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A Capital Murder

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

16 Jan 2011 19:45Comments
607389_orig.jpgStreet crime turns increasingly violent. Regime's answer? Public executions.

[ dispatch ] On January 5, the tale of a notorious murder came to an end when the killer was hanged. Many doubt, however, that capital punishment can keep Iranian society safe.

Iran's murder of the year happened last November. Yaghoub, a 31-year-old realtor, wild with anger, stabbed another realtor, Yazdan, in the latter's office in Saadat Abad, an affluent Tehran neighborhood. Yaghoub suspected Yazdan of having an affair with his mistress, Kimia. Bleeding, Yazdan dragged himself out of the building and into Kaj Square, pleading for help. Swearing that that he would never touch Kimia again, he begged Yaghoub to let people take him to a nearby hospital. He cried, "Have mercy, I am dying..."

Kaj Square is a crowded corner in northwest Tehran. Dozens of pedestrians and several police officers were in the square on that November day. None intervened. Holding the blood-stained knife to his chest, Yaghoub circled his victim, yelling, "Do not touch him! I will kill myself if you touch him! This dog must die!" The police officers on the scene did nothing to stop him or to help the victim. When finally people stepped in to take Yazdan to the hospital, it was too late. He died from his injuries.

The event would have been largely overlooked had it not been for an anonymous observer who recorded the unfolding tragedy with his cell phone. Within a few minutes of Yazdan's death, the video of the incident became available to a worldwide audience via the Internet. From that point on, it was impossible to downplay the facts. The general public and several legislators accused Iran's police force of idleness and indifference. For the very first time, the public was able to see police officers' real-time reaction to an actual murder onscreen -- although many were already familiar with lackluster police behavior from direct experience.

"I was sitting in my car, and all of of sudden a motorcyclist opened the passenger door and grabbed my purse," Mitra, a saleswoman in south Tehran, told Tehran Bureau. Mitra said she fought for her purse, which contained her month's pay, but to no avail. "The guy showed me his knife, and I let go," she said. Mitra immediately called the police -- it took 30 minutes for a patrol car to show up. "The officer did not get out of the patrol car. He kept telling me, 'Ma'am, you do not know how lucky you are that you are unharmed.'"

She added, "I did not need him to comfort me. I wanted him to find that bastard." Mitra filed a report, but was told only that dozens of similar incidents happen daily.

Unlike Mitra, Mohammad Reza, a 40-year-old engineer from central Tehran, has known for a while that he can not rely on the police. "I work in an office at the end of an alley. The first building on the alley is the headquarters of some government agency and they always have armed guards," he said. This does not mean that the alley is safe. "My friend was mugged just last week, when he was going home after working late." The attackers were riding a motorcycle when they hit their victim, put a knife on him, and took his belongings. "The guards saw the incident, but did nothing."

Many Tehran residents feel insecure. However, their self-defense options are limited. Sara, a single woman of 27, carries pepper spray at all times. When she went to the police to report a theft, the sergeant noticed the spray in her purse and told her, "You know that item is illegal!" Indeed, pepper spray is officially contraband in Iran. Sara said, "I was stunned, here I was reporting a theft and the officer was telling me that I might be charged for carrying an illegal item." She was told in her case that "they would make an exception." Mohammad Reza has also purchased pepper spray for himself and his wife on the black market. He knows carrying it is an offense. "After the presidential elections, the government put a ban on many items. Still, I'd rather be safe when I am attacked."

With subsidy cuts, many expect the crime rate to increase significantly. "It is a question of survival," according to an Iranian sociologist. "Unemployment is increasing and many have to resort to petty theft to survive and just to get by." The usual suspects include drug addicts and those who wander the streets of Tehran seeking any opportunity to improve their fortune. Ominously, the manner of stealing has changed.

