opposition party based in Iraq. For years, since long before Mahsa’s death, he has been trying to bring down the Islamic Republic. The Iranian government have blamed the latest unrest on such outside influences.
As we talk in the shadow of the mountains, he uses her Kurdish given name – Zhina – the one her friends and family called her every day. Mahsa is her official Iranian name, which her parents were forced to use on documentation because certain Kurdish names are banned in Iran.
“Zhina was a normal person, she was not political,” Erfan insists. “The regime have been making up scenarios and disinformation – saying that Zhina was in contact with me and I taught her and sent her back to Iran to do a certain activity, when in fact this is completely baseless.”
He says the threats that his family members have received have made them question their safety.
“They are under Islamic Republic torture,” he tells me. “The regime’s officials have threatened us through Instagram with fake accounts, and told the family members in Iran that if they get involved in the protests, they might be killed.”
“Myself, I have been receiving many threats over the phone, [saying] that if they see me in the city, they will kidnap me and kill me.”
Erfan shared previously unseen videos with me and they reveal a heartbreaking contrast.
The first is of Mahsa dancing at a wedding, waving colourful shawls and glancing shyly up at the camera.
The second shows her family gathered at a cemetery, marking what should have been her 23rd birthday. A cake decorated with her face has been carefully placed on her grave. There is angry shouting and many tears.
I travelled to the mountainous border between Iran and Iraq, where dust blows across the steep roads and farmers riding donkeys herd their cattle. Here is one of the few places you can hear stories first-hand from Iranians.
I meet a family who have come from Sanandaj, in the west of Iran, loaded into a minibus. They say they have left for just a short time to visit family.
Most importantly, they are terrified to talk publicly. While they are eager to speak and share messages to pass on to the outside world, they know that to appear on camera or to reveal their names puts them at serious risk.
“We’d be killed by Iranian intelligence,” they tell me. But they’re desperate for change. They talk of corruption and repression, of many more issues than just the hijab. It is more a whole system that breaks their spirits, they explain. Iran is a country they love, but fear living in.
There have been demonstrations in Iran before, but the regime has always stood firm. That is why it is so hard to predict what will happen next.
As the latest protests reach new cities, Mahsa’s cousin Erfan believes the momentum could have a lasting effect.
“We shouldn’t forget the people of Iran have been in resistance and protest against the regime for many years, but the people now are revolutionaries,” he says.
“They are women, workers, teachers, sportspeople, artists, taking to the streets and mixing their voices of dissent with that of Zhina’s family. In my opinion, these protests will continue and it will end with the fall of the Islamic Republic.”