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5. Iran

Teaching Terror

Iran has the World´s highest per capita execution rate. According to figures published by the NGO Iran Human Rights, 517 people were executed in 2017 alone, more than one each day. Five were hanged for crimes they had committed before reaching the age of 18. Iran is also the country that executes the most juveniles, although official statistics on the application of the death penalty are sketchy and incomplete. In fact, only around 40% of executions are announced publicly.

The judicial system established in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 generalized capital punishment. The Revolutionary Tribunals were originally created ad hoc as temporary courts to try members of the former regime. However, they continue to operate to this day, and they have been responsible for the majority of the death sentences handed out since the Shah was overthrown. The Revolutionary Tribunals handle cases of political and civil activism, as well as offences related with drug trafficking and possession, and they are not known for their even-handedness or independence. Judges are esteemed God’s representatives on earth, and they decide the cases brought before them arbitrarily based on their own personal prejudices and on confessions obtained under torture.

Defence lawyers are not permitted to attend hearings or allowed to review case files or even the decisions handed down. It is far from easy to appeal. Where charges concern national security matters, the accused cannot even choose their own counsel but must accept one of the few defence lawyers authorized by the judiciary.

Iranian criminal law is based on Islamic precepts, and although the Koran espouses the basic principle that every person has the right to life, it makes an exception where the death penalty is ordered by an established court. In practice, this has meant the use of capital punishment as the penalty for numerous offences in Iran. Sharia law classifies crimes by type, distinguishing between tazirat –offences like drug possession and trafficking, at the root of most executions in recent years as possession of 30 grams or more of heroin carried the death penalty until December 2017–, qisas –homicides and cases of assault– and hudud –offences against religion, the punishments for which are prescribed by the Koran–. Hudud crimes punishable by death include adultery, incest, rape, sodomy, insulting the Prophet Mohammed or any of the other prophets, and persistent theft.

However, this category also makes rooms for rather more vague offences like hatred of God or corruption on Earth, which are used not so much to punish as to repress political opposition and religious dissidence, embodied by the Kurdish minority and the members of the Bahai faith, and to forest all activism and criticism of human rights violations.

The age of legal majority under Iranian law is eight years and nine months for girls and fourteen years and six months for boys, when they can be held criminally liable for their actions and condemned to death. And the Iranian authorities do indeed execute children, even though capital punishment for minors –i.e. offenders under the age of 18– is strictly forbidden under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, both signed by Iran. It is estimated that there were more than 150 juveniles awaiting the gallows in 2017.

Reforms of the criminal law enacted in 2013 improved the situation somewhat. Child execution was abolished for tazirat at crimes, and juveniles convicted of hudud or qisas offences can escape execution if the judge decides that they were mentally immature when they committed the felony. This might be considered progress, although the concept of ‘mental immaturity’ is ambiguous and it remains entirely unclear how it could be shown, so minors are still at risk of being held criminally liable in many cases. It is common for judges to make offenders wait in jail after their convictions until they reach the age of 18, when they are executed. Far from lessening the severity of a death sentence, this is an added punishment, because juveniles are held in the same prisons under the same conditions as adult inmates, whether ordinary offenders, political prisoners or violent criminals. Furthermore, the prisons are deplorably insalubrious, daily rations are disgracefully inadequate and there is no medical care whatsoever.

Most of the juveniles held on death row were convicted of qisas crimes involving homicide. Iranian criminal law does not in fact specify the death penalty for murder, but atavistically harks back to the ancient rule of ‘an eye for eye’, the lex talionis, under which the penalty must equal the injury caused. Iran thus treats the final decision in homicide cases as if the matter were a civil dispute between the parties. The authorities’ only role is to serve as guarantor for the wishes of the victim’s family, who have the option to order execution of the convict or to pardon him in exchange for an agreed financial settlement known as diyah or ‘blood money’.

The Pardon Movement that has emerged in Iran in recent years encourages the families of homicide victims to forgive the perpetrator rather than demand the death penalty. This movement has grown fast in recent years, and if it has not succeeded in preventing executions, it has at least highlighted the unacceptable burden it places upon the bereaved, who are made responsible for pardoning or condemning the accused, recasting the verdict of the courts in the dreadful guise of vengeance. However, it has also had the effect of increasing in the cash demands made by families in return for a pardon, which discriminates against the poor, who cannot afford the sums in question. No other modern criminal code would allow the immediate family of a victim such sway over the decision to execute or pardon a killer, and still less so for money.

5.1. Juveniles

Whether or not they are finally hanged, a minor under sentence of death faces an unimaginable ordeal beginning with the search for a lawyer willing to defend their case. Anyone championing human rights in Iran is likely to be persecuted and could end up being tortured, incarcerated and even put to death

The Iranian criminal lawyers Mohammad Olyaeifard and Hossein Raeesi in Toronto, where both live in exile. Canada, 2018.

