Hundreds May Have Died in Iranian Clashes After Poll, Say Human Rights Campaigners

Woman claims to have seen piles of corpses, as tension rises in Tehran over Rafsanjani speech

Hundreds more people may have died in Iran's post-election unrest than the authorities have admitted, amid allegations that the death toll has been obscured by hiding victims' bodies in secret morgues.

Human rights campaigners say anecdotal evidence suggests the number of demonstrators killed in clashes with government forces after last month's poll was far higher than the official death toll of 20 and may amount to a "massacre".

Suspicions have been fuelled after one woman described seeing corpses piled on top of each other in a refrigeration depot while searching for a missing relative. Another woman was shown pictures of between 50 and 60 people, all said to have died, while searching for her son.

The claims came as Tehran prepares for another day of tension tomorrow when the influential former president Hashemi Rafsanjani addresses Friday prayers at Tehran University. Hardline supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who was controversially re-elected in the election on 12 June that opponents say was "stolen" - have threatened to disrupt the event, at which Rafsanjani is expected to speak in support of his ally Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated reformist candidate, who will attend the event.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran accused the government of obfuscating casualty numbers by frightening victims' families into silence. The true picture had emerged from hospital statistics and testimony from families who refused to keep quiet, it said.

"It's hard to put a figure on it because most of the families involved are scared to talk," Aaron Rhodes of the campaign told the Guardian. "But if you put together the evidence of the families that have spoken, along with eyewitness reports and data from hospitals, there could be well over a hundred fatalities."

The campaign said that on 20 June - the day after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that the demonstrations must stop - three Tehran hospitals placed a total of 34 dead demonstrators in their morgues.

The authorities put that day's fatalities at 11. Doctors have reported being stopped from signing death certificates by military commanders, who then ordered the corpses removed.

The security forces have acknowledged carrying out more than 2,000 arrests during the crackdown on the mass protests against Ahmadinejad's re-election. Some detainees have been released but many are still unaccounted for.

The Norooz website - linked to Iran's largest reformist party, the Islamic Participation Front - described how a mother searching for her missing child was sent to a facility normally used for preserving fruit and dairy produce on the outskirts of Tehran. After leafing through a photograph album of presumed victims, she was shown into a room containing what she described as "hundreds" of dead bodies. "Although I didn't find my child's body, on seeing all those corpses dumped on top of each other, I passed out," the unnamed woman said.

Mousavi showed solidarity with relatives of the dead earlier this week when he visited the home of Sohrab Aarabi, 19, whose body was recovered nearly a month after he died of gunshot wounds at a mass demonstration in Tehran on 15 June.

Aarabi's mother, Parvin Fahimi - a member of an organisation called Mothers for Peace - has described how after weeks of searching for her son she was summoned by a revolutionary court and shown pictures of between 50 and 60 people, all said to have died. The pictures included Sohrab, whom she had previously thought might be in detention.

Some families have reported being harassed into signing pledges agreeing that their loved ones died accidentally or of natural causes. Others say they have been forced to declare that the victims belonged to the Basij militia, which was used to suppress the demonstrations.

In one case, a family reported receiving their son's corpse encased in concrete to hide signs of injuries.

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