Thursday, 9 April 2009

Vice v7n1 Feature: The Busy Gallows Of Iran

This was something that I put together with Pegah Farahmand who very kindly conducted all of the interviews and did all the translating for me. Thanks Pegs!


Iran is the only country in the world that continues to execute juveniles in 2008. This year alone has already seen six teenagers have the chair kicked from under them (hanging is the preferred method) and on the 9th October (one day after Iran’s ‘Day of the Child’) the Islamic regime in Iran is planning to execute Mohammad Reza Haddadi for a crime he allegedly committed 3 years ago when he was 15.

One of the most well known cases of teenage capital punishment in Iran is that of Atefeh Rajabi, who was sentenced to death for having sex with a married man when she was 16 years old. In 2004 Atefeh was taken to prison but claimed in court that she had been raped by the 51 year old married taxi driver Ali Darabi who had picked her up on the street. After her outburst in court judge Haji Rezai sentenced her to death and a week later he personally put the noose around her neck which killed her. Oh, and it was later revealed that there was evidence that Rezai had raped Atefah while she was being tortured in prison.

Iran may be an Islamic country entrenched in the teaching of the Koran, which isn’t such a big deal when it comes to stuff like cutting bacon out of your diet, but the underbelly of corrupt religious fundamentalists disregarding of the rules of International law and hanging kids like its going out of fashion are beginning to anger and inflame even the most conservative elements of the Iranian public. Many feel that something has got to give. And soon.

Stop Child Executions recently released the most comprehensive list of recommendations ever published for ending the practice of juvenile execution in Iran. Included in this document were the cases of 140 Iranian children currently facing the death penalty in Iran.

We talked to two Iranian children defence lawyers, Mohammed Mustafa and Ahmad Rezai, about some of the cases they have worked and why Iran is still obeying laws that were made over 1400 years ago.

VICE: Could you explain what exactly would constitue a ‘crime against chastity’ that would result in capital punishment? When Atefeh Rajabee was 16 she was sentenced to death because she had sex with a married man. Is that enough to get you strung up?
Ahmad Rezai:
Like many people in Iran, I have been following this case for a while. It is very clear that the government lied many times over Atefehs sentence, and that she should not have been executed. Atefeh had a very difficult childhood. Her mother died in a car accident at a very young age and her father became a drug addict so she was left in the incapable hands of her very old grand parents who left her to her own devices, loose on the streets which for that time and in the village that she was living in was not a respectable way for a young girl to be living. She was taken to prison for having sex with a married man. He was in his 50’s, had a daughter and was a simple taxi driver. When she was in court she claimed that she was raped. Merely a week after being accused the Judge sentenced her to death. Her case was not given adequate time or considered fully. It has been alleged that the Judge raped Atefeh during sentencing. Many believe that out of shame and fear of the truth being exposed he wanted her dead straight away.
Mohammed Mustaaf’i: As an Islamic country, the law which the parliament decides on in Iran is based on the laws of the Islamic religion. Issues concerning adultery, do not exist solely in Iran, but in many other Islamic countries as well, such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan. The Islamic law states that if a married man or a married woman has any sexual relations outside of marriage, the punishment that they will receive is stoning to death. This case is complicated but the laws are fairly clear.

From what age does it become acceptable to chuck stones at people until they die?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
In our country it is established that any girl from the age of 9 and any boy from the age of 15 is liable to be punished. At that age it is deemed that they have reached puberty so in the eyes of the law they are capable of committing this kind of crime so they can in turn be punished accordingly. This doesn’t just include sexual crimes, They can be punished for any criminal activities from this age.

16 seems very young to be sentenced to death for taking part in an act that she may well have had little control over? Shouldn’t it be the guy swinging? Didn’t he just get cained?
Ahmad Rezai:
Yes he received 95 lashes. This is the exact reason that Anmesty International, as well as other organisations protecting human and childrens rights, are still investigating into this case. It was an incredibly unfair and tragic ruling. What’s worse is that they used the term ‘had sexual relations’ when it was actually rape, and that they also lied about her age, stating that she was 22, when she was just 16 years of age. No one knows for sure if she was tortured while she was in prison. But it is quite usual for this to go on even though it is against the law.
Mohammed Mustaaf’i: Since I have been looking after these kind of cases, I have come across many young children who have been punished by execution. Iran, is not obliged to obey any kind of international law. Amnesty International have notified the government that no one under the age of 18 should be sentenced to death and every time I represent one of these young people in court, I put the case forward that international law’s state that they are not allowed to be executed as under 18’s but this argument it is powerless in the face of the testimony of Islam. This is a law that began 1400 years ago and that is still followed today.

Who is in charge of seeking out these kinds of crimes? The pastor’s or the 110 ?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
The 110 are the same as the police in our country. We also have a kind of police that we call “Basij” or pastors who look after religious law. They both work under the influence of the court and high court but the Baseej continually take the law into their own hands and treat these kind of crimes with their own rules of punishment. They interfere with each others duties and this is something that we are, as a nation, frustrated with.
Ahmad Rezai: The 110 are the official fast Police, they are on the payroll. When I say fast I mean as in they are who you call in case of an emergency as opposed to not eating. It is like 911 in the states. Our emergency number is 110 so that is how they got their name. They are totally useless though. Once our neighbourhood was being robbed, it took them over 45 minutes to get to us and when they turned up they didn’t have any hand-cuffs. When they finally caught the thief they tied his hands with some cable. There is also a lot of corruption within the 110. They will beat students and young people for nothing and are partial to bribes. If you have a relative who is a lawyer, or any kind of connection to the police you can just use their name and they are likely to leave you alone and not bother you. The law can be on your side if you have connections or money. Which is incredibly unlucky for 90% of Iranians. The Basij are really fucked up. They are like those ‘Young Nazi Believers’. There is this old joke: A maths teacher asks a Basij in school: “what are parallel lines?” and he says “parallel lines can never reach each other, unless a supreme leader says they cross over one another”. In translation it might not make sense, but it perfectly captures their mind set. In their view, even parallel lines will cross paths if a leader says so.

That’s really depressing.
Ahmad Rezai:
It is. I was in Germany recently, and read a lot about Nazi Germany and I have to admit that I see a lot of similarities. There are only 90,000 uniformed Basiji the rest are what we call " Lebas Shakhsi" or those with no uniform. They are usually from poor, sections of the society and together the different forces work like the Gestapo and the SS and police all elements of society. For example during the student movment, the Police (110) did nothing. They stood by, but the Lebas Shakhsi beat everybody in sight. Everyone knows that they did it but because they are not officially affiliated you cannot point the finger. They permeate all levels of society. For example, when I was having coffee with my cousins one night in Isfeshan some uniformed Basij came and grabbed my cousin and threw him in the back of the van and took him to prison for the night and beat him for having long being into Metallica.

How would they have found him?
Ahmad Rezai:
The Basij along with a clergy who controls them work below the supreme leaders delegate in each city who organizes the Basij of that city.
Their real function is to balance any kind of movement particularly amongst the young and universities. If you are a young, registered Basiij, you can say so on your application to university and they automatically let you in to help monitor freedom of speech, women’s movements and so on.

What would they make of a freshers fare in England where its just one long fuck fest?
Ahmad Rezai:
Well in Iranian Universities if a boy and girl are found sitting next to each other then they will come and give you a warning and notify you.

Is torturing something usual in Iran?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
In Iran, and in most of the kind of cases that I deal with, the person who has committed the crime will not get any legal aid or representation unless they are very wealthy. Therefore torture is likely to take place. If you have a lawyer to represent you, then this can be avoided. Because it is difficult for the police to gain any evidence, they turn to torture methods for confessions. If I know there is someone who has not had any kind of representation, then I can be pretty sure they have been put through some kind of torture.

So if you have a lawyer you avoid the whole torture process but if not you’re screwed?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Essentially: yes.

How common is it for the body of a criminal convicted to death not to be returned the deceased family?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Normally after someone has been sentenced to death, the family come and pick up the body after the execution. However, if the family don’t come to pick up the corpse after a certain amount of time then the government will bury the body themselves in an unmarked grave in a cemetery.

At what age do the parents of offenders have to come to court?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Well the problem we have is that we do not have a special court for young people. What Iran is lacking and what it needs is a court especially for children, where we can prioritise their needs, and their problems. These kind of children are not treated in the just way that they should be.

Can you tell me a bit about the case of Saeed Jazee, wasn’t he hung after killing a guy in self defence over a sandwich?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Saeed was 16, he was at his parents home alone one night and because he was hungry he went to his friends sandwich shop to get some food. He helped himself to a sandwich but a new employee at the shop didn’t recognise him. The new guy started to argue with him and Saeed picked up a kitchen knife. As he picked up the knife he stabbed the guy in the stomach. The blow killed him. He was sentenced to death but after sending his case to the supreme court he was set free.

Did it make a difference that he killed in self-defence? Does manslaughter exist in Iran?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Here is doesn’t really make too much of a difference if it was in anger or self-defence. Either way they will eventually be sentenced to death. It makes no difference.

How come they forgave in this case?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
The parents of the victim chose to not to take Ghesass or revenge as you would call it. The choice is given to the parents of the deceased at final verdict to take revenge and execute the guilty or forgive the guilty and accept a payment in compensation known as Diyeh. The standard fee for Diyeh is 40M Tomans but the amount is negotiable.

