Two days have passed since the sudden execution of Navid Afkari, a wrestler from Shiraz who was arrested in 2018, and Iranians are still reeling from the shock and disbelief.
Afkari received two death sentences: first for killing a government official during protests in August 2018 and then for participating in the protests, for which he was charged with “waging war against God.”
Prior to Afkari’s execution, Iranians and people around the world had gone on to social media to plea for his life to be spared, using the hashtags “Do not kill our Navid,” “No to execution,” and “Navid Afkari.” They hoped to spread the word, and they did, but Iran’s regime failed to listen.
The news of his execution triggered responses from around the world, from the International Olympic Committee and United World Wrestling (UWW) to the US Secretary of State and the German Embassy in Iran. Many athletes added their voices to the condemnation of the execution.
So what did the average Iranian person think? How did people respond? How did people working and shopping in the bazaars, people with ordinary jobs and without any kind of fame, sporting or otherwise, react to what happened? What did people like Navid Afkari, a wrestler from Shiraz, have to say about Iran’s execution of someone like them?
“Yesterday, our neighborhood grocer put a piece of cheese in front of my mother and said, ‘Haj Khanum! You should have at least told them to hold back in the month of Muharram and not to execute him them. They keep on saying they killed this young man out of respect for the families of the martyrs.’ My mother does not have a satellite TV and was completely unaware of Navid Afkari’s execution.”
These are the words of Morteza, whose older brother was killed in the Iran-Iraq war. In the lexicon of the Islamic Republic, he qualifies as a member of “a martyr’s family.” “My mother, who had mourned the loss of her child, is constantly humiliated by the Islamic Republic’s definition of martyrs’ families,” he says. “Everyone they kill, they say he is killed in honor of the families of martyrs! They justify their wrongdoings in the name of martyrs.”
When Morteza’s mother returned home, she asked her family what the grocer had meant. “Ever since my brother’s martyrdom, every time my mother hears about the death of a young man, or even when she sees a hejleh on the street she becomes depressed [a symbol of the consummation of a marriage; when a man dies young and unmarried, families often display a hejleh to grieve the fact that he was unable to benefit from marriage]. Now, after finding out about the execution of Navid Afkari, she is totally confused. She watched a part of Navid’s burial on the news of one of the satellite TV channels and began to hit herself so hard she lost consciousness. She said my brother was also tall, just like this poor boy who did not fit in the grave.”
Morteza goes silent for a moment and then says: “My mother’s sorrow is still fresh; it has been fresh since 1983. But sometimes she gets disappointed with the people as well. She says the Islamic Republic has damaged our dignity in the eyes of the people. Some time ago, when I read a short post by author Mohammad Hassan Shahsavari on his Instagram page, I realized my mother is not the only mother of a martyr who has this feeling.”
Morteza is referring to a comment by Shahsavari about Pouya Bakhtiari, a young boy who was shot dead in the November 2019 protests. “My mother once said that everyone who sees me, family and acquaintances, talks about the rise in prices and corruption,” he wrote, and recalled the death of his 16-year-old brother in the Iran-Iraq war. His mother, he writes, feels as if people regard her as if she is responsible for the Islamic Republic. ‘“They do not notice that my poor son lies under the ground,”’ she says.
The Islamic Republic: Spiteful to its People
Ali is a student and active on social media. He read a lot about Navid Afkari, and saw coverage of what happened on satellite TV. Like many others, he was shocked by what happened. “When the hashtags ‘Navid Afkari’ and ‘Don’t Kill Our Navid’ became popular, I thought our voices had reached the world and it would be impossible to kill him, but … I am still amazed by all this insolence from the Islamic Republic. I was even more shocked when I heard about Navid’s last phone call. He did not know that he would be hanged in a few hours. He was optimistic; just like all of us, he thought he would not be killed.”
Ali pauses before continuing. “Really, the question for me is why would a system in the throes of sanctions, a bad economic situation, coronavirus outbreak, etc, where popular dissatisfaction is peaking, execute a person and push general dissatisfaction to its limits? What is the aim of this stubborn hostility with the people? I have been thinking about these questions for two days, but I have not yet come to a conclusion.”
