Capital Punishment, Capital Fear
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
12 May 2010 16:07
Execution of political prisoners meant to terrorize those who would march in June.Early Sunday, May 9, five political prisoners were executed at Evin, Tehran's notorious prison. At least four of the victims -- Farzad Kamangar, Ali Haydarian, Farhad Vakili, and Shirin Alam-Houli -- were ethnic Kurds. They were allegedly members of the outlawed Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, known by the acronym PJAK. The group, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has been waging an armed struggle against the Turkish government for an independent state, or at least a Kurdish-run autonomous region, in southern Turkey. A statement released by the Tehran prosecutor's office after the executions claimed that the four had confessed to being members of PJAK and admitted involvement in a series of bomb plots in Tehran and northwestern Iran.
The fifth victim, Mehdi Eslamian, was allegedly a member of an Iranian pro-monarchy group, Anjoman Padeshahi (Kingdom Association). Very little is known about the group, and it is not clear if it is active in Iran at all. There is an organization with that name outside the country. The prosecutor accused Eslamian of involvement in the 2008 bombing of a mosque in the southern city of Shiraz. Two other alleged members of the group, Arash Rahmanipour and Mohammad-Reza Ali Zamani, were executed earlier this year. From abroad, the Anjoman leadership denied that they were members.
The authorities in Tehran claimed that all five of those executed on Sunday were engaged in "terrorist operations, including involvement in the bombing of government and public centers in various Iranian cities," as well as "acting against Iran's national security." Since the five were never given fair trials, the claims are difficult to check.
The cases were heard behind closed doors. The work of their attorneys was constantly obstructed, or ignored altogether. Neither they nor the families of the victims knew about the executions until after they had taken place. Kamangar spoke with his mother by phone a day before his execution, and said not a word about his imminent demise -- he evidently knew nothing about it. Even the dead bodies of the victims have not been turned over to their families. They have been told that their loved ones will be buried, and that the government will notify them of the location of interment after the fact.
Khalil Bahramian, one of the lawyers representing Kamangar, said that gross irregularities, including the absence of a jury, plagued the initial trial. The same thing happened during the appeals process, which upheld the convictions. Kamangar's trial lasted only ten minutes, and when Bahramian asked permission to present his client's case, the judge simply instructed him, "Write down your concerns." The lawyer strongly denied that Kamangar was in any way involved with PJAK or any other terrorist group.
Bahramian told the Persian program of the BBC not only that Kamangar was innocent, but that even his interrogator believed so. The interrogator asked Kamangar to write a letter to Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, asking for a pardon. Kamangar refused, seeing that as tantamount to accepting the guilty verdict, when he believed that he had committed no offense.
Farhad Vakili was also pressured by his interrogators to write a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, and he too refused. He reportedly told his wife and relatives, "I prefer to die, rather than writing the letter." His wife met many times with the judge who "convicted" Vakili. On one occasion she brought their children. When the judge, protesting, asked her why the young ones were present, she responded, "I brought them so that they get to know the murderer of their father."
The tactic of pressuring political prisoners to write letters to the Supreme Leader asking for clemency has been used by the hardliners for years. The goal is twofold. When the "convicted" requests a pardon, the judiciary is "exonerated." Beyond that, compelling the writing of such a letter is part of a broader effort to break the prisoner and isolate him from others incarcerated for political reasons.Kamangar's case, which attracted international attention, is particularly heart-breaking. He was 35 years old and married. A highly popular teacher in Kurdish villages, he was also a poet and author. He received his death sentence in February 2008, and his family had lived in agony ever since. In a letter to his students from prison two years ago, Kamangar wrote, "I miss you all. From behind these tall walls, I wake up with you, laugh with you, and go to sleep with you.... I wish I could play soccer with the first graders, and you, with the dream of becoming another Ronaldo, could score past your teacher, the goalie, and then celebrate it."
In the last letter that Kamangar sent from Evin Prison, he wrote about guiding Iran's youth toward the path to freedom: "Is it possible to be a teacher and not show the way to the sea to the small fish? Is it possible to stare into the eyes of the children of this nation and remain silent? Is it possible to accept the responsibility of being a teacher and informing the people, but not say anything?"
His mother said in an interview, "My son studied under very difficult conditions and became a teacher, and taught his students with the hope of a better future. He wanted to educate his students how to serve the nation and their compatriots. He was a teacher for 13 years. His love of teaching went well beyond his duties. He was a father to the students."
In a letter dated January 18, 2010, that was smuggled out of prison, 28-year-old Shirin Alam-Houli wrote, "I was arrested in April 2008 and was taken directly to the headquarters of the Sepah. As soon as we arrived there, and before I was asked any question, they began beating me. I was there 25 days, of which I was on hunger strike for 22 days. I suffered all types of physical and mental torture. The interrogators were men who beat me badly. At that time I could not even speak Farsi well, and so if their questions remained unanswered, they would start beating me again. One time I was beaten so severely that I began bleeding.... I was taken to a hospital and was given a shot of some type of a drug, after which I would repeat whatever they wanted me to say, and they recorded everything." At the time of her death, she was studying in prison to receive her high school diploma. She planned to study law, so that one day she could represent political prisoners.