Mohammad Olyaeifard

I became a lawyer to defend the weak. Over the ten years I was able to practice, I defended juveniles, women, people accused of political crimes and members of ethnic and religious minorities. I have paid dearly for it in terms of my physical and mental health, and finally with exile. I was imprisoned for a year for criticizing Behnoud’s execution in the press and accusing the government of failing to abide by its international undertakings in matters of human rights. Not long after leaving prison, I was again threatened with incarceration so I went into exile in Canada in 2011.

I have experienced two executions. The first time was when I went to visit an inmate at Evin prison to discuss his case. When I entered the prison, I was surprised to find a group of seven or eight people praying in the corridor rather than the room set aside for religious devotions. I asked them what they were doing, and why they were praying there. They told me it was their last prayer to beseech God for his pardon.

I went about my business and forgot all about it. When I was leaving about an hour later, I stumbled across a trailer loaded with the bodies of the men I had seen praying. I was horrified. I thought, “How easy it is to put a man to death!” I was still trembling when I came home, and I had to lie down under a blanket. I went completely to pieces then. I couldn’t stop trembling or drive the scene from my head.

Behnoud’s was the second execution I witnessed. His story is like that of many other juvenile offenders. He had just turned 17 when he was arrested in 2005 and charged with homicide committed during a street fight involving youths in a public park in Teheran. He tried to mediate between a friend and another youth called Eshan, who started jeering at Behnoud’s mother. She had died when Behnoud was only 10 years old, and in a rage he seized a broken bottle that was lying around and thrust the jagged glass into his tormentor’s chest before fleeing the scene. When he told his family what he had done, his father handed him over to the police.

He had already spent more than two years in prison when counsellor Mohammed Mostafaei and I took on his case, but he had already been condemned to death so there was nothing we could do. All we could achieve was a stay of execution. His family had made two fatal mistakes. The first was to suppose that he would not be executed because he was less than 18 years old, and the second was to hire a lawyer who did not take the case seriously, with the result that he was sentenced to death.

We based our defence on showing that the charges were full of holes. The first issue we raised was that all of the witnesses had stated in court that Behnoud had stabbed the other youth only once in the chest. According to the coroner’s report, however, two different wounds were inflicted from different angles. The crime had occurred during a street fight and the accused had fled after striking a single blow, so it appeared highly likely that two weapons were used and that the murder might actually have involved another person. Another mitigating factor was Behnoud’s age. A youth of 17, he lacked a mature mind and his intellectual development was still incomplete. Furthermore, he hardly knew the victim, he had no record of delinquency and the homicide was not premeditated. It was an accident. The court refused to consider any of these arguments, however.

Mohammad Olyaeifard. One of Behnoud Shojaee’s defence lawyers. Toronto, 2018.

The defence was not helped by another factor, meanwhile, which was the enormous stir the case caused among activists, students, elite athletes and artists nationwide, which in turn mobilized the international community to try to halt the execution. The European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights both weighed in with declarations accusing Iran of failing to abide by its international obligations and demanding a reprieve. Amnesty International also published a statement decrying the sentence. This meant that the atmosphere was already very tense when we went to ask the victim’s family to pardon Behnoud, and we were unable to persuade them. Three very well-known figures in the Iranian film industry had already been to their house and had in fact convinced them to pardon the youth in exchange for a large sum of money. They even opened a joint account to raise funds for the diyah, but then they were unexpectedly denounced by the victim’s parents, who felt humiliated by the scale of the mobilization in favour of Behnoud. The authorities closed the bank account and rounded up the artists, threatening them with prison on charges of fraud.

Behnoud spend four and a half years in prison before he was executed. One of his cellmates described conditions in Evin as hellish, especially for juvenile offenders, because they are the weakest and are vulnerable to all kinds of brutality meted out both by other convicts and by the prison guards, and because of the risk of contracting AIDS or other diseases, or of becoming drug addicts. He called Behnoud a shy, quiet boy, although unlike many he rarely cried. He prayed every day, and the little prayer book he owned had turned yellow from use. Everyone liked him.

Behnoud faced the gallows three times and saw 14 people die. His execution was scheduled five times but then postponed the day before when he had already been placed in the isolation cells reserved at Evin prison for those waiting to hang. The sixth time was the last. In what was to be one of his last interviews, the activist Saba Vassefi asked him if he wanted the execution to be postponed again. He answered, “I really don’t want it put off any more. But I would like Eshan’s mother to be a mother to me. I know she has lost her beloved child and I know that must cause her great pain, but I would like her to believe that I didn’t mean to do it. I’ve been in prison since I was 17 years old. I haven’t had a mother since I was a little boy, and I’ve suffered a lot. I have spent four and a half years of my life locked up, surrounded by criminals. I swear to God that the punishment I’ve suffered is enough for a lifetime, and I wouldn’t wish even my own worst enemy to end up in a place like this. I want to tell them from the bottom of my heart that I will be their slave for the rest of my life. I know I am asking a lot. I know it’s difficult to forgive. But if any of the people demanding my death were to spend just one week in jail, they wouldn’t only forgive, they would do everything in their power to make everyone forgive.”

