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Capital Punishment, Capital Fear

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

12 May 2010 16:0718 Comments

Execution of political prisoners meant to terrorize those who would march in June.

AAAC3B38-BA52-477A-BA40-074EA26F1C39_mw270_s.jpgEarly 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.

fk.jpgKamangar'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

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I am against all forms of violence, and vehemently against capital punishment -- a barbaric act that continues to be practiced in one third of the world. Here is the list of worst five:

1 China
2 Iran
3 Iraq
4 Saudi Arabia
5 United States

Aside from the punishment, I find the act of "trials behind closed doors" extremely troubling. As citizens of the world, how do we assess guilt or innocence of people that some government proclaims to be guilty? This is a practice that seems to correlate with countries that perform the most capital punishments!

It seems that the combined practice of trials behind closed doors and death penalty is meant to leave people with the option of faith! Either you believe in what the government says, or you don't. Were they terrorist? Were they innocent? What was the damning evidence? In this case in Iran, was this an act of preemptive warning?

Truth shall prevail in the long run, but for most of us the long run is too far in our past memories, and for the executed it is too late.

Jay / May 12, 2010 5:52 PM

Kheyli mamnun, Mr. Sahimi, for your article!
My eyes are still filled with tears, when I think of these young people, killed by this barbaric regime to intimidate the whole nation.
Fortunately its "testing" has badly backfired on the domestic and international level. Foreigners will find it certainly difficult to believe that even the bodies are refused to the shocked and mourning parents - an additional indication for the regime's brutality -, and on a domestic scale we can observe an unprecedented surge of sympathy and solidarity.
Intimidating the people by hanging helpless scapegoats" has failed, and I still hope for a change of mind from some reasonable forces within the government. The alternative would be civil war and chaos, exposing Iran to foreign attacks.

With regards,
Mansur Arshama

Mansur Arshama / May 12, 2010 8:13 PM

There has to be elements of the regime that are questioning how the situation has come to such a passe. With their access to foreign media and inside knowledge of the true state of affairs, they have to be asking themselves how long can this persist? It is not a case of painting the IRI as black as possible to pave the way for attacks or sanctions. They are doing quite well by themselves.

pirooz / May 13, 2010 3:29 AM

Iranian judiciary hand in hand with the rest of system is showing that it would not hesitate to punish people who dare to stand against it. Their main goal is not to merely get rid of few dissidents but rather to sow the seeds of fear.
And sure that is what makes people scarred in order to stop them from the kind of social disobedience or any sort of protest .

There are gonna be more of these sad moments before june.

persiantraveler / May 13, 2010 11:27 AM

Regarding the four that admitted to being part of PJAK, and by extension the bombing campaign inside Iran, it's as if you'd be arguing for a defense of Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building. If the same were to be applied that case of internal terrorism, McVeigh would be described as an "activist" that did not deserve to be executed based on humanitarian grounds.

The fact remains that PJAK carried out a series of terrorist bombings. That can't be denied.

And the threats to Iran that are mentioned in the last paragraph of this article are eerily reminiscent of those made in the wake of the Branch Davidian firestorm.

Even in the US, appeals are made to Governors and Presidents, asking for clemency.

Pirouz / May 13, 2010 11:41 AM


I think the problem was with the trial. If they honestly belonged to PJAK then most Iranians would support their execution. But most places say their trials were short (less than 10 min). I think this is the real problem with this and why people are mad.

Nona / May 13, 2010 7:33 PM

Any human life is precious. We must not play by regime's rule. The clerical regimes brands people. This peron is a Bahaii, this other one is a monarcharist, he is anti-revolutionary, She is monafeq, ... This has been the game this regime plays. And we fall for it. They start with a lie and then repeat the lie and repeat it again and again until people say: Well there must be some truth to it.
As an Iranian, I do not recognize any court and any forum belonging to this regime. We must emphasize that even for those we disagree with, this regime has no legitemacy to imprisone them let alone take their life.
Resistance to this regime is the expression of our human dignity. We must not engage the regime's agents on the internet. They have no logic and they will not change their ways.


shahin / May 13, 2010 9:51 PM

Per capita barbaric republic excels China in executing people. IRI is # 1 in the world for systematically killing its own people.

Also the number of people whoo were murdered in ward 209 of Evin, Gohardasht, Kahrizak, Ghasr and dungeons in the basement of VEVAK building are not included in official execution list.

Aryajet / May 14, 2010 10:46 PM

Why can you not accept that killing is wrong - end of sentence period?

Why would it be better to be number 5? If you execute innocent people, what does it matter whether you are no.1 or no.5?

There are lots of nations that engage in killing innocent people while they commit an act of aggression against a whole population and their statistics is not included in this table.

What difference does the ranking make? What difference does it make as to what act of barbaric violence against innocent people is included or excluded?

Are you suggesting that some killings are better than others?

