Somayeh Mehri’s funeral took place on Wednesday, April 13 in her hometown, the village of Hemmatabad in Bam County, Kerman province. In 2011, Somayeh’s husband, Abbas, threw acid on her and their youngest daughter, Rana. News of the attack, and of her death in April this year, shocked people across Iran.
According to Somayeh, her husband Abbas was an addict who tried to make ends meet through petty crime, mainly burglary. When it became obvious to Abbas that Somayeh wanted a divorce, he threatened to throw acid on her. Eventually, with the help of his brother, he followed through with his threat.
Speaking about the day of the attack, Somayeh’s father , Reza Mehri, told IranWire, “I was woken up by banging. Abbas was at the door and he nervously said that Somayeh had had an electric shock. When we reached their house, I saw some of Somayeh’s hair in the middle of the yard. She was moaning and saying that she was burning. All the neighbors were there. The skin on her face was coming off. Rana was screaming. Her skin was coming off. Nazanin, my eldest granddaughter, had been woken up by the screaming. She was crying. Somayeh and Rana’s eyes were burning. We repeatedly poured water on them, but we had no idea what had happened.”
He told IranWire that although divorce is frowned upon in Hemmatabad, Abbas could have consented. “Two years before the attack, they went to the court for a consensual divorce. But Abbas’ brother mediated, and they took Somayeh back to their home. Somayeh did not know that it was part of a plan.” Somayeh suffered appalling burns and damage to her lungs during the attack, which left her with a serious, ongoing respiratory condition. Abbas also threw acid on their youngest daughter, Rana, who was a toddler at the time.
Four years later, Somayeh died at the age of 33 after her breathing problems intensified. Rana is now five years old, and the couple’s older daughter, Nazanin, is nine. Rana is blind in one eye and her face was disfigured in the attack. Nazanin is traumatized by what happened — she witnessed the horrific attacks on her mother and sister — and in deep grief over her mother’s recent death.
Their father, Abbas, is currently in prison. His brother has been released on bail, but still faces charges for his part in the crime.
“Somayeh wanted Abbas to suffer retribution (qesas) for what he did,” says Reza Mehri. “She was hoping to be there on the day he was punished. Now that she is no longer here, I will follow up on this. Before now, he was guilty of an acid attack. Now the crime is murder. Nazanin and Rana are now my children. I will raise them. I will not let anybody else be their guardian. They will stay with me.”
But with the death of Somayeh Mehri, who will actually have custody and guardianship of the children? Does her death technically change the charge against Abbas from guilty of throwing acid with intent to harm to murder?
Within the Iranian legal system, laws pertaining to custody and guardianship apply in different cases; each have different rules. While guardianship mainly concerns the financial and legal implications of looking after a child, custody relates to the raising and upbringing of the child — including their moral education. By law, this is the right and duty of both parents. However, in case of divorce, only one parent has the custody of the child. The other parent retains visiting rights.
According to Article 1169 of Iran’s Civil Code, in case of divorce, the mother has custody of children up to the age of seven. If she cannot look after the children, or, in the case of a dispute, the court decides based upon the best interests of the child. In general, rules for child custody in Iran discriminate against women. For example, even if the mother has been granted custody of the child, if the mother remarries, she will lose that custody. The same rule does not apply to the father. Before 2002, it was even worse: the mother had custody of boys up to the age of two and girls up to the age of seven but when the child grew older, the father was automatically entitled to custody.
This changed following the case of Arian Golshani, whose death in 1997 received huge attention in Iran and around the world. Women’s and children’s rights activists had repeatedly criticized Iran’s custody laws, but following Arian Golshani’s death — who was living with her father at the time — advocates were able to make a real case for custody laws to be revamped.
After her parents divorced in 1991, the court decided that Arian would live with her mother. But once she reached the age of seven, she was sent to live with her father, who was awarded custody despite her mother’s claim that he was violent and abusive. Two years later, Arian was dead, tortured and murdered by her father, her stepbrother and her stepmother. Nobel Peace Laureate and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who was Arian’s mother’s lawyer, called for urgent reform for Iran’s custody laws. Ebadi, along with other lawyers and activists, succeeded in changing the law in 2002.