Behnoud Shojaee

Behnoud was executed on 11 October 2009 for a crime he committed at the age of 17. He was 21 years old when he died. Mohammad Mostafei and I [Mohammad Olyaeifard] were both there as his defence lawyers. It was still deep night when we arrived at the prison on the day of his execution. Hangings are always carried out before dawn at Evin prison, which only makes the setting more macabre. It was a chilling scene. There were about 200 people outside praying and demanding a pardon for Behnoud. After about an hour the victim’s parents and family arrived. The crowd surged towards them, imploring them to step back from the execution.

Shortly afterwards, the prison gates opened and we were shown into a small room, from where we taken to the execution chamber. The victim’s parents and brothers, a doctor, the prosecutor, a photographer, some prison officials, Mostafaei and myself made up the group of witnesses present. When we came in, I said to the prosecutor, “How can you let this happen? You’re going to execute a minor!” He went over to seek a pardon from the victim’s family once again, but they steadfastly refused. The mother said that she would not make a final decision until the rope was around Behnoud’s neck. At that moment, the young man was brought in. The victim’s mother already had her hand on the lever that would release the four wheels of the metal trolley where Behnoud would stand, so that it would roll away leaving him hanging. I stepped forward and placed my hand over hers saying, “Don’t do it. You will regret this, and it will cause you such pain and remorse that you will never be free of it all your life.” But she swatted my hand away and returned her own to the lever. The prosecutor then called the father over, and told him that he too must put his hand on the lever. Both must hold the lever, and they must activate the mechanism together.

Behnoud Shojaee. Photograph distributed by Amnesty International denouncing his execution.

I looked at Behnoud and said to him, “Try one last time. Go and ask them once more to forgive you.” The guards let him go, and Behnoud threw himself at the woman’s feet and, caressing them, mumbled that he had never had a mother of his own. He begged her to be his mother and to forgive him. But she would not. So they stood him on the trolley and the rope was placed around his neck. At that moment, the parents pulled the lever. It was an act of sheer hatred and revenge.

When Behnoud was left swaying in the air, he looked at us for an instant. His face changed utterly in a matter of seconds. It took no time for him to die. He was quite ready to go, having prepared himself for this moment for the last four years. I will never forget that look. They cut him down then, and took some photographs. We left. The people outside were all weeping and embracing the members of Behnoud’s family. I went home, where I succumbed to a fever for the next day or so.

And that is the procedure. It is designed to allow the family vengeance –that is its purpose. There is no justice in Iran. It was not the victim’s family who executed Behnoud; they were merely the instrument used by the justice system to achieve its end.

Hossein Raeesi

Something happened when I was at university that turned me into an active defender of human rights forever. I was in my second year at the law faculty in the city of Shiraz. I was 22 years old and I was doing a project about the rehabilitation of prisoners after they had served their terms. It was very difficult to get a permit to enter the prison at that time. Since Adelabad prison in Shiraz would not give me permission to interview inmates, I decided to try my luck in the courts. They let me into the holding cells where the prisoners were held while they were waiting to be brought before the judge. One day, I met a man who had been sentenced to 70 lashes for petty theft. I asked him whether he would prefer 70 lashes or to spend a year in prison, and he said, “Sometimes 70 lashes is worse. It depends how hard they hit you and the guard giving the whipping, because it can leave you with permanent injuries to your back, your heart and your kidneys.”

At that moment a guard appeared, closed the door and ordered me to stay in the room. “This man is about to receive his punishment,” he said. “I’m sorry,” I protested, “But I can’t stay here. I don’t want to see this.” “You can’t go,” he rejoined, “The doors are locked so nobody can leave now.” I shrank into a corner. They brought in a steel bedframe, and tied the prisoner onto it by his hands and feet. “Don’t move your head,” they told him –they’re not allowed to strike the prisoner’s head. The guard began beating him; it was pure torture. When they had given him 25 lashes the guard stopped and said, “I’ve lost count… Now I’ll have to start again.” “No, no!” I burst out, “I know how many he’s had.” “Shut your mouth!” he barked back, “Nobody gave you permission to speak.” And he began again. The most incredible thing about it was that I knew the guard who was delivering the lashes. I’m sorry to say, he was a classmate.

When I realized I said, “What are you doing here?” And he answered, “So what? I’m a guard.” “Really?” I sputtered. “You never said so!” “Yes,” he replied, “I’m a police officer and I’m also studying law.” I lost track of him after we graduated. Not long ago I ran into another of my old classmates here in Toronto, and he said “Do you remember that guy in class, the policeman?” Then he told me that he had been a judge in Teheran, but that he had recently been accused of taking a bribe and had been thrown out of the judiciary. I can’t say I was sorry to hear it.

