SULIMANIYAH, Iraq — When Mahsa Amini was detained in the Iranian capital for wearing her veil too loose, her family sprang into action, calling relatives, friends, contacts — anyone who could help.
One of her cousins, Irfan Mortezai, living in neighboring Iraq, got the message from her distraught brother.
“She’s been arrested by the morality police,” the brother wrote to him from the family’s hometown of Saqqez in mainly Kurdish western Iran.
Mortezai hadn’t seen his cousin, who he refers to as Zhina, her Kurdish name, in years. Not since he fled his home country in 2020 to join Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in Iraq’s northern Sulaymaniyah province. But he knew how important it was to try and reach her — he had been arrested in Iran and was in prison there two years before leaving the country.
He joined other family members in calling relatives and friends in Tehran in efforts to try and find a way to see her in custody during those fateful hours.
“We tried by every means to reach her but the Iranian authorities did not let us,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I couldn’t reach her.”
A few days later, on Sept. 16, word came that the 22-year-old Amini was dead.
What happened next stunned Mortezai and the rest of the family: Her death sparked large-scale protests across Iran that have captured the world attention.
Women protesters in Iran and across the world would make a show of taking off their headscarves and cutting their hair in solidarity with Amini.
Mortezai said the family is lying low amid the protests, wary of Iranian security agents, but that they are proud Amini has become “a symbol for standing up against injustice and oppression.”
The family has said a witness told them that Amini was beaten while in custody and has blamed authorities for her death. Police said she had a heart attack and fell on the floor of the station and died after being in a coma for two days.
Iranian state TV has suggested that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed in the ensuing unrest. An AP count of official statements by authorities tallied at least 13 dead, with more than 1,400 demonstrators arrested.
Mortezai said he was shocked when the message came to him that his cousin was dead. “I was full of anger, I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted revenge.”
The 34-year-old Mortezai is a member of Komala, one of several Kurdish opposition parties based in Sulimaniyah.
While his branch of the family is linked to opposition groups, Amini’s side is not, he said.
“She was not political, her father is a normal government employee, and her mother is a housewife, they stayed away from (political) parties,” he said.
The last time he saw Mahsa was at a family gathering at his aunt’s home in the city of Saqqez, before his departure from Iran. They spoke on the phone not long after that. More recently, he had heard from her family that she had been accepted to a university to study law.
“She was beautiful, always smiling,” he said. “Full of life.”