Cherry Trees in the Shahdad Desert: A Prisoner’s Reflections on the Afkari Brothers

May 19, 2021
Guest Blog
6 min read
Mohammad Ali Zahmatkesh, a teachers' union activist in Fars province, was an inmate of Habib Afkari, whose brother Navid was executed in September 2020
Mohammad Ali Zahmatkesh, a teachers' union activist in Fars province, was an inmate of Habib Afkari, whose brother Navid was executed in September 2020
Zahmatkesh posted his reflections about Habib Afkari and his brothers on Instagram
Zahmatkesh posted his reflections about Habib Afkari and his brothers on Instagram

Mohammad Ali Zahmatkesh is a teachers' unionist from Fars province, currently being held in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz after a Revolutionary Court found him guilty of "propaganda against the regime" and "insulting the authorities” and gave him an eight-month prison sentence.

He is also a fellow inmate of Habib Afkari, one of three brothers arrested for allegedly taking part in protests in 2018. Habib’s brother Navid was executed in September 2020. Habib and Vahid Afkari have now spent more than 250 days in solitary confinement.

Zahmatesh recently went on to Instagram to talk about what he had learned about Habib and the Afkari brothers and their ordeal over consecutive months of detention and torture. This is what he said.

Mourning, Unit Four, the Green Ward for Adults, Shiraz Central Prison

"I didn't have the opportunity to meet the heroic martyr of Shiraz, Navid Afkari. The same goes for Vahid. But I met Habib. We were inmates for about three or four months. I remember him introducing himself. I asked for the address of his primary school and the name of his first grade teacher. I had taught a student with the same name from 1992 to 2002. I thought it might be him.

"Habib was very polite and unobtrusive. He would say: I'm a plasterer, I was an architect. I asked questions and he explained everything, from the Kuwaiti trowel to the preparation of all the sliding tools used for all kinds of plasterwork.

"He even said he had bought a plot of land in Sangar and wanted to build a house there. We would pick up a couple of pieces of paper and sit for hours drawing plans. We moved the walls. We changed the size of the reception and the two rooms., until we achieved what he really wanted.

"He said: I'll send this plan out so Saeed can start working. What beautiful and simple wishes this boy had. And the words he spoke, he spoke like a skilled craftsman: confident, heavy and colorful. Of course, his head was always down and a beautiful smile was on his lips, which made the depths of his sad face more beautiful.

"We became friends. Two or three weeks later, I was reading a book in the library and two prisoners were discussing the case of the Afkari brothers. They spoke hesitantly in the beginning. One of the inmates said that, after two months of Habib being brought to the ward, some clothes had been sent to him from outside which he had finally received.

"When I entered the room, Habib was sitting alone with his basket of goods at his feet. He was holding a T-shirt. He had covered his eyes with the shirt and was crying. I went and sat next to him. I began to comfort him, but it was of no use. Floods of tears were pouring from his eyes; he was not crying out loud to keep his voice from rising.

"That T-shirt belonged to Navid, Habib was saying: I have a feeling they are going to kill Navid. He told me: Navid grew up on the wrestling mat; he has never bowed down to anyone. It's impossible for him to confess to something he has not done. I know he won't do it — even if faced with death. Habib loved the T-shirt so much.

"After this I asked the other inmates for more details about the story, and they told me things that made my whole body tremble. I swear to God it was unbelievable. I was shocked to hear about the torture inflicted on these three brothers. Habib was very modest and didn't say anything to us. But they were talking about calamities that even God had not revealed to the people of Aad, Thamud, and Lut [tribes mentioned in the Quran].

"For two or three hours, I kept imagining the feeling of my eyes being closed and my hands bound and then someone putting a plastic bag with a handle on my head and pulling it down to the bottom of my neck, then tightening it around my neck so that no air could reach my lungs. How would this feel?

"I could no longer hear the voices of my fellow inmates. I was holding my breath all the time and counting the seconds with my fingers. How long could I hold my breath? My God! In the 30th or 40th second, I would even confess to the murder of Ali Ibn Abi Talib! What strength and power did this boy have, that he did not confess in this sea of ​​horror?

"I could not bear to hear any more. I went into the hallway and smoked two cigarettes, one after the other, then went to room number two. Habib had spread 30 or 40 pieces of correspondence out in front of him and was writing up a lawsuit. Sometimes he would get up and walk over to the phones and stand in line for them. When it was his turn, he would dial a number and consult someone for 10 minutes. Then he would come back again, sit in front of the papers. It was his daily job.

"For each court session they had, he wrote up somewhere between 50 and 60 pages. But in the morning, when he was ready to go to court, he was not allowed to take his papers; neither he nor his brothers were allowed.

"It took me two or three hours to speak just two or three sentences with him. I said: Habib, to the one and only God, these oppressions are forbidden against anyone. Why don't you shout out about them? Either shout yourself or tell us to shout about it.

"As I said, Habib was very unobtrusive. He just raised his head and said, Dear teacher, first, we will exhaust all legal avenues. Then we rely on God; our God is also very generous."

"I swear to God that the voice of the world champion of Shiraz, Navid Afkari, reached the moon. But his voice did not reach the ears of Islamic justice, nor did his holy body survive. Vahid also resisted so much during the medieval tortures that were inflicted on him; he could not breathe and tried to take his life twice. Habib and Vahid have been in solitary confinement for more than 250 days, including this unfortunate, black month of May. Their present situation is not known to any one.

"I turned to leave the room. My dear Habib, I said, expecting human justice and a dignified life under a government driven by ideology is the story of the cherry orchard in the Shahdad desert. He laughed and went back to his papers. How beautifully he laughed.

"I started walking down the hallway of the unit. I always said to myself in my heart, I must go to their house when I am released. I'll kiss their parents' hands, parents who have raised such dignified and honorable young people, devoted men who endure the most horrible tortures, but do not surrender to the tyranny of accusations and slander. I went to them, but, alas, I went too late, because Navid was no more.”

Related Coverage: 

Afkari Brothers Banned From Seeing Family

Judiciary Statement on Afkari's Execution Riddled with Legal Issues

Three Imprisoned Brothers Beaten and Denied Medical Help



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