I may say that when I graduated, I became a human rights lawyer, but of course that was not on my visiting card. It merely said criminal lawyer. At first I took cases involving juveniles, women, political detainees and members of religious minorities. I did the work pro bono for very poor clients. I have always felt that it is wrong to charge in such cases.

Hossein Raeesi, an Iranian lawyer who specializes in human rights cases. Toronto, 2018.

I practiced my profession in Iran for 20 years, and it was far from easy. Numerous colleagues of mine ended up in prison. I was a leading member of the Law Association and a professor at the university. I would urge my students to have the courage to accept human rights cases. The authorities eventually became unhappy with my teaching, however. I was detained and interrogated with increasing frequency. Iran is a theocracy and its judges are upheld as God’s representatives on Earth. Every criminal lawyer in the country will have heard the judge pronounce his verdict and then turn to the condemned man saying, “We sentence you to death for the crime you have committed. Now, you will escape hell only if God forgives you your other sins.”

According to them, if you won’t accept that murder must be punished by death, then you are an enemy of Islam. You can be imprisoned just for that. I used to tell them, my practices are based on the Iranian legal system and Iranian criminal law. I respect the law and I try to find solutions within the system. Every day, I had to stand up to judges, officials and sometimes even my own clients or assistants, not to mention other lawyers. I would pressure the courts with the argument that they were obliged to abide by the terms of the international treaties Iran had signed. According to article 9 of the Iranian Civil Code, all international conventions signed by the Government of Iran become Iranian law and must be complied with, and we cannot impose countervailing local laws. The treaties prohibit the execution of minors, and I clung to that through thick and thin.

In the end I had to go. The pressure was terrible, and my wife and two children suffered unbearably. I continue to work for justice in Iran from Canada. My dream is to bring justice, to inculcate justice, to talk about justice and to seek justice for everybody, anywhere in the world.

In my professional practice, I could not help but notice a pattern in the social profiles of those sent to the gallows –the uneducated and the poor. This problem was even more obvious in cases involving juveniles. Most juveniles are executed for violent or qisas crimes, in which it is the victim’s family who decide whether the accused should die and so pay for the crime with his life, or should settle his debt by paying financial compensation. If you belong to a rich family and have good relations with the imam at your local mosque, then you have connections and the pardon system is likely to serve you well. But if you are from a poor family where money is tight, you won’t be able to hire a good lawyer and you have no contacts to support you. That is not justice. I am not against the pardon system, because it undoubtedly saves lives, but it is not fair. Justice should be the same for everybody. A paradoxical gender discrimination is often mixed up with social status. On the one hand, this is because legal majority comes much earlier for women, and on the other because a woman’s life is worth half that of a man in terms of blood money or diyah. If a homicide victim and the perpetrator are from the same place, meanwhile, the family of the deceased may demand not that the killer pay blood money but also that he should leave time. That is not justice. It is revenge, pure and simple. I believe it is a good thing to ask families to forgive, but it must be the judge who finally imposes a reasonable prison term of between 20 and 25 years, rather than making the victim’s family pay blood money and leave their home.

An added problem is that those juveniles who are pardoned usually spend years in prison before they are freed, where they are exposed to violence of all kinds, and to the anguish of repeated stays of execution. There are no educational or training programmes for them, and when they get out there is nobody to take care of them. They have mental problems, they have no money or means of finding work, and they have no families to give them shelter, Their own parents recoil from them for the terrible crimes they have committed. They need help.

The Ali S. Case

I don’t want to use my real name or show my face. It’s my life that’s at stake.

My friend died on 21 October 2006. We were friends from childhood. He knew I was afraid of the dark, and he dared me one day at dusk to go into an abandoned garden to look for a ball. My grandmother always said there were ghosts there and that the gardens were dangerous, so I took a knife with me. I was in the grip of my own fear. What I did not know was that my friend had sneaked in first and was hiding under sheet to give me a fright. When I found the ball he sprang up and I stabbed at the ghost in a panic before running away. My friend bled to death. The next day I went back, and when I saw what had happened, I decided to bury my friend and to tell no one. He lay there beneath the earth for 22 days. The winter cold kept the body in good condition. But I had a terrible burden on my conscience. Then I thought I could pretend I had found the body in the garden. I went to the police to tell them, but they suspected me from the start.

I was exactly 16 years and 12 days old when I was arrested. They started questioning me and telling me I would have to confess. Then they handcuffed me. They hung me from a bar and started whipping me all over with a length of cable from my feet to my head. I had cuts and bruises all over my body and I dislocated one of my shoulders. This torture went on for 67 days. It was always the same: they strung me up and then whipped me with the cable. I couldn’t get a lawyer because the law at that time didn’t allow it.