Jay / May 14, 2010 11:46 PM

I keep hearing from different countries how activists must hope for responses from "reasonable people in the regime" or in the government, or the Guard, or the police and on and on. This appears not to be a reasonable time in the world. Even my homeland, the United States has adopted the tactics of those they tell us we should fear, "the terrorists." Then our leaders send the military out with what appears to be the express mission of CREATING terrorists. Governments are enabling giant multinational corporations to drive economies all over the world into the ground, creating a whole new class of poor out of those who once drove, and who WERE the wheels of industry, and saying, "The economy's doing great!"

Religion is a personal relationship with the Creator; it has become a path to power, and is used as an excuse to murder when it should be for our comfort and growth.
Business is the means by which we turn our own work into things we need, and by which we spread the wealth we create together around so that none must work themselves into an early death and starve together with their families so that someone who contributes nothing but only takes
may be rich.
The gentle and intelligent who try to tell others how we may bring our civilizations together in peace, productively, are murdered by "authorities" who make unproved accusations, allow no defense, hide the murders and even to bodies, and then the murderers insist it was "justice."

There is a spirit of violent insanity loose in the world, and it emanates from the wealthiest of all. How can we change this, how must we act to save our friends, families, our countries, our selves? I wish I knew, but communication between ourselves is the only beginning!


Ian MacLeod / May 15, 2010 1:20 PM

In response to Pirouz's usual idiotic comments - there is no comparison between the treatment that McVeigh received at the hands of US authorities and the treatment of Iranians by the backward pseudo-Arab barbarians who currently govern Iran. Here is a description of the tortures one of the executed suffered:

Agha Irani / May 16, 2010 1:25 PM

Ian's excellent reflections points and this seems to be repeatedly observed in history, that at such crucial 'tipping' points', is where God or Providence shows its hand. Many believe and this seems universal across all major faith traditions that at a time as you have eloquently described it when greed and lies rein whilst humane values crumble, that a Divine Guide will appear who will spread justice and bring light to an increasingly dark world and where the good are getting weary. Perhaps this figure will be none other than the Mahdi(atf) long forecast in many Islamic traditions as the universal saviour that humanity awaits to restore order to our malfunctioning world. In the meantime let us communicate with our Creator and ourselves to reaffirm that which binds us together and denounce that which divides.

rezvan / May 16, 2010 5:53 PM

rezvan what is atf?

Anonymous / May 16, 2010 11:19 PM

Most Iranians are very happy that these terrorists were executed. You can now continue your discussion inside your own fantasy bubble.

Bahram / May 17, 2010 12:14 AM


How do you know they were terrorists? From confessions extracted under torture followed by a trial without due process - who lives in the fantasy bubble????

Agha Irani / May 17, 2010 12:14 PM

Nobody can deny that Kurds are a separate ethnical group with own culture and language. It’s absolutely legitimate to insist on at least an autonomies status. If the Persian government neither allowed this, or neither ready to discussion, it is attack against rights of the Kurdish people and by the human’s rights to defense legitimized.
It’s very interesting how some Persian guys are thinking about Kurdish freedom fighters an compare them with criminals in the USA by reading the previous comments.
It seems governments in Iran can change, but the attitude of some persian regarding Kurds never do: Shah fascism- Islam fascism -? fascism.

Kurdistani / May 17, 2010 2:04 PM

Mr. Kurdistani,

Good try, but it doesn't work. Persian and Kurdish cultures are intertwined and originate from the same sources. Please take your separatists ideas back to the Barbaric Republic where they originate from, only to create divisions amongst Iranians. Kurdish, Azari, Iranian Arab, Lor, Baluch, Persian ... we are all Iranians and every inch of that country belongs to all of us. That is right, all of us. I have talked to enough Kurds to know the majority of Kurdish people have no time for your kind. The same goes for Azaries. I have not met anyone from Baluchistan so it would not be right for me to speak on their behalf, but no red blooded Iranian would step aside and witness Iran being torn apart.

"Shah fascism- Islam fascism -? fascism." Get out of here. As if the rest of us have not suffered as much as you. Get in line like the rest of us and save your country from these Barbarians. We can always setup a civilized country/society on the day after and for all of us IRANIANS.

Niloofar / May 18, 2010 12:58 AM

I have to laugh, equal wording used by Turkish fascism; the majority of the Kurdish people are proud to be Turks. It’s funny how equal the human race is!
I am sure, you don’t know the majority of the Kurdish people and up to now there were no possibility given to the Kurdish people to decide their political destiny.
You words may have a right approach, and even the country name “Iran” seems a good idea, but it is only an empty word. Iran never belongs to any other else but Persians. If Iran becomes a democracy, a real democracy, it will split at least to several semi autonomies republics or completely.
It’s up to you! Do you want democracy? I am not sure, not now.

Anonymous / May 18, 2010 11:27 AM