My Day, Rights Day

“Our homeland can betray us, it can become unlivable, but it remains
the place where we belong. Perhaps Iran’s greatest tragedy is that it
has become so hard to love.”

— Marcello Di Cinto, “Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran”

December 10th is my birthday, and it coincides with Human Rights Day. I am grateful to be alive and well, but every year I realize that when it comes to global human rights, things are not any better, and Iran has certainly topped the list in the recent past. I wish I could write a jolly piece but my heart and soul are not joyful these days.

Iran last year ranked second in executions, between China and the United States. The first is a ruthless theocracy; the second a quasi-socialist state now embracing capitalism including its negative elements; and the third a democracy in financial and moral crisis, leaning more and more to the right and slowly but surely moving away from the principles of the Founding Fathers.

I live in this country, the U.S., and have done so for almost all my teen years and adult life. But my heart and soul are in Iran. I think about its future every day, like so many of us. I guess a homeland remains a homeland forever no matter where you live.

I have been thinking about the sorry state of human rights in Iran and have written about it, even if it makes little difference. Executions and abuses continue and the number of victims piles up. In its treatment of all prisoners, political ones, those who committed crimes of passion, or drug traffickers, the Islamic Regime has been merciless, especially since Ahmadi Nejad took office in 2005. Whereas in 2005, during his first term, ninety-four executions were reported, in 2009 the number quadrupled to 388. For a classic demagogue who boasts about the virtues of his regime, it is not a great resume, I must say.

In the past year, many names appeared and disappeared from posts on Facebook. They were alive one day and gone the next. Farzad Kamangar, an ordinary teacher in Kurdistan, was executed for “acting against Iran’s national security.” Behnoud Shojaee, who supposedly had killed a friend in a street quarrel at the age of seventeen, languished in jail before he was executed at age twenty-one. Then it was Khadijeh Shahla Jahed’s turn.

As in so many earlier cases, the full story may never materialize and the dossier will be kept from the public eye. We may never learn about the circumstances and reasons behind this crime. All and all, the evidence points to “others” and in particular to one man: an aging former football player, who may not have been the killer but who kept silent throughout the years. What is the real story? Why was Shahla’s confession taken at face value? Why did she retract and why did the judge not take all the facts into consideration? Why was no substantial evidence ever presented?

Both her lawyers, Mr. Khoramshahi and Ms. Nasrin Sotoudeh (who is currently in jail herself) had requested the dismissal of the case on insufficient grounds and because of the many discrepancies in the dossier. In an interview with Jaras, Major (sargord) Abrahian, who was in charge of the case from the outset and who was dismissed after two months, has made astonishing revelations about the case. (See the full interview)

Shahla remained in prison for nine years before being executed. Even those around her did not anticipate such a swift decision on the part of the judiciary after her case had been put on hold. It is said that moments before the execution, the judge, even soldiers and those who had come to know her cried and begged the relatives to forgive her. It was a futile attempt.

What struck me most after watching the You tube videos of the man, Nasser Mohammad Khani and of Shahla, was his lack of emotion and her bravery in defending herself in the IRI’s court of “Law”, filled with bearded men and double hejabed women. I saw the victim’s two young boys, Ali and Erfan, sitting and watching the proceedings. How shameful to allow such a scene to be absorbed by youngsters. But that is the nature of the judicial system in Iran: young and old, let them watch and maybe they will learn a lesson. Psychologists confirm that watching such scenes has a negative and lasting effect on children.

I called a friend who is a journalist in Iran and asked him about the case. He said, the reason it was shocking was because, in his words, “she was attractive, young and bold and spoke directly at the judge.” She acted as her own defense lawyer vis-à-vis an unjust system. The case had so many holes that even the former head of the Judiciary, Shahroudi, feeling that there was not enough evidence for a conviction, upheld that verdict three times. Finally, the new man in charge of justice, Sadeq Larijani, a cleric with no judicial background, gave the go ahead. How degrading it is to start your tenure with ordering executions.

