Amid an outpouring of grief at a mosque in the dusty southern suburbs of Tehran on Thursday, relatives of the dead Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati added chilling detail to the moments when he was clubbed to death at the Manus Island detention centre.
Speaking after a memorial service attended by as many as 1500, most of them his fellow Iranian Kurds, Mr Barati’s 44-year-old brother-in-law Taleb Ghanbaria said that Mr Barati was not among the detainees who were protesting at the camp on the evening of February 17.
Quoting another island detainee, a cousin of Mr Barati who had telephoned him from the centre after the violence had subsided, Mr Ghanbaria said that the two men had been in the centre’s computer room when they heard a commotion.
”When Reza opened the door and put his head out to look, someone pulled him out and started hitting him on the head. His cousin watched it all – it happened in front of the open door,” he said through an interpreter.
”Then they dragged him away – unconscious. His cousin was too scared to follow, so he doesn’t know what happened after that.”
A preliminary report by PNG police found that Mr Barati died after multiple blows to the head, probably from a piece of timber. An autopsy, carried out on Monday, concluded that the blows had caused a blood clot in his brain, according to a Fairfax Media report.
Thursday’s memorial, held at the Al-Mahdi Mosque in suburban Nabard, was a traditional outlet for grief and anger – much of it directed at Australia.
Harking back to the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, Mr Ghanbaria, a bazaar trader, said: ”Saddam Hussein never treated Iranian prisoners of war the way Australia treated my brother-in-law.”
As members of the Barati family served tea and cakes to a mostly silent male congregation, the mosque was filled with the wailing of hundreds of women who were out of sight in an upstairs portion of the mosaic-tiled mosque. Some of the women sat, churning their hands in a traditional show of grief; others stood, pulling at the flesh of their faces.
Four giant floral arrangements – white gladiolus highlighted with red, pink and orange gerberas – flanked an image of the 23-year-old Mr Barati, a more gentle portrait of the dead man than the single image that predominates in Australian media reports of the controversy surrounding his death.
In both the male and female sections of the mosque, dozens of members of the wider Barati family lined up, shoulders heaving in grief, to receive condolences as mourners passed through the mosque.
The dead man’s distraught sister, Kowsar, was unable to stand during the service – and later had to be assisted as she departed in a sea of women dressed head-to-toe in billowing black.
Koranic chants reverberated from the marbled walls before a prayer leader announced that he was speaking on behalf of Mr Barati’s absent father – who was to attend a home-town memorial on Friday in Sirvan, a cluster of villages in the ruggedly beautiful mountains of Ilam province.
As many as a dozen Sirvan locals are in detention at Manus Island, family members said. One of the mourners was 23-year-old Abuozar Heydari, who volunteered last year to be repatriated to Iran after 16 days on Manus Island. He was on one of the earliest boatloads of asylum seekers placed on the island.
Switching from Farsi to the local Kurdish dialect spoken in Ilam, the prayer leader continued to speak for the father: ”I wish I can have my son back from Australia – to gather the family for happy times together. It’s difficult to be alone in a foreign country and to be treated that way.”
He then addressed the portrait of Mr Barati: ”And your sister wishes to see your wedding ceremony – but you are gone; you died in a sad way.”
The mourners fleshed out the profile of a man about whom Australians know little, save for the fact that as a client of people smugglers he wound up on Manus Island, where his death has become a flashpoint in the tortured politics of Australia’s immigration policy.
Mr Ghanbaria spoke fondly of the dead man – ”he was strong, but never aggressive, humble”. But then he insisted that Fairfax Media seek confirmation of his family bias – ”go ask the other people in jail at Manus”.
Mr Barati had graduated as an architect, but like more than 20 per cent of his countrymen, he had been unable to find work in Iran’s sanction-strapped economy, the brother-in-law said. He had set out for Australia hoping to further his architectural studies. An uncle, the father of the cousin who had witnessed Mr Barati’s death, said that his son had told him Mr Barati had volunteered to teach other detainees how to use computers.
Asking that his name not be published, he added: ”Is it fair for a well-educated refugee, an intelligent boy, to be killed? For what? He was innocent, guilty of nothing. Is it Australian human rights to treat someone this way?”
Another cousin, who also asked that his name be suppressed, compared Mr Barati’s death with that of the blogger Sattar Beheshti, whose death in Iranian detention in 2012 provoked an international outcry against Tehran.
”Human rights people around the world demanded answers from the Iranian government, but where were they when this young man died in an Australian camp?” he asked.
Several family members said they had been informed that a representative of the Australian embassy in Tehran would attend the service – but none could be seen in the crowd.
Mr Ghanbaria said that he had been informed of Mr Barati’s death in a phone call from the Australian embassy, and when he had visited the embassy staff had been sympathetic ”in a good way”. He had informed Australian diplomats and the Iranian foreign ministry that he would pursue any avenues under international law to have his family compensated for Mr Barati’s death.
”Whatever the law says is what we are entitled to,” he said. ”Is it justifiable when you get into someone’s house as a refugee and you get killed?”
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