In some cases, a parent can be considered to be incompetent for trying to obtain custody if it can be argued that the child’s wellbeing is at risk. Even if he or she has been granted custody, it can be taken away on the same grounds. According to Article 1173 of Iran’s Civil Code, “If the physical health or moral education of the child is endangered as a result of carelessness or moral degradation of the father or mother who are in charge of its custody, the court can take any decision appropriate for the custody of the child on the request of its relatives or its guardian or the public prosecutor.” The article provides the following as examples of carelessness or moral degradation on behalf of either parent: 1) Harmful addiction to alcohol, drugs, and gambling; 2) being notorious for moral degeneration and prostitution; 3) Affliction with mental diseases according to forensic medicine; 4) Child abuse or forcing him/her to enter into immoral occupations such as prostitution, beggary, and smuggling; 5) Repeated, excessive battery of the child.
According to lawyer Mousa Barzin Khalifelo, the act of intentionally throwing acid on a person is clear evidence of a father’s incompetence for custody.“There is a reasonable fear that the father would repeat the crime or a similar violence against the child in the future,” Barzin says. “Also, according to news reports, the father has been addicted to illegal drugs in the past. Both points disqualify him from obtaining custody of the children. Because the paternal grandfather of the children is alive, he would have priority in obtaining custody of the children, unless his incompetence is proved to the court.”
However, lawyer Leila Alikarami argues that “custody rules only applies to children who are below the age of puberty (which is nine lunar years for girls and 15 lunar years for boys). So, Nazanin, the older daughter, who is nine, can decide for herself.” Alikarami also dismisses the assertion that the paternal grandfather is given priority when it comes to obtaining custody.
Since the rules of custody differ from the rules of guardianship, the rules pertaining to custody and to guardianship also differ. The nine-year-old threshold for girls and the 15-year-old threshold for boys is only applicable to custody. For guardianship, if a child is under 18, it must be proved to the court that the child has the ability to manage his/her financial affairs — otherwise the child would still be considered to be in need of a guardian.
Guardianship mainly concerns the financial and legal matters pertaining to the child. According to Iran’s Civil Code, the natural guardian of a child is his father and his paternal grandfather. This means that even in cases where the custody is given to the mother, the guardianship will be with the father and the paternal grandfather. The permission of guardian is needed for legal matters such as issuing a passport for the child, or performing surgery on the child.
I asked lawyer Shrin Ebadi about the guardianship of Rana and Nazanin Mehri. “Even though the father is still legally the guardian of the child,” Ebadi says, “because he has committed a crime against his child, he can no longer exercise his guardianship over the children. In this case, because the paternal grandfather of the children is still alive, the guardianship will be upon the grandfather — unless it can be proved that the grandfather is incompetent for exercising guardianship. For example, if it is proved that he is unworthy of the administration of the estate of his wards or if he misappropriates property, or in cases where there are strong indications that the natural guardian would be behave dishonestly with respect to the estate of his ward.”
Barzin says that the charges against Abbas will be affected by his former wife’s death.“Since the cause of Somayeh’s death was the acid, which was thrown on her by Abbas, his charge now changes to murder.”
According to Iran’s Penal Code, a father cannot face retribution (qesas) for committing a crime against his child; rather, he will only be sentenced to pay “blood money” and might face imprisonment of between two to five years. Barzin argues that exempting the father from the full punishment merely because he has committed the crime against his own child is unjust. Both the fine and the prison term the law allows for such a father is in no way proportionate, he argues, and he calls for the law to be amended. It is unlikely to have an impact on the lives of Somayeh’s children, at least in the foreseeable future. But for other children in Iran whose lives, wellbeing and health are put at risk by Iran’s bad family laws, it could make all the difference.