Not long afterwards I was brought before the court. All of my friend’s family were there. They were so angry they even attacked me during the hearing. I mean they physically attacked me. And they screamed insults. The judges were violent too, but their violence was merely verbal.

I put in prison cheek by jowl with murderers, common criminals and drug traffickers. There were a few political prisoners too. Violence was rife among the inmates, including sexual assault. Drugs were everywhere, not to mention other perils. It was terrible. The juveniles were almost defenceless. In winter the cells were freezing, and in summer they were suffocating. The food was terrible. They only gave us soya beans, like they give to animals as fodder. It was full of sand and inedible. There was no hygiene. The toilets were filthy and they were never cleaned, and the medical services were calamitous. The inmates just dropped dead from time to time. You could only go to the infirmary once a fortnight, and at night-time only if you were dying.

It was always the same: they strung me up and then whipped me with the cable. I couldn’t get a lawyer because the law at that time didn’t allow it.

Each time they set a date for my execution, I was allowed to see my family one last time. My family told me about the efforts they were making on my behalf. That gave me strength and hope; I knew they would succeed.

I was sentenced to death a year later, in December 2007, but my execution was not scheduled for the first time until 2013. I was 23 years old. A month before the date, they put you in the special cells that are reserved for those who are shortly to be put to death. They are five or six metres long with a toilet inside and as squalid as could be. They are really filthy. The conditions in which the inmates were kept were quite inhuman. Add to that our dejection and despair. I suffered a lot from stress and anxiety. In the end the execution was postponed. I have been scheduled for execution five times. I even went to the gallows once but they never put the noose around my neck. Five or six persons were hanged right in front of my eyes that day. Another time I was in the cell with five or six others, and they executed everyone but me. Overall I have seen around twenty people hanged. The last time was the worst. I had lost any hope and I thought I was going to die.

Each time they set a date for my execution, I was allowed to see my family one last time. My family told me about the efforts they were making on my behalf. That gave me strength and hope; I knew they would succeed.

The reform of the Penal Code in 2013 also helped me a lot, because it meant you could not be hanged if it could be shown that you were not mature enough when you committed the crime. The first time I was scheduled, I myself wrote a letter pleading that my maturity should be taken into account and the execution was postponed. However, the forensic doctors said they could not confirm how mentally mature I might have been after so many years. I was given a retrial, but the court ruled that my immaturity had not been proved and I was again sentenced to death. They set the second date for execution on the 1st of August 2015, but it was put off again until the 28th of November because of international pressure after I had spent a month in the isolation cell. Two days before it was due to go ahead, the execution was postponed again until August 2016 because of public pressure. At that point a charity took over my case. They found me a lawyer who managed to get me another retrial. It was held in November 2016. The court found me guilty again on the grounds that I had buried my friend’s body to hide it, which proved that I was aware of my actions. By then, however, the members of the charity had persuaded my friend’s family to pardon me. I was released in April 2017. The settlement cost a lot of money –350 million tomans, equal to around 70,000 euros. They set up a campaign, which raised 200 million, and my family paid the rest, about 150 million tomans, between them.

I always understood the anguish of my friend’s parents, and why they had wanted me to hang. But I believe I have paid very dearly. I have suffered a lot, and perhaps I didn’t deserve to go through so much. I work in the market now, selling fish. I have no wife. I would need a good job and house for that, but I have neither. All but one of my former friends have turned their backs on me. He’s a former classmate I ran into one day. The people I met in prison are my new friends. I have been free for a year now, and I don’t have much hope for the future. Call me Ali S. I don’t want to use my real name or show my face. It’s my life that’s at stake.

5.2. Marina Nemat

It is estimated that more than 40,000 political and other prisoners of conscience were executed in the ten years after Khomeini’s triumph. Many of them were minors. While the rate of executions has since fallen, human rights remain a critical issue in Iran

Marina Nemat at the offices of the Canadian Center for Victims of Torture. Toronto, 2018.

I was 13 years old when the Islamic Revolution prevailed. We lived in Teheran. My father was a dance teacher and my mother a hairdresser. Both of my grandmothers were Russian Christians, who had escaped the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and had eventually married Iranian men. I had a normal childhood for a middle-class girl. I liked reading, riding my bicycle, playing basketball and the Bee Gees. We used to spend the summer by the Caspian Sea.