Soroush, a computer student in east Tehran, showed me another widely circulated video. Two motorcyclists attack a woman to take her purse. She resists and runs away. Usually the attackers would have left. This scene was different. One of the riders takes off after the woman. He catches up with and beats her for the purse. "Violence has become a dominant feature of recent thefts," said Soroush. Iranians have a new word for it in their vocabulary: "kheftgiri." Literally, it means stealing by grabbing someone by the throat. According to Soroush, "I am not saying Tehran is unsafe, but it is not as safe as before."

The city has been growing enormously in recent years and now fills up most of the Ray Valley. Its neighborhoods are scattered and widely different in their subcultures, from the pious south to the modern, Western-looking north. It is not an easy city to manage. Like any other metropolitan area it has its good neighborhoods and its ghettos. For example, one is advised not to wander around in the middle of the night through Shoush Square or Moulawi Street in south Tehran. Khak-e Sefid on the east side has long been notorious as a gathering spot for drug addicts. There are alleys in central Tehran where stolen items are traded in broad daylight, places such as Posht-e Shahrdari and around Berlin Avenue -- victims of theft often head straight there to find their stolen property.

Many influential figures such as conservative politician Asadollah Badamchian believe the growing urban population may mean more crimes, but not a higher crime rate. In a recent interview with Tabnak, he expressed his anger at the media for "exaggerating the increase in crime" and "creating a violent atmosphere." He said, "When the number of murders goes up from two to four, they do not say there were two more cases of murder. They say there was a 100 percent increase." His conclusion summed up the conservative stand on the issue of crime: "Iran is a very safe country, but the media paints it black through exaggeration."

It is not easy to contest this perspective. For one thing, there is very little data available on crime in Iran. Last December, the national police force announced the findings of a study it had commissioned. It indicates that the number of women arrested and charged with crimes declined from 153,745 in 1996 to 36,815 in 2005, only 6 percent of all crimes that year. The study presents no data at all for the post-2005 years. It reads only, "The number of crimes committed by women has been growing much faster than those committed by men." One thing is relatively certain, however -- police commanders believe that one-third of crimes in Iran occur in Tehran. The metropolitan police have the toughest job in the country, which is not eased by its status within the national police structure.

"There is a force for the city of Tehran, but it is part of the national force," a retired officer told Tehran Bureau. The duties of the city police are many and often overlap with national police responsibilities. "One also must take into account that the force priority is set ideologically and the top priority is always national security. We have very limited resources and most of the time they are not allocated in response to public priorities, but according to political assumptions." The police force needs better command structure, better equipment, and more officers. "Many positions are filled up by conscripts. They are not cops, and Tehran needs more real cops," he said.

Not that the real cops, however important, are treated all that well. "Police officers are not paid properly," said Mohammad Reza. "I fully understand if an underpaid officer does not want to risk his life protecting others. He does a job and needs to be paid properly. Still, when trouble comes that underpaid officer is the only hope many of us have." It is true that many officers choose to be heroes, but others do not. It is also true that Tehran is still far safer than Cairo and many other capital cities in the region. However it is neither easy nor cheap to maintain a high standard of public safety. The Saadat Abad murder was a bitter shock for many of the city's residents.

After the murder, Yaghoub and Kimia achieved nationwide notoriety. Several papers interviewed Yaghoub to get the story of his affair with a married woman who had a 13-year-old son. Many commented online that not only should he be hanged, but Kimia should be executed as well. Many more, though, were extremely critical of the police. As one comment put it, "They only show their muscle to the weak. What would have happened if the murderer had a gun?!" In his own defense, Yaghoub told a reporter from Khabar, "They should have taken Yazdan earlier. I had a blackout. Why did they let him die?"

Authorities had to act, and quickly. A speedy trial was ordered. On January 4, banners went up in Saadat Abad announcing the public hanging of Yaghoub. He was executed the following day.

The intended message has not been lost. "They want to show to people that law and order have been maintained," Mitra said. Still, she is doubtful. "I do not know how public hanging will maintain law and order in this city." It seems fear is losing its efficiency in the fight against crime in Tehran.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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