Shahla was thirteen years old when she met the man, Nasser Mohammad Khani; he was a famous star and she became infatuated with him. She kissed the ground he walked on or, as he put it in one of the clips, “she used to warm the seat of the toilet so that I would not have to sit on the cold seat!,” and became his sigheh ( legalized prostitution in Shi’i Islam). A young and vulnerable girl, she made a grave mistake by getting involved with him. He chose to keep her as his temporary wife for four years, promising her the world and even marriage. In the You tube scene, the victim, Fatemeh or Leila Saharkhizan, his wife, who was violently murdered on October 9, 2002, (the blood was washed away, all the evidence was removed at her residence and no DNA sample was taken) complains that her husband never had time for her, never went on vacations or shopping with her. Being a football player, he was always away for games or practicing in the field, often overseas.

In another scene, trying to look good, he says, “I have been praying since the age of seven and I was born into a religious family. My wife loved me and I loved her but Shahla’s love was more like lust.” Then he puts the blame on her entirely, insisting that she lured and deceived him. He gets up and asks for retribution. Not once does he take responsibility for his own actions. He is cold, calculating and a coward. In another scene, Shahla defends herself in front of the judge; she cries, defies and talks loudly. It is a dramatic scene. “I did not stalk anybody,” she says. She tells the court, addressing the man: “I am not saying that you wanted me for your lust but you needed me for your habit.” She tells the court that she did indeed help him buy opium. He was an addict for fourteen years. She did his dirty job for him. Suddenly, she turns to the judge questioning his impartiality, making an argument that in fact he has not acted as a judge: “Your honor, I didn’t expect these words; you are supposed to be impartial as a judge.” None of this looks good in the eyes of those running the show. Yes, it is a show, not a real court of justice.

In the theater called the courtroom, the judge and the audience watch as she speaks like a veteran lawyer. Here again, the man, Mohammad Khani, sits among the onlookers and makes comments, showing no emotion, gutless. Shahla says that she was asked to go to the scene of the crime by his friends. Who were these friends? Why were none of those ever questioned? “I went there to Ketabi square,” she says, “and saw Leila’s affairs scattered all over the house. I saw her with my own eyes; I put a cover on her. I was shaking.” She becomes hysterical at this moment, screaming that she had nothing to do with her murder. She says the newspaper made her look bad, claiming that she had a violent streak having had in her possession violent films. She asks: “Are movies like Gone with the Wind or Dr. Zhivago considered violent?”

She is to be blamed for the crime; guilty as charged before the guilt has been established without any solid proof. (Even the knife that killed Leila was never recovered and according to coroner, the thirty-seven stabs to the body could not have been done by a woman) The idea of presumed innocent does not apply here. The sign in the back reads: The Judicial System Must Protect the Rights of Individuals and Eradicate Corruption! The Islamic Republic is all about slogans and meaningless signs.

The journalist I spoke to said the following: “She was not an ordinary person. She had become a phenomenon. She did not have the characteristics of a killer. She was cultured and modern. But she dug her own grave by saying in the first days of the trial that she had killed Laleh Saharkhizan. She described the scene to the officials of the Ministry of Justice in full detail; that is why the first judge did not question her guilt. But when they announced that she would get the qesas and might be executed, she retracted her confession. She said to the judge that Mohammad Khani told her that if she confessed he would help her get out. Of course, we know that Nasser Mohammad Khani didn’t lift a finger. He was arrested and imprisoned for a short bit but was soon released. Nasser had been arrested previously for possession of narcotics as well. He has many friends in high places and was a famous football player; he is also a member of the Revolutionary Guards. He had told Shahla that if Leila was not around, he would marry her. Shahla spent eight years between prison and the Court House. If they were going to execute her why not do it at the beginning. What kind of life is it to live in the shadow of execution? She knew how to write and talk. She was different from others. She repeatedly said that her only crime was that she loved a man. She was not a criminal. She had become close to other prisoners, was liked and gained the respect of the judges, reporters, and prison guards. They considered her a member of their own family. But it was her confession that made things worse. In the end, though, she was the victim of a deeply corrupt male dominated society.”

