London: Mehdi Nekouee should have been in a hospital ward, fighting for his life.
The 20-year-old law student was one of the first of hundreds of people to be shot by the Revolutionary Guard during spontaneous anti-government protests that swept across Iran last week.
But instead of lying in a hospital bed or even dead on a slab in a morgue, Mr Nekouee’s family believe he was spirited away by intelligence officers removing dead and injured protesters to hide the true scale of Iran’s brutal crackdown.
“He was critical but alive when he arrived at the hospital,” said his uncle, Ahmed. “We’ve heard nothing since.”
He first heard of his nephew’s plight on Instagram, where he was moved by messages of condolence.
“I learned it was true, he had been the first person to be shot,” he said, piecing together his nephew’s last movements in the city of Shiraz.
He had tried to call his nephew but his phone would not connect. Iran’s regime had shut down the internet.
A nurse at the hospital confirmed he had been treated before being taken away, along with a number of other patients, but she did not know where.
Amnesty International estimated that since the protests began on Nov 15 more than 100 people have died.
But with reports emerging of the secret disposal of bodies and a near-complete internet blackout, the number is feared to be far higher.
Why were Iranians protesting?
People took to the streets after Iran’s National Oil Company announced a huge rise in the price of petrol. With Iranians already feeling the squeeze of a crippled economy the protests swiftly shifted to a violent revolt against the “corrupt” regime.
At first the protesters targeted banks and petrol stations but before long they were taking aim at a more powerful target.
In Islamshahr, a city just seven miles south of the capital Tehran, posters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, were burned.
On the streets of Tehran itself, people shouted “death to Khamenei” with little fear.
But the demonstrations, which spread to more than 50 cities, have been met with live gunfire.
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, claimed on Thursday that the protests had been contained. With the internet down, it was difficult to prove otherwise.
New videos emerge after internet restored
But by Friday, the blackout had eased just enough for new videos and messages to appear online.
“The regime has declared ‘victory’ over the protesters,” Reza, 55, from the city of Tabriz in northwestern Iran, told The Sunday Telegraph via encrypted messages on Friday.
I do not know how the rulers of a country can claim to be victorious against their own people unless regarding them as their enemy. For now the regime has managed to disperse the protests by employing all its lethal forces.
“I do not know how the rulers of a country can claim to be victorious against their own people unless regarding them as their enemy.
“For now the regime has managed to disperse the protests by employing all its lethal forces,” he said.
“But the reasons for the protests have not disappeared and they will not stop.”
Iran under pressure in region
Protests have taken hold not only in Iran, but across the so-called Shia Crescent - the notionally crescent-shaped region of the Middle East where the population is predominantly Shia.
Tehran has looked on with concern as uprisings have engulfed Baghdad and cities in neighbouring Iraq, where people are rising up against corruption, unemployment and Iranian influence.
It has even been reported that Qassem Soleimani, head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, ordered Iran-backed militias in Iraq to use violence on demonstrators, resulting in 400 deaths and 15,000 injured since protests began.
He later flew to Baghdad to stop prime minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi, Iran’s man in office, being ousted.
In Lebanon, which is suffering from a severe debt crisis, demonstrations spread to Shia-dominated areas dominated by Hizbollah, the political and military group sponsored by Iran and hitherto considered untouchable.
A panicked Hezbollah has tried to put down the protests, which have called for the fall of the government, fearing such a scenario would see it lose its majority.
What is the Revolutionary Guard’s role?
The political order in all three countries is upheld by the military might of Tehran’s proxies: the Revolutionary Guard’s Basij security units in Iran, Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) in Iraq.
Protesters in Iran have been heard criticising the billions of dollars spent by Iran each year on propping up foreign militias when it can barely afford to feed its own people. “Not Gaza, not Lebanon, my life only for Iran”, they have been heard to shout.
“Oil money has been lost, it has all been spent on Palestine. They have brought up Islam, but trampled the people”.