Alam-Houli's family, who are from Makou, a town in Western Azerbaijan province, went to Evin Prison to retrieve her body. They were told to go to Tehran's main cemetery, Behesht-e Zahra. Unable to get straight answers there, they were told to go the Kahrizak detention center, where last summer at least four young detainees were murdered. And there again, their efforts to learn the whereabouts of Alam-Houli's body were stonewalled. Alam-Houli's sister and mother were arrested, for little more than asking the authorities why she was executed and mourning her death. After posting bail, they were released. But Alam-Houli's uncle, cousin, and grandfather are now in jail.
The executions have been denounced both in Iran and internationally. Mir Hossein Mousavi issued a statement:
The sudden execution of five citizens of our country, without providing any clear explanation of what they were accused of or the process of their trials, is reminiscent of the unjust process over the last several months that has resulted in astonishing verdicts for a large number of intellectuals, servants of the nation, and our dear compatriots. When the judiciary supports the powerful, instead of the oppressed ones, it becomes difficult for the citizens to believe that its verdicts are just and fair. Why is it that the courts have done nothing about those who were responsible for [the killings] in Kahrizak, the university dormitory, the events of the 15th and 20th of June, and the Day of Ashura, and shut down cases of enormous corruption without even beginning to investigate them, but, suddenly, close to the month of Khordad [June], the month of knowledge [about what happened in the election last year] and demanding [our rights], they hang five people under doubtful circumstances? Is this the type of Shiite justice that we have been looking for?
Mousavi's wife, Dr. Zahra Rahnavard, also condemned the executions, and declared that they are intended to scare people as the first anniversary of the rigged election of June 12, 2009, approaches. She said of the hardliners, "Despite all the claims for their belief in Islam, do the violent acts, interrogations, long jail terms, and executions make our women like and respect Islam more, or make them view it negatively, and even question their daily prayers and fasting?" Even former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani praised the resistance and patience of "our jailed youth." He also said, of those speaking up about the current situation, "Jailing the servants of the nation and the critics will result in people's awakening."
The teachers' organization Education International (EI) issued a forceful statement: "It is with anger and great sorrow that EI has been informed of the death of Iranian teacher unionist Farzad Kamangar. Together with four other Kurdish political prisoners, Farzad was executed, in secret, on Sunday 9 May at Evin Prison in Tehran. EI wishes to express its solidarity with Farzad's family, colleagues and students.... EI strongly condemns the execution of Farzad Kamangar and will continue to campaign on behalf of other teacher trade unionists in Iran. We are also seeking clarification about the process that led to Farzad's execution."
In protest of the executions, many political prisoners have gone on a hunger strike that they have declared will continue until Thursday, May 14. Several well-known political prisoners, such as Dr. Davood Soleimani, a leading member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, the country's largest political group; journalist Eisa Saharkhiz; and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, a longtime dissident, have been transferred from Evin Prison to unknown locations.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international human rights organizations have condemned the executions. There have been demonstrations by the Iranian community in the diaspora, both in Europe and in the United States.
The question is, Why did the hardliners execute the five? The answer is clear: Despite all their rhetoric, their claims that the nation is calm and that last year's "sedition" (the official label for the election protests) has ended, the fact remains that the hardliners and particularly the Revolutionary Guards are terrified by the prospect of large-scale demonstrations, as the first anniversary of the rigged June 12 election nears. Both Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have called for peaceful demonstrations on the anniversary date.
Stirring the fears of many, Javan, a newspaper and website closely associated with the Guards, recently warned that Reformist leaders may be murdered on the anniversary. Such pronouncements are understood not as advisories to the people to stay alert and prevent any assassination attempts, but as direct threats by the security forces.
Minister of Justice Gholamhossein Elham, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's former spokesman and a member of the powerful Guardian Council, declared a few days ago that he considers Mousavi to be mohareb -- someone who wages war against God and, therefore, deserves death. As the anniversary of the rigged election closes in, the websites of the extremists are full of such declarations and even more explicit menace.
Seventeen Kurdish political activists remain on death row. They are Rostam Arkia, Hossein Khezri, Anvar Rostami, Mohammad Amin Abdolahi, Ghader Mohammadzadeh, Zeynab Jalalian, Habibollah Latifi, Sherko Moarefi, Mostafa Salimi, Hassan Tali, Iraj Mohammadi, Rashid Akhkandi, Mohammad Amin Agoushi, Ahmad Pouladkhani, Sayed Sami Hosseini, Sayed Jamal Mohammadi, and Aziz Mohammadzadeh. At least seven other people who were arrested during last year's demonstrations have received death sentences; the sentence of one, Abdolreza Ghanbari, a teacher, has been confirmed by the appeals court.
Mehrdad Kamangar, Farzad's brother, said of the authorities of the Islamic Republic, "This is a fire that they have started. They are responsible for its consequences." Indeed, they are.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau