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Tortured and at Risk of Execution for Taking Part in 2018 Protests

September 2, 2020
Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
17 min read
A government agent was killed during protests in Shiraz in summer 2018. Weeks later, a number of people, including the three Afkari bothers, were arrested
A government agent was killed during protests in Shiraz in summer 2018. Weeks later, a number of people, including the three Afkari bothers, were arrested
Navid Afkari says he was severely tortured and suffered a broken arm. To force him to confess, authorities threatened to arrest his mother and sister
Navid Afkari says he was severely tortured and suffered a broken arm. To force him to confess, authorities threatened to arrest his mother and sister
Vahid Afkari was put under intense pressure to make confessions against his brother Navid. He attempted suicide in prison twice
Vahid Afkari was put under intense pressure to make confessions against his brother Navid. He attempted suicide in prison twice

During protests in Shiraz that started on July 31, 2018, a government security agent was killed. A number of people, including three brothers, were arrested weeks later and charged with his murder. The criminal court sentenced one of them, Navid Afkari, to qisas (“retribution”),  and he was also sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court for “waging war against God.”

But the story is complicated and has many layers. The case has been marked by ambiguities and disregard for undisputed legal principles — from the testimonies of several witnesses being ignored and the judge’s threat “I will hang you myself” to a defense lawyer being forced to quit from the case to the torture and arrest of other family members as a means of extracting confessions.

In a defense statement, the Afkari brothers’ attorneys wrote that they had confessed after being tortured, but the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Court ignored that evidence and rejected a request for a retrial.

This article is based on documented evidence and interviews with a number of informed sources.


Protests of Summer 2018 and the Killing of a Government Agent

Following a steep rise in the price of gold and a sharp drop in the value of Iranian currency, demonstrations protesting against high prices started in several cities, including Shiraz, on July 31, 2018, and lasted through August 2. On the evening of August 2, after protesters had been dispersed, Hasan Turkman, an agent of the Security Department of Shiraz Water and Sewage Company, was returning home from the scene of the protests with a colleague when he was attacked in the Shah-Dai Allah neighborhood and died in hospital. According to the medical examiner’s report, Turkman was killed by two strokes of a sharp object and by the two impacts from a hard object.

According to his case file, that day Turkman had gone to the scene of the protest dressed as a civilian for reconnaissance purposes. He was not meant to fight the protesters or to detain them.

According to the testimony of Turkman’s colleague, who was accompanying him, as they were standing in Dariush Street, close to the scene of the protests, the owner of a supermarket told him that “somebody was surveilling you.” He says that they looked around and did not see anybody but when Hasan Turkman neared his home, later that day, his colleague noticed a motorbike rider who was passing by and he memorized the license plate.


Where were the Afkari brothers on that day and at that time?

Vahid Afkari, born in 1985, is single and worked as a plasterer. On the day in question, July 31, he was working with a tiler colleague inside a private residence; after 6pm, when his work for the day was finished, he returned to his parents’ home on his own motorcycle to take a shower and then go to the home of his tiler friend.

A number of witnesses testified that, at the specified time, he had been seen in a place other than the scene of the crime and these testimonies were recorded in the case file.


The same evening Navid Afkari, one of Vahid’s brothers, went to Dariush Street to get Vahid’s mobile phone repaired. Dariush Street and Tawhid Street have many shops that sell mobile phones; they are located in a shopping arcade called Audio and Video Mall.

Mr. Fereydoon, a relative of the Afkari family who has followed the case, tells IranWire that on that day, Navid had gone to that location not to participate in the protests but because he had promised his brother Vahid that he would get his phone fixed. According to this informed source, Navid had gone to Dariush Street alone.

Later, it was claimed that on that day and at that hour, both brothers had been at the site of the protest location, riding Vahid’s motorcycle. But according to the testimony of several witnesses, as recorded in the case file, at that time Vahid was in another location.

Forty-some days later, at midnight on September 17, 2018, agents of the Shiraz Police Criminal Investigation Department raided Afkari’s home. They woke up Navid and Vahid, arrested them and took them to a detention center.

Fereydoon has been informed by members of the Afkari family that the arresting agents had no arrest warrant and were dressed in civilian clothes. “A few days after they were arrested, we found out that they were being kept at the Shiraz Criminal Investigation Department and were charged with murder,” he says. “We were all shocked. At that phase, [the authorities] denied the family right to engage a lawyer and told them that ‘you can only choose from among lawyers that we trust.’ But the Afkari family could not get anywhere. When we wanted to choose from the list of ‘trusted lawyers’, they would not accept it. They gave us the runaround and said that we were not allowed to do anything until the investigations were complete. In other words, they would not allow us to do anything until they had extracted the confessions that they wanted.”

Authorities had traced Navid's and Vahid’s phone signals and arrested them because the signals showed that both phones had been near the crime scene at the time of the crime. But it was later testified that both phones were carried by Navid and his brother Vahid was not present.

“They had obtained several phone numbers and, after pruning them repeatedly, they were left with the cellphone numbers of the Afkari brothers and their friend,” says IranWire’s source. “Then they decided that these numbers belonged to the suspects. They arrested them and started pressuring them to confess. The license plate that Mr. Turkman’s colleague had memorized was in the case file. The murdered agent’s family had said they had filed a complaint against the rider of the motorbike. But the license plate was nothing like the license-plate of the motorcycle owned by Vahid. They found the motorbike. It belonged to a workshop and the owner of the workshop said that it was for the use of his apprentices and all of them used it. One of the apprentices, who often rode the motorbike, had been absent from a day earlier and did not return to the workshop until a few days later. They brought him in, checked his mobile phone and let him go because his phone had not been sending signals from that location [the murder scene] and at that time.”

Navid Afkari, born in 1993, is a wrestler and has won several competitions at the national level. Like his brother Vahid, he is single and works as plasterer. He was suspected partly because he had previously defaced a picture of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, at a sports salon, and had once shoved a clergyman in the street.

According to the case file against the Afkari brothers and numerous documents received by IranWire, including hundreds of pages of defense statements, transcripts of court proceedings and statements by the judge, the phone signals on which the case against them was built did not come from a clear and specific area. The phone signals had been traced to a point far from the crime scene – a place where many people frequent.

But why did the authorities not release the Afkari brothers? Why did they pressure him to confess to the murder? “Forty-five days had passed since the murder and they had no suspects,” says a relative of the brothers. “They were under pressure by the victim’s family and the higher-ups. The Shiraz Intelligence Bureau was very focused on [the case] because the victim had been a member of the security department and they wanted a culprit.”

The Afkari brothers were first taken to the Shiraz Criminal Investigation Department detention center. The brothers later said that, during interrogations in this detention center, they were severely tortured. According to information received by IranWire, in the early stages of questioning, an experienced and competent person by the name of Darakhshan acted as the examining magistrate. But he was soon transferred and a new examining magistrate from Tehran replaced him.


Vahids Suicide Attempts in Prison

During the interrogations Vahid attempted suicide twice. The first time, he broke a glass and tried to cut the artery in his neck, but the prison authorities took him to the hospital and operated on him.

“Vahid is the second brother,” says IranWire’s source. “He was usually stronger than the others and seldom fell sick. It is very difficult for his parents to imagine what must have happened to Vahid to attempt suicide twice and to be saved only by a miracle. During the interrogations to extract his forced confession, Vahid went on hunger strike twice and wrote that his hunger strike was a sort of slow suicide so that, perhaps, judiciary officials would hear his voice.”

The 35-year-old Vahid has three cases open against him in three different courts. In the first criminal court he is charged with being an “accessory to first-degree murder.” In the second criminal court, he is charged with “disrupting public order through participation in illegal gatherings and rebellion” and “insulting a government agent while engaged in carrying out his official duties.” And then there is the Revolutionary Court under Judge Mahmoud Sadati where he faced a long list of charges: “Corruption on earth through organizing a four-member group hostile to the regime and leading this group with the intent to harm national security,” “propaganda activities against the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic,” “conspiracy and gathering to commit crimes against people’s lives and property,” “preparations and collusion to commit crimes against domestic security,” “enticing and provoking people to fight and kill each other with the intent of damaging country’s security” and “insulting the exalted Supreme Leader.”

The first criminal court sentenced Vahid to 25 years in prison, the second criminal court to 4.5 years in prison and the Revolutionary Court to 27 years in prison.

Fereydoon says that Vahid was pressured to confession against his brother Navid. He attempted suiide twice to avoid yielding to this demand. “After the doctor miraculously saved Vahid’s life, he was transferred to the ‘Guidance’ ward of Vakilabad Prison in Shiraz,” he says. “This ward is used to punish dangerous criminals, where they are put under enormous psychological pressures. But Vahid is a quiet and peaceful person, and living in that atmosphere was very difficult for him. The hygiene in the ward was awful and the stitches on his neck became infected.”

