For many, Facebook represents the loneliness of modern life, symbolizing a world devoid of genuine and meaningful relationships. But in the case of Safar Angouti, an Iranian teenager facing the death penalty, Facebook was used to help save a life – and demonstrate that the social networking site could be used to bring about something meaningful.
Up to the age of 23, Safar faced hanging three times. But in each case, his execution was stayed at the last minute.
When he was 16, he killed Mehdi, a teenager around his own age, in a quarrel over “honor”. In the neighborhood where he lived, it was not uncommon for people to carry knives and get into fights on a regular basis. Along with his father, Safar was forced to support his family in any way he could, often by finding things to sell, or by picking up scraps of food that had been discarded. Safar was only 12 when he became the breadwinner of his family.
In prison, he found how to live without fury and fighting all the time. He felt ashamed of the blood on his hands. He promised himself that, upon returning to the world outside prison, he would become a good person. For a long time, the victim’s grieving family was not ready to forgive him.
Article 91 of Iran’s new Islamic penal code makes it possible for those under 18 to avoid execution – but it is yet to be fully implemented everywhere in the country. But even when it is in place, underage people facing the death penalty will still have to rely on expert medical and forensic testimony regarding the mental capacity and maturity of the accused.
Safar, however, committed his crime before the new laws were introduced. They are not retroactive. The only way to save Safar was to mobilize public opinion.
After a substantial amount of persuasion from mediators, the victim’s family agreed to forgive Safar for a sum of $76,000. Two charities, the Iranian Institute for Student Aid and the Imam Ali Foundation, gathered about $24,000, but there was still a long way to go. Supporters created a Facebook page and asked those who visiting the page to save Safar by donating $4 each.
Twenty thousand Facebook users responded, coming up with the remaining funds to save his life. Thanks to the denizens of Facebook, Safar will soon be freed.
What’s fascinating is the fact that many people that visited the page and donated as a result were on Afghans, or Arabs from countries around the Persian Gulf — making a strong case for the claim that human compassion and conscience extends beyond borders.
The money has been paid to the victim’s family, and donations continue. The Imam Ali Institute hopes to use the extra money to help children with difficult-to-cure diseases.
A Muddled Law In The Hand of Citizens
Why doesn’t Iranian law have a clear policy towards the death penalty for juvenile offenders? And why was it up to public conscience on the one hand and to the bereaved family of the victim on the other?
Iran is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was finalized by the General Assembly, with the support of legal experts on children’s rights and Unicef, in 1989. Currently 193 countries, with the exception of the United States and Somalia, are committed to the convention.
Iran joined the convention in 1994, but with conditions and reservations, declaring that "if the text of the Convention is or becomes incompatible with the domestic laws and Islamic standards at any time or in any case, the Government of the Islamic Republic shall not abide by it.” Ever since, Iran’s position has not become any clearer.
Article 37 of the treaty affirms that the “death penalty and life imprisonment for juvenile offenders is prohibited”, but Iran continues to issue death penalty verdicts for offenders under the age of 18.
Following international pressure and outcry from human rights organizations over the execution of Behnoud Shojaee, Iranian media stopped publishing official statistics about the execution of children. But despite this secrecy, evidence indicates that there are still children in Iranian prisons waiting to be executed. One can only assume that, for these young offenders, the experience is nightmarish and terrifying.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that individuals under 18, regardless of gender, should be treated as children – in other words, they have not yet reached full mental maturity and therefore do not have the judgment to make adult decisions. But in the Islamic Republic of Iran, laws are based on sharia law, which dictates that a girl has reached full maturity at age nine and a boy at age 14. So if a child who has reached the legal age of maturity commits a crime, he or she is held responsible for it – unless, under the new penal code, a medical examiner deems they have not reached full maturity.
To The Gallows And Back
In some cases, children have repeatedly been removed from their cells to be executed, only to be then be told they will not face execution that day. Undeniably, it’s a traumatic and devastating experience for a child.
Ali Mahin Torabi is one example. Ali was a high school student from a quiet and law-abiding family. He was selected by the school officials to help them keep order. During a quarrel with another boy, Mazdak Khodadian, he stabbed and killed the boy.
Mazdak's family did not forgive Ali and he was taken to the gallows several times. “Now I count my days on my fingers,” he wrote to his father from prison, “because the mysterious moments of my life are passing by too fast. This place is really dark. I have forgotten the smell of the school. Not much time remains until the execution but I, Ali, son of Mohammad Reza, born in 1365 , former second-grade high school student, look forward to the grace of God and the forgiveness of my friend’s father, even though I don’t remember having stabbed him in the heart.”
In the end, helped by an international children’s rights organization and human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, who had come across his case by chance, Ali was released on bail after seven years and seven months in prison. Mostafaei was able to prove that Ali’s confession at the start of the case had been forcefully extracted and went against forensic evidence. But not all children share Ali’s luck.
“Iran is the only country that executes teenagers,” says Abdolkarim Lahiji, an Iranian lawyer based in France and the head of International Federation for Human Rights, even though it is banned by international human rights treaties.
Iran is in the shameful position of being number one in the world for executing children, according to Clarisa Bencomo, Human Rights Watch's children's rights researcher for the Middle East and North Africa. She has called for the Iranian authorities put an end to this practice immediately.
In December 2013, Iran Human Rights group reported that “the juvenile offender Mohammad Reza Haddadi is in danger of imminent execution”. He is now 25 but was under 15 when he allegedly committed murder.
For human rights activists, it is the age of the criminal at the time a crime is committed that should be of significance, not the age of the defendant at the time his or her case is being considered.
Mohammad Reza, who is imprisoned in Shiraz, has been taken to the gallows five times and has been returned to his cell at the last minute each time. It’s possible that he could be hanged without the knowledge of the media, which is deeply disturbing for Mohammad’s family and friends and human rights campaigners alike.
Mohammad Reza says that at the time of murder, he was told that if he accepted the responsibility for the crime, he would not face death penalty because he was underage. In return for his confession, his impoverished mother was offered a considerable sum of money.
“When my son was arrested,” his mother said in an interview, “he could not even ride a bicycle, let alone steal a car and kill a grown-up man. Look at his picture; he was so frail and tiny that could not hurt a fly. Mohammad Reza became a scapegoat. He sacrificed himself under the delusion the he could help us. He was a victim of poverty and now he is going to be a victim of retribution.”