Everything changed with the triumph of the Revolution, however. Dancing was forbidden and my father had to close his studio, although he found work as a translator. My mother left the beauty salon and became a housewife. We couldn’t go out because there were demonstrations and shooting everywhere. My school closed for a while. I was in the last year of secondary school. It was a girls’ school with a long tradition. My mother had been to that school. It belonged to the Zoroastrians, which was the faith of many of the girls, although the majority were Muslims. There were not many Christians like me. When I returned to school after three months, I began to realise that all of the girls I had looked up to, who used to organize the parties that I had begun to frequent, were now talking about social justice, Marx and Lenin, and revolution. I found it quite fascinating. In the Shah’s time nobody talked about such things. At least, I didn’t. My family didn’t discuss politics. There were three groups among the girls. Some supported the revolution, others supported the Mujahideen. They were Muslims and they covered their heads with the hijab, but their Islamism was tinged with Marxist ideas. The third group were the out-and-out Marxists. I had to think about which of these groups I wanted to join. There was no other option –it was the social order in the school. The Marxists were very well organized. They ran reading and discussion groups at lunchtime. It was fascinating. I never felt attracted by the Mujahideen, who were Islamists where I was a Christian. I was most interested in the Marxists. At that time, a new headmistress arrived at the school. She would have been about 18, and of course she wore hijab and was a member of the Revolutionary Guard. She was very severe both in her own conduct and in her treatment of others. One day she called in the few Baha’is and Christians that were left at the school. “This is a religious school,” she told us. “You are not required to attend classes in Islamic doctrine, but you must go to your Church and bring me a letter stating that you are attending catechesis.”

That was a problem for me, because the Russian Orthodox Church had no priest in Teheran. He had died ten years before and the Soviet Union had not sent a replacement. My mother asked around among her friends and eventually sent me to a Catholic church near our home. It wasn’t Orthodox, but they agreed. So I had to go to catechism classes and mass at least twice a week. At school I joined up with the Marxists.

A year went by, and when I turned 14 I decided I would be better off sticking with God than choosing to believe He didn’t exist. Even so, I was attracted by the idea of socialism and social justice. I think this was a legacy from my grandmother, but I needed a God above it all. I began going to mass every day and I became very devout and pious. But then things suddenly took a turn for the worse. The headmistress kept a close watch on us, and little by little, our teachers were replaced by Islamist fanatics. Classes were becoming mere propaganda, which infuriated me. Only the chemistry teacher was any good. I began to protest, but not because I was part of any political group. It was just that I wanted the physics class to be about physics, and the mathematics class about mathematics and not religious propaganda. When I objected I was expelled from class, and several of the other girls also left in solidarity. There was a strike and I was singled out as the ringleader. That was my crime.

They began arresting people in the spring of 1981, and Evin prison started to fill up with young people. I was on my headmistress’ blacklist, and on the night of the 15th of January 1982 they came to our house and arrested me.

When I arrived at Evin, they blindfolded me and put me in a room. My interrogator, Ali, wanted information about a girl who was the friend of a friend of mine, but I had only ever seen her once. She was a Marxist. I had no idea where she was, and I didn’t know her surname or her telephone. If I had known I would have told them before they tortured me, because I couldn’t believe she had anything to hide. Under torture I would have confessed anything. But I had nothing to say.

When I objected I was expelled from class, and several of the other girls also left in solidarity. There was a strike and I was singled out as the ringleader. That was my crime.

Then another man called Hamed tied me to a bed and began to beat the soles of my feet with a length of cable. They were betting on the number of lashes I could take. They didn’t think I would last more than ten, but I held out to sixteen before I fainted. The agony is mind-wrenching. My interrogator, Ali, untied me and carried me to a cell. My feet hurt terribly and they were dreadfully swollen. He asked me if I needed anything. I couldn’t believe it. They had just given me the most terrible beating in front of him and now he was asking if I needed anything.

I few days later I was taken out of my cell, blindfold. They told me to hold onto the shirt of the person in front of me. We started off one behind the other in single file until we were outside the building. I wasn’t wearing shoes because my feet were still too swollen, so they had given me a pair of plastic sandals that were several sizes larger than my own. The January weather outside was bitter and it was snowing. I could hear my teeth chattering, but my feet felt better because the cold eased the pain. Even so, I could hardly walk. After a while they halted us and took the blindfolds from our eyes. I looked around. It was night and we seemed to be nowhere at all. There were two boys and two girls beside me. They shone bright lights in our faces. Hamed was in command Some stakes had been driven into the ground, and they began to tie us to them. Suddenly one of the girls dashed off. There was a loud report and she crumpled to the ground. I was completely nonplussed; I couldn’t make sense out of what I was seeing. It was all so very strange. Where were we? What was happening? I’m so cold. My feet hurt. The girl’s running. There’s a bang. She falls. Suddenly, I realize they’ve shot her, and then I know what is going to happen.

Marina Nemat on holiday by the Caspian Sea in the summer of 1978. Photograph from her family album.

One of the men beside me started reciting the Koran. His muttering mingled with the sound of my own teeth chattering from the cold. It’s a sound that still unsettles me to this day if I’m travelling and I hear muffled prayers coming from a mosque. I can’t bear it. I thought, “They’re going to kill us,” and it was almost a relief. I thought of my father, my mother and my boyfriend Andre. It seemed a distant memory. I only wanted to be free of the cold and to rest, and of course I wanted to escape any more torture. If anybody had offered me a choice at that moment between death or going back to prison and torture, I would have said without hesitation that I preferred to die.

