Former Toronto student killed by Iranian regime while protesting for human rights, community says

Ali Araghi, 22, was a former student at George Vanier Secondary School who dreamt of becoming a performer. Instead, vigil organizers say he was beaten to death by Iran's security forces while protesting for human rights on Nov. 16. (David Hill/CBC - image credit)
Ali Araghi, 22, was a former student at George Vanier Secondary School who dreamt of becoming a performer. Instead, vigil organizers say he was beaten to death by Iran's security forces while protesting for human rights on Nov. 16. (David Hill/CBC - image credit)

On a cold November evening outside the steps of a Toronto high school, members of the city's Iranian community gathered to remember a young life they say was cut short by the Iranian regime last week — a life they say now represents the struggle of all those fighting for their future in that country.

Ali Araghi, 22, studied in Canada for two years before having to return to Iran for personal and financial reasons, organizers said at a vigil Tuesday. A former student at Georges Vanier Secondary School, organizers said he dreamt of becoming a performer, loved singing and dancing, and hoped to one day return to Canada.

Instead, organizers say he was beaten to death on Nov. 16 by Iran's security forces while protesting for human rights. Iranian officials have reportedly told Araghi's family that he jumped to his death from from the fourth floor of a building — something organizers say is just another one of the regime's lies.

CBC News has not been able to independently verify the details of Araghi's death.

"Ali's life was cut short because the murderers of the Islamic Republic want to hold onto power at any cost," Maryam Rahimi Shahmirzadi said, adding his story now serves as symbol of the sacrifices that so many in Iran, particularly young people, are making for their freedom.

LISTEN | Vigil organizer speaks about former Toronto student who died in Iran:

Araghi's family, meanwhile, has been prevented from speaking about what led to his death — with several arrested even at his funeral, organizers said.

CBC News has requested comment from Global Affairs Canada and the Toronto District School Board, and will update this story when a response is available.

'What is there left to do but fight?'

In the months since the death of Mahsa Amini in September — the 22-year-old arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly — the Iranian regime has conducted a brutal and deadly crackdown on human rights protestors. At least 426 people have been killed since and more than 17,400 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group monitoring the unrest.

Katie Nicholson/CBC
Katie Nicholson/CBC

Roughly 100 people turned out to Tuesday's vigil for Araghi. Some knew him while others didn't, but felt compelled to show their support anyway, despite the risks.

Sophia Namvarzad was one of them.

"It's gotten to a point now that you can't imagine that its not you," she said, adding the fact that Araghi went to school in Canada makes it feel like the community here has lost a family member.

"We've all given up the right to go back home," she said. "All that we have to fight for is to give the future back to the youth, the next generation.... What is there left to do but fight for all the people that are left?"

Remembered as 'kind,' 'shy'

Also present was Gisou Daneshmand, a teacher at Thornlea Secondary School, where Araghi had been a student before moving to Georges Vanier.

Daneshmand told CBC News Araghi had been a visa student and reached out to her when he needed help because she spoke Persian.

She recalls Araghi as a "very kind and shy young man," who at times felt lonely being new to Canada but was squarely focused on finishing his education.

Instead of seeing him realize that goal, Daneshmand now finds herself standing up to represent him and so many other young people killed in Iran.

"There are a lot of people going through the same thing, same experience Ali did. I feel obligated. I have to do something for them," she said.

Bardia Amanirad met Araghi in 2018 as a fellow student at Georges Vanier, and remembered their lively debates and Araghi's kindness and smile.

Chris Langenzarde/CBC
Chris Langenzarde/CBC

"We had a lot of memories together," he said, recalling a time when Araghi skipped class to help a friend who was going through an emotional breakdown.

When he learned of Araghi's death, he said his hands went cold and his heart raced at the thought that the friend he'd gone to school with just a few short years ago was gone.

Speaking out despite the risk

"It's very shocking," he said, adding Canada and other countries need to do more to squeeze Iran financially so that its government knows its actions won't go unpunished.

Canada has issued five sets of sanctions on Iran this year in response to what Global Affairs Canada calls "ongoing gross and systematic human rights violations and continued actions to destabilize peace and security." The sanction lists include businesses and leaders associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Meanwhile, some in Canada's Iranian community say they or people they know have faced death threats here at home too. That's kept some from speaking out, but has only energized others.

"There's no turning back this time, so we're not going away," said Namvarzad.

Asked if she felt speaking out could threaten her safety, Daneshmand told CBC News: "It might, but my life is not more valuable than that life that is being lost in Iran.

"So I will take that risk."

Chris Langenzarde/CBC
Chris Langenzarde/CBC