Sahar, like Ali, followed the news with disbelief. “In a country where sanctions, poverty, and high prices have damaged everyone’s livelihood, I wish they had at least shown some leniency in this cass, in the face of all the campaigns and the demands and pleas of the people,” she said angrily. “I feel stuck in a cage since yesterday. The words of Navid, who said they were looking for a ‘neck for their rope’ keeps coming back into my mind. I feel this rope could fall around the necks of all of us under false pretenses.”
Sahar said she did not believe what had happened. It took a few hours after the news of the execution emerged that she could absorb it. “I checked the news several times. When Mizan News Agency, which belongs to the judiciary, broke the news, I realized it was real. I could not believe the system could be so cruel. I could not believe that they would sneer at the whole world.”
She takes a deep breath and continues: “We are told that an innocent person might go to the gallows but they won’t be hanged,” referring to an Islamic saying that innocent people will be saved at the last moment. “It has been said that oppression would not remain on earth, but the Islamic Republic has proved this to be untrue. The innocent person is sent to the gallows and hanged; the oppressed people are shot dead in the middle of the street for peacefully protesting. The oppression persists.”
Retribution or Political Execution?
Yaser, also a student, mentions reports that Afkari’s family were preparing to speak to the family of Hassan Torkman, the man who was killed during the August 2018 protests. “Honestly, at first I said if the case is a murder case, for which the sentence is qisas [retribution], then we should also consider the victim’s family, because they have lost a loved one too. But after watching the “20:30” TV report, as well as the hasty execution, I changed my mind. I became aware that Navid’s family was trying to get the consent of the victim’s family to pardon Navid. I now think that this execution was just a political execution, not qisas for a murder.”
Nastaran, a lawyer, confirms what Yasser says. “In carrying out the qisas sentence, the victim’s family is usually asked to attend the ceremony. This is because many families are then moved by emotion of the moment and give their consent for a pardon. But according to reports, the victim’s family was not present during the qisas.”
She points out that Navid Afkari’s case had serious legal flaws. “But the most important legal violation of the case is that Navid was sentenced to qisas based on a confession, but he himself stated that his confession was taken under torture. Confessions under torture have no legal validity.”
Nima, Nastaran’s colleague, agrees: “The case has serious legal flaws. I cannot go into the essence of the matter and whether it was right or wrong, but as a lawyer I say they should at least respect the laws they themselves set. More than half of our legal laws are derived from jurisprudence, and except in a few countries, this is not considered to be a basis for judging legal and criminal matters anywhere in the world. However, the same laws regarding the matter of retribution consider that the person who is sentenced to death to have the right to meet with the family. Also, those who are identified as the “owners of the blood” [the victim’s family] must witness the implementation of the death sentence. Even the prosecutor’s representative should try to make peace between the two families and get the consent of the victim’s family.
“The most significant point in non-observance of jurisprudence is to carry out the death sentence during the forbidden months. The four months of Muharram, Rajab, Dhi Al-Qaeda and Dhi Al-Hijjah are forbidden months during which, except in times of war, execution is not traditionally performed. The refusal to execute in the forbidden months became more formal with Mr. Khomeini’s interpretation of Surah Tawbah, which says do not oppress people during these four months, do not fight and kill the polytheists, even if they attack you.”
The Vanishing of Hope
At the end of our discussion, Nima says: “When they want to rule through dictatorship and bullying alone, and whenever, depending on their interests and what suits their agenda, they mock and trample on what they believed to be a law, they destroy the people’s belief. They do not know that despairing people without anything to believe in are the most dangerous people to governments.”
As a social activist, Maryam has advocated to save people’s lives, and has appealed to families of victims to have mercy on those guilty of killing their loved ones. She has personally intervened, and tried to persuade families to accept blood money as qisas, rather than cost a life. She has been successful many times. “To me, this amount of insult to the public is unbelievable and intolerable,” she says.
That people were using “No to Execution” and other hashtags on social media have given her hope, but she knows now so much more has to happen. “So frustrating is the moment you become hopeful and then suddenly you’re deprived of hope and are just empty. Tomorrow I am closing all my social media accounts. This tyrannical government does not respond to requests, or insistence and begging. A bad tooth must be removed from the root.”
But what she’s been saying to herself again and again over the last few days, sometimes in a whisper, is: “Like a butterfly in a fist, how easy it is to kill us.”
This article was written by a citizen journalist based in Iran who has asked for his or her identity to be protected