Friday , 8 December 2023

Ordinary citizens in Iran rally to save death-row prisoners

Al-monitor – Mahyaddin spent the final hours of 2016 in solitude, deciding whether to spare the life of a man on death row for killing his only son, Pouya. Five years ago, Pouya was knifed to death by 17-year-old Hemin Oraminejad in a brawl over petty issues in the western Iranian city of Sanandaj. The Supreme Court rejected Oraminejad’s appeal earlier last year and upheld the ruling, which was death by hanging with the consent of the victim’s family under the retribution law known as “qisas.” Oraminejad, now 22, was repentant and had asked for forgiveness from the family of his victim.

Fazel Hawramy

As the execution scheduled for Jan. 1 drew near, Simin Chaichi was in a state of anxiety. The 60-year-old poet was leading a campaign to save the killer’s life by persuading the victim’s family to forgive Oraminejad, which under Iranian law meant that he would avoid the gruesome execution chamber. It was one of many such grass-roots campaigns in Iran that have sprung up in recent years to prevent executions. In 2015, at least 262 people on death row for murder were spared thanks to campaigns organized by citizens, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights.

“I think violence fuels more violence,” Chaichi told Al-Monitor via telephone from Sanandaj. “That is why I believe these kind of grass-roots campaigns are important,” he added.

Despite the efforts of campaigners across Iran to halt executions of convicted murderers under the retribution law, the Islamic Republic continues to use the death penalty extensively. On Dec. 19, 2016, it joined 39 other countries in voting against a UN General Assembly resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

“Let’s be clear, we are not asking for those who committed murder to be freed,” Chaichi said, adding, “Once a family exercises its right to forgive, then it is up to the government to apply the law and keep a murderer behind bars.”

In the city of Sanandaj alone, campaigners numbering over 2,000 managed to convince seven families to opt for forgiveness over the noose last year, according to Chaichi — a testimony to the power and influence of these grass-roots activists. Last August, a mother whose son was killed spared the murderer at the last minute and removed the noose from his neck. “We were under tremendous pressure, and scores of people were coming to our house asking for [our] forgiveness,” her husband, Aba Ahmadi — the victim’s father — told Al-Monitor via telephone. “I think the campaign was effective in convincing us, and we don’t regret our decision to forgive our son’s killer.”

Energized by this victory, Chaichi and hundreds of other concerned citizens of Sanandaj set about trying to persuade Pouya’s family to forgive their son’s killer. They focused on Mahyaddin, who is in his late 40s and is a dervish and follower of the Kasnazan Sufi order, a branch of the mystical dimension of Islam.

The campaigners, led by five individuals, stayed in regular contact with Mahyaddin’s local spiritual leader, the “pir” (elder).

Pouya’s mother — and his grandfather, who was also a dervish from the same Sufi order — were against the execution, but the ultimate decision rested with the father, who was still reeling from the loss of his only son. A group of whirling dervishes even visited from the main base of the Kasnazan Sufi order in Iraq’s Kurdistan region to try to persuade the grieving father to forgive his son’s murderer. The pressure on Mahyaddin was intense.

Under pressure from the campaigners, Mahyaddin spent the last day of 2016 in a place of worship for Sufis, known as a Takia, as around 2,000 people gathered in a mosque nearby. He refused to see any of the campaigners and was adamant that the execution would go ahead.

“My heart was sinking with anxiety; we were all holding our breath waiting for Mahyaddin’s decision,” said Chaichi, still tearful in recalling that night. What made Chaichi and others fearful was that Mahyaddin had shown no sign that he would forgive the prisoner. But they stayed hopeful, as they knew miracles could happen seconds before executions.

As Mahyaddin arrived in the central prison of Sanandaj before dawn on Jan. 1, accompanied by his spiritual leader, the guards prepared Oraminejad for execution. Terrified and repentant, Oraminejad, in a blue prison uniform, made his last plea, but to no avail.

Even the prison guards and the judge overseeing the execution pleaded with Mahyaddin to pardon the young man. But Mahyaddin was resolute. In the execution room, he placed the noose around Oraminejad’s neck as the convict said his last prayer.

At that moment, the pir, who spoke to Al-Monitor but refused to be quoted, reminded Mahyaddin of the graveness of the act he was about to perform. It was only then that Mahyaddin paused and quietly removed the noose. According to Chaichi, when the family of the murderer offered to sell their house in order to pay the blood money, which was close to $100,000, Mahyaddin simply responded, “I don’t want any money. I did not forgive him for money.”

The following day, around 2,000 people, many carrying red roses, went to the main cemetery in Sanandaj where Pouya is buried, paying tribute to the young man who had lost his life in a senseless incident. “Had you had Hemin [Oraminejad] executed, you would have been sitting at home on your own a bitter man,” Chaichi said she whispered in Mahyaddin’s ear as he stood by his son’s grave. She told him, “Look at the smiles you have put on these people’s faces. They are celebrating your son’s life.”