Navid and Vahid Afkari were kept in the detention center run by Shiraz Criminal Investigations Department for two months. During this time, after being tortured, Navid confessed he was the murderer. However later he categorically retracted his confessions and said he had accepted this charge under unusual conditions.

On December 13, 2018, the third brother, Habib Afkari, was arrested only three months after marrying and two months after his two brothers had been arrested. He was charged with membership to the so-called group that had been organized by Navid and Vahid. The existence this group was never proved. 

At the lower criminal court, Habib Afkari received the following sentences: one year in prison and 74 lashes for “participation in illegal gatherings,” four years for “defying and insulting government agents in the course of carrying out their duties,” nine months for “defying and insulting an agent of the law,” two and a half years for two counts of “injury intentionally inflicted with a sharp object [knife]” and seven and a half years for “preparations and collusion [with his brothers] to commit crimes against domestic security.” Habib has appealed the lower court’s verdict.

After the arrest of Habib, all three Afkari brothers were transferred to the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center in Shiraz known as Plaque 100. Before this, only Navid Afkari had confessed to his guilt under torture but once they were at Plaque 100 all three accepted all charges against them.

What happened? In the course of the long days that they were held at the detention center of the Criminal Investigation Department they refused to confess. So why did they confess now?

“The story changed when they were transferred,” says IranWire’s source. “What they told us about the Intelligence Ministry is really horrible. Even hearing about it is terrifying. At the Criminal Investigations Department they were threatened and beaten. They would pull a plastic bag over their heads, or they would beat one of them in front of the other. But these are nothing compared to what happened at the intelligence ministry. At Plaque 100 they would play psychological games with them. Habib is very attached to Navid and they threatened him that they would kill Navid if he did not confess. Or they threatened Navid that they would kill Vahid. ‘Do you know what will happen to your sister and mother if they are brought here?’ they said. They mentioned Kavous Seyed Emami [an Iranian-Canadian academic and environmentalist who allegedly committed suicide in prison] and told them: ‘We killed him. Although he was famous, nothing happened. You are nobodies.’”


How was Navid Afkari Forced to Confess?

Navid Afkari says he was so brutally tortured that agents broke his arm during the interrogations. His arm was not treated and the bones reset by themselves. They threatened to harm his brother Vahid or to arrest his sister and his mother. Early on, Navid’s aging father was arrested for a few days and Navid later told his cellmates that he had confessed because they would have dragged his sister and his mother into prison as well. After Navid’s father was arrested, the husband of their only sister was arrested as well and spent some time in detention because, they said, they suspected him of complicity.

Later, during the trial, Navid retracted all his confessions and said he had been forced to confess under intense pressure, but both the Criminal Investigation Department and the Intelligence Bureau of Shiraz denied that any pressure or torture had been used.

But during the court proceedings, an individual testified in writing (below) that he had witnessed the torture and Navid Afkari's arm being broken. According to IranWire’s source, “this person was not a relative, had no relation with the Afkari family and was quite aware of the risk he was taking, but he did not stay silent because that was the humane thing to do.”

Nevertheless, the judge refused to call the witness to testify during the trial and completely ignored him. He simply wrote that there was “not sufficient reason” to call the witness. But the judge also ignored the medical examiner’s certificate about Navid’s broken arm.

According to this informed source, when authorities saw that Navid’s arm was broken and there was also a witness, they put a piece of paper in front of him and told him to write that he had not been tortured. Navid had no other choice but to sign it and to write that he had confessed out of his own free will.


“When the accused is forced to confess that he is a murderer, it is not much more difficult to have him sign something that says he has not confessed under torture,” says IranWire’s source. “Then they wanted the lawyer to sign the paper but the lawyer chose to resign. We had nowhere else to go and when we went to the lawyer he said he was not able to do anything because he had been threatened.”

Then Navid Afkari asked the court to review the videos recorded during the interrogations so that the judge would see under what conditions he had confessed, but both the Criminal Investigations Department and the Intelligence Bureau told the court that there was no video and whatever there had been had been erased.


Charges against Navid Afkari and the Verdicts

There are multiple charges against Navid Afkari. The first criminal court sentenced him to death for masterminding the murder of Hasan Turkman. This verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court that rejected his request for a retrial.

The second criminal court sentenced him to one year in prison