Then we heard a car screech to halt. Someone jumped out, and it was Ali. He gave Hamed a piece of paper and they argued for a moment. Hamed had a strong Turkish accent and he seemed put out. Then Ali came up to me and untied me. He grabbed hold of my arm and dragged me to the passenger seat. He closed the door and then got in and drove off. I remember thinking, “Where’s this guy taking me? They’re going to torture me again.” I was terrified and I started hitting him and screaming, “Let me go! Let me go!” but he just held my hand and went on driving with the other. When we arrived back at the prison, they put me in a cell and I lost consciousness. The next day, they took me to module 246 where there were over 200 girls. I met some of my friends there and I spent most of my captivity with them.

For a time there were executions every night, and we could hear it. We knew what was going to happen when they called any of girls. It unhinged some of them. We had a few suicide attempts and some hysterical fits, girls who would just break out screaming or acting crazy. For the most part though, what we felt was a kind of numbness. Nobody reacted when there were executions. There was silence and general air of despondency. There was also fear, I suppose, but in such an extreme situation all feeling is dulled and everything becomes somehow very subtle, because if you let your true emotions come out and allow yourself to be overcome, you might be the next to die. I believe it was the daily routine that helped us survive. So many people in such a tight space meant there had to be a lot of organization. We had to organize the showers, laundry and washing-up. We tried to occupy our time and keep our heads by organizing these things. We concentrated on what to do to extend the time allowed for showers, for example. We also passed the time talking about our families and our past lives. Some girls would inevitably end up in tears. It always happened.

Not long after, Ali told me what he wanted of me. He said that he had been able to save me from execution thanks to his connections, and they had commuted my sentence from death to life imprisonment. Then he confessed that he had fallen in love with me the first time he saw me, and that I would have to marry him. He told me that he would have my parents and my boyfriend Andre arrested if I refused. By then, I had already concluded that anything was possible in this reality. So I agreed. I converted to Islam and I married my tormentor.

All of this happened to me when I was just a girl of 16. I had no idea about sex. When another inmate told me that they raped girls before executing them because the Koran says you must not kill a virgin, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t even know what rape was! I hadn’t a clue! I had kissed a couple of boys, but that was it. My mother was the old-fashioned type, and it would never have occurred to her to talk to me about sex. I didn’t know how babies were made. I learned a lot, much of it thanks to my cellmates.

For a time there were executions every night, and we could hear it. We knew what was going to happen when they called any of girls. It unhinged some of them. We had a few suicide attempts and some hysterical fits, girls who would just break out screaming or acting crazy. For the most part though, what we felt was a kind of numbness. Nobody reacted when there were executions.

By then, I had already concluded that anything was possible in this reality. So I agreed. I converted to Islam and I married my tormentor.

The wedding was held at Ali’s parents’ house. The first time we had sexual relations I cried out and wept the whole time. Ali put his hand over my mouth and told me, “Don’t scream or it’ll be much worse. If you don’t struggle it won’t hurt so much. So don’t scream!” Little by little I learned not to cry out, and although I did resist the first few times, I gradually realized that it was useless to struggle. I learned to put up with the pain and to think it would be all over soon. We stayed at Ali’s house for a few days and then he took me back to Evin. He had managed to get my sentence reduced to three years. Then we would live together outside the prison. I didn’t want to go back with the other girls, because I would have to tell them what had happened, and at first I went to solitary. Ali would come two or three times a week to bring me food, and I knew what he wanted in return. It was horrible. I had no desire for him as a husband, but I had to put up with it. I couldn’t do anything about it. Later on I went back to the module with my cellmates. Ali continued to call me in for interrogations a few times each week. When he had a day off he would take me out of the prison and back to his home. It was my cellmates once again who gave me the strength to bear it and to understand what was happening to me. “Marina,” they would tell me, “If you don’t want to be his wife, this is rape. You’re not to blame, it’s their fault, them and their religion. Not yours.”

The months passed. In the end I became pregnant, and Ali decided we should leave the prison and he changed his job. One night he took me out of the prison and we went for dinner at his parents’ house. When we left they were waiting for him. They drove up on a motorbike and opened fire on us. Ali covered me with his body and then he just collapsed on top of me. They said it was the Mujahideen, but we learned later that it had been his own companions at the prison. He died and I lost the child. His last wish was that I should be released from Evin and allowed to go home to my family. And that’s what happened. I was set free on the 28th of March 1984.

