By Golnaz Esfandiari
An Iranian student detained in the capital of Iran's Kurdistan Province has died in prison under circumstances described by his family and human rights activists as "suspicious," Radio Farda reported.
On January 15, nine days after Ebrahim Lotfollahi was detained in front of Payame Nur University in the provincial capital, Sanandaj, officials told his family that he had committed suicide while in prison and died of "suffocation."
It is unclear why Lotfollahi was detained in the first place.
Witnesses say he had just finished taking an exam when security officials took him away. Officials were reported as saying they wanted to give him some "explanations," but no more details were offered.
His family says the aspiring lawyer had no reason to take his own life. Ebrahim, they say, was full of "hope in life" -- an avid reader who served part-time as a social worker.
His brother, Ismail, told Radio Farda that Ebrahim was "well" when he last saw him, two days after his arrest. "He said he would be released," Ismail said. "He said he needed a few razors and some other things."
Officials said Lotfollahi has already been buried at the city's Beheshte Mohammadi Cemetery.
But Ismail Lotfollahi says family members, who were not allowed to see the body, are calling for an autopsy. "Nobody has seen the body, [but] they said he's there," Ismail said. "A few days after they buried him there, they covered the grave with concrete."
"We don't know what to do. We haven't seen his body; we don't know whether he was suffocated," he said. "They had taken him there and done everything -- we were informed about nothing."
Saman Rasulpour, a Sanandaj-based journalist and member of the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan, said Lotfollahi's death and the conditions surrounding it are unprecedented in the region.
But he added that this case appears similar to that of another student: Zahra Bani Yaghoub, a 27-year-old who died in prison in the western city of Hamedan in October shortly she was detained by the morality police while out for a stroll with her boyfriend.
In Yaghoub's case, officials also said that she committed suicide, but her family accused the police of murdering her. They said her body was bruised and that there was blood in her ears.
Bani Yaghub's family and human rights advocates including Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi have also called for an autopsy in her case. But some observers say there is little chance officials will grant it. Lotfollahi's family has insisted, however, that they will pursue the case and push for an autopsy. They say officials are responsible for the student's death in prison.
The news of Lotfollahi's death was made public only on January 17, but Rasulpour said it has already led to concern among rights advocates and civil society activists in the region.
Rasulpour told Radio Farda that his organization is supporting Lotfollahi's family in its pursuit of the truth. "We will first try to find a lawyer for this family, which is a very innocent and poor family, to pursue the case through legal channels," Rasulpour said. "This is a suspicious death for us human rights activists, and security forces were responsible for his life and they have to give answers."
The deaths in prison of Lotfollahi and Bani Yaghoub bear similarities to the 2003 unsolved death in prison of Iranian-Canadian photographer Zahra Kazemi. Kazemi had been arrested for taking pictures of families of political prisoners in front of Tehran's notorious Evin prison. A few days later, Kazemi died of a brain hemorrhage after being transferred to a hospital.
Officials first said she had died of a stroke before later saying her head had hit a hard object and led to her death. Reports suggested she had been beaten in prison and received head injuries during interrogations.
Some five years after her death, no one has been held responsible and her case was recently sent to an appeal court for further review, although her family has said it has little confidence that Iranian justice will punish those responsible.