Mohammad Khani was revered as a football player for Iran’s national team. A hero in the eyes of many, he was also an opium addict. He was jailed after the murder of his wife for a few months and given seventy-four lashes for possession and usage of opium. He was released later on. Shahla remained in prison. Shahla was convicted but there were others who were also suspects, including the husband and the victim’s cousin. Certainly, there were men involved especially since Laleh had been raped. What happened to these men? Who were they? Why was no one ever questioned? Why did the judges presiding over the case never asked these questions?

According to Asieh Amini, a renowned women activist and journalist, “the reality is that this case has many loopholes and problems. From the beginning it was clear that there were certain individuals who would not allow vital information to be released. Shahla herself either had an advantage in this; maybe it was for love or she was involved somehow. The army officer who was in charge from the very start made important points regarding the case. He was dismissed as soon as he got too deeply into it. He considers this murder a security issue. When I worked at E’temad newspaper, a few journalists would say the same thing. Whatever the case, the execution of Shahla in this instance was meant to distract the public mind from political cases.” (Asieh was a cellmate of Shahla in Evin. In a moving article called “The Dirty Football,” Asieh described Shahla as clean, well spoken, always friendly and determined). Asieh points the finger to the football mafia of Iran. (See )

Shahla was waiting for a miracle. She had hoped that her former lover would save her life. She waited and waited. He never relented. Anticipating her death somehow, in a letter to Larijani, she asked for an end to her ordeal. The reply was brisk and cruel. “Your verdict has been determined.”

At dawn on December 1st, in the prison yard of Evin (a place that has witnessed many executions), while the family of the victim looked on, the son of Leila let go of the chair. She pleaded and cried for her life. Mohammad Khani watched without any visible emotion. The mother of the victim and her family did not grant her her life, as they believed that she took the life of their loved one. Blood for blood- the way of Qesas , the tribal code that is accepted and practiced in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In a sane society, Shahla would have been given life or a prolonged sentence if ample evidence was not available.

Mohammad Khani left that day for Qatar where he will be certainly enjoying a life of pleasure and lucrative business. (He had been busy building towers with his late father- in- law). Two women are dead, one murdered at the hands of strangers or presumably Shahla, the other one at the hands of the state with the blessing of the victim’s family.

The stories of individuals like Shahla are countless for the judicial system in Iran is flawed, corrupt and irredeemable. A look at the the punitive law regarding women and minorities show a backward and tribal mentality. The question is how can a country with a 3000- year legacy of civilization, a Ministry of Justice that was one of the more civilized in the Middle East, having lawyers and judges who acted within the law, create a barbaric institution where the guilty are given amnesty and the innocent are put to death? What has happened to this country? Maybe this is part of the answer to the question : When I asked my friend how come no one cares, he said, believe me, I have so many problems myself, I can’t think of her. I just came back from the court house having had to deal with another irrational judge trying to find out when my hearing will be. (He had been jailed as well, charged with instigating unrest).

Have we become indifferent as a nation towards the pain and suffering of our countrymen and women? Or we are just too distant and too disengaged from Iran?

Today, there are others awaiting their persecution: students, women, dozens of prisoners of conscience and ordinary citizens, charged with various crimes. Case after case, the real culprits are let go or vanish, and the innocent go to jail, waiting for unfair trials without a jury, under the auspices of incompetent judges who have formed their opinion before the verdict is announced. Can we afford to sit and watch more executions in Iran whether for political reasons or other offenses?

I am not sure what to say next, but I just hope this coming year, we will not hear any more awful news from Iran, or the rest of the world for that matter. I hope we take it upon ourselves to name every single prisoner so as to save him or her from execution. I hope we can stop this cycle of death, retribution, and revenge.

In other parts of the globe, injustice and abuse continue, especially towards women. In Arab lands and parts of Turkey, women are hunted down, sometimes by their brothers, stabbed and killed, in what is called as honor killings. Women are raped in Somalia and in Congo. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, young women are given away to older men and are helpless against their in-laws or their husbands. If they run away, they are found and disfigured, as has happened to a number of women.

Human Rights Day is here again, but I am not sure if the world has recognized or even acknowledged this important day. I must say, it is a sad day even if it’s my birthday.

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