In the two years, two months and 13 days that I spent in prison, I saw many of my companions disappear. I was tortured. I was on the point of being executed. I lost my religion and my name. I became pregnant and then lost the child I was carrying, and my husband was murdered. If I had to say what was the worst, however, I would say it was coming home when I was freed. Until that moment, I had thought that everything would go back to being the way it was when I returned home. My family and relations would all be there. All I had to do was get out of Evin, and then I could return to normal. But when I did come home, I soon realized there was no normality.

When they let me go, I started to walk along the road from the prison towards the car park at Luna Park fairground where my family were waiting for me, when I passed by another girl who had also been released. She was standing quietly on the kerb, and I wondered why she didn’t cross the street. She looked at me vacantly. She must have been a year or two older than me and she was wearing a chador and plastic sandals. I believe now that she knew what I had yet to learn –you can cross the road and go to your family, but you will never return home. You can’t escape from the prison reality. You will never feel at home again now.

If I had to say what was the worst, however, I would say it was coming home when I was freed. (...) I had thought that everything would go back to being the way it was when I returned home.

When I looked back after coming home, I realized that everything I truly cared about was in Evin, and that now I had lost not only my cellmates but also my own family. I felt guilty about leaving my fellow prisoners, and I still couldn’t get my family back. They had become strangers to me. I was a different person, but nobody wanted to know what had happened to me. Nobody asked any questions. Not even my boyfriend. It was then I began my game of pretending that I was who I had always been. I married Andre, who is a truly a wonderful man. We’re still married after 33 years, but the truth is that we hardly knew each other back then. We had two children and then we went into exile in Canada where my brother was living. Not long afterwards I managed to bring my parents over too.

My mother died in the year 2000. After the funeral, all the family and friends met back at my brother’s house. I was sitting beside my father. After 50 years of marriage, he was overcome with grief. Suddenly he turned to me and said “Marina, I want you to know that your mother forgave you before she died.” I opened my mouth to ask him what he meant, but all that came out was a terrible wail. I had no idea where it came from and I could not stop it. There were more than a hundred people all around me. I went on wailing shockingly loud. Everybody stepped back. I looked around for help but they were all rooted to the spot. Then I got up and ran to out into the street, where I collapsed. There was a doctor there, a family friend, and she brought me round. I had stopped wailing now and I could breathe. My husband put me in the car with our children and took me home. I expected him to ask me, “What happened? Are you all right?” but he said nothing. He didn’t ask anything, and neither did my brother or my father. Nobody called.

I became so terribly angry I could hardly contain my rage. I shut myself in the bathroom and began shrieking and hitting my head against the wall as hard as I could until I fainted. When I came round my head hurt terribly. I opened the door and there was my husband. He said, “Are you all right?” so I said I was, and that was it. It was then that I realized, that I began to see more clearly. Thank you, Father! You all forgive me for being a stupid adolescent who couldn’t keep her mouth shut and got into trouble, who was put in prison and made her family suffer. That was it. Somebody had at last dared to say it out loud.

I was a different person, but nobody wanted to know what had happened to me. Nobody asked any questions. Not even my boyfriend. It was then I began my game of pretending that I was who I had always been.

Then I began to think about Evin again, about my friends Sara and Gita, and the others I had met there. I began to suffer flashbacks and nightmares, and I thought that I would not be able to deal with it alone and in silence. I couldn’t keep turning my back on my past. The mask had fallen and the whole pretence had been for nothing. I started to write. My first book, Prisoner of Teheran, was published in 2006. I haven’t stopped speaking and writing since then, so that what happened will never be forgotten. I owe it to all the girls who died in Evin prison.

I know I have post-traumatic stress disorder, ‘the silent killer’. Lots of people have it and don’t even know. Until my mother died, I had not experienced any symptoms myself. It is a mental disorder for which there is no cure. It works very strangely, sometimes remaining dormant for years before suddenly raising its head. The only thing you can do is learn to live with it. It can be managed in many ways –medication, therapy, writing or going for long walks in the fresh air. But it can’t be cured.

I’m able to live a fairly normal life, but the way I process my emotions is different. I almost never cry when something bad happens to me. It’s not that I’m particularly brave, just that it’s extremely difficult to upset me with bad news. Good things really trouble me though. I don’t know how to handle happy moments. I have a very strange way of dealing with my feelings, My emotional capacity is really very limited. It’s as if there were a void between me and the rest of the world. I always have a singular feeling that I shouldn’t really be here, where I am right now. Life may be wonderful, but I simply shouldn’t be there. That is about the closest I can come to explaining how I feel.

The first person to read my book was my husband, who knew nothing at all about what had happened to me in prison, although we had already been married for 17 years. Nobody knew because nobody had wanted to know. Nobody ever asked. When he had finished reading, I asked him, “Can you forgive me for not telling you all this before?” “There’s nothing to forgive”, he answered. “Can you forgive me?” “What for?” I replied, “For not asking.”

Marina Nemat at the 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty. Madrid, 2013.