Wow. Literally blood money. How often are people forgiven for crimes like murder in Iran?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Well it really depends upon the family. Bad families don’t forgive. But it does happen. The case of Siya Paymand is well known. He was a 16 year old whose dying wish was to play the flute. He played on the gallows and the family of the deceased were so moved that they forgave him. Paymand’s family still had to pay 150M Toman in Diyeh to free him.

What happens if a family are too hard up to pay the Diyeh?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Unfortunately if the family don’t have the money then the chances of being forgiven by the victims family are very low. This is where the difference between the rich and poor becomes apparent. The poor are more likely to suffer. It is that simple. The current case of Behnood Shojaee demonstrates this. He was a 16 year old who was walking in a park one day when one of his friends get into an argument. Behnood separated the fight but as he was walking away, one of the gang cursed his mother. Behnood turned around and stabbed him in the chest with a piece of broken glass from the ground. Due to the slight that provoked him he was forgiven by the victims family but his own family were too poor to afford the Diyeh. He is yet to hang but it looks like he will.

Does the government take any of the blood money?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
No it all goes to the families.

Where did the law of blood money come from?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
It came from the Khoran.

What are the conditions like on Death Row?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
In Iran there is only prison. The guilty go straight from prison to their death, there is nowhere in between. Hanging is the only method of execution used in Iran today. They hang a rope around the neck of the convicted, put a chair beneath them and then kick the chair hard from underneath them.

What happened to good old stoning?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
That is no longer used. Executions are also no longer public. Normally they get executed inside the prison, unless in special cases where they want other people to learn a lesson.

What kind of cases would that include?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Multiple murder or dealing drugs

Is it common for older convicts to scapegoat the young to escape punishment themselves in the belief that the young will get acquitted?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Children and very easily influenced and vulnerable to these kind of situations making it quite common for young people to be used as scapegoats. A prime example of this is the case of Delara Dabiri. She was an artist, a very talented painter who had created a number of drawings that she exhibited all over and the country and some abroad. When she was 17, she got involved with a boy which caused disagreement between the pair and Delara’s aunt. One night they went to the aunts house and killed her. Apparently it was over some documents. Because Delara was so young and in love she allowed the boy to convince her that she wouldn’t be punished due to her age. She pleaded guilty but the court realised that she did not commit murder so the case remains open.

Delara suffered from serious mental problems after entering prison. How bad is the prison system?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Due to her age and innocence being subjected to prison caused great stress and pressure that she was not able to deal with. Prison is very difficult and upsetting environment to be put in for a long time no matter your age. Combined with her own innocence I think it is easy to understand that it was too much for her. The Iranian prison system is full of people who have no hope and have lost all faith. There is a lot of violence and corruption. Those things exist everywhere but in prison, drugs are distributed regularly, and there is a lot of illness. The people in prison know that their life is going to end and live in a state of desperation and despair. Prison is very difficult.

The Iranian judicial system also seems to not really be big into guys liking other guys.
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
When two men have sexual relations with each other the punishment is
death. The law is very clear and very hard on homosexuals.

Hard on homosexuals. Sounds like a movie. So gay guys are executed just for having sex?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
Yes. I just think the death penalty is not a correct resolution to the problem in general.

That of course assumes that homosexuality is a “problem in general”. What is your opinion on the death penalty “in general”?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i
: Personally I disagree with capital punishment. I think that those who are over 18 should be held accountable for their actions but it has been proven that the death penalty has not helped to stop crime or lessen the rate of criminal activity in any way. I work mostly with children, sometimes on up to 25-30 cases at a time and all of these kids are on death row with little chance of living.

Can you see change in the future?
Mohammed Mustaaf’i:
The laws have changed in the past, so it seems natural that they may change in the future. In the past punishment was worse than it is today. They would torture the body while they killed it with methods such as heat torture which involved taking a piece of iron, heating it in the fire and pushing it through the hand. Or making people walk over hot sand which can be very painful. These methods have not been used for many years now and I can see a time when the current laws change.

How do you cope with working day in day out with young children who will almost inevitably be sentenced to death?
Ahmad Rezai:
I have stopped being angry as it is a waste of energy. Many of the people enforcing these laws are from the harsh, poor sections of society. For Islam to survive a large portion of society must be kept in bad conditions and the rest presided over by the very rich. However I am remain optimistic as this way of life is doomed to fail.
Mohammed Mustaaf’i: I just think about helping them and try to distance myself from work in my personal life. Otherwise there is no way I would be able to focus. I have been working on children’s cases now for 4 years but before that I was working with Sang Saz (the method of stoning to death). This was equally trying but that method of execution does not exist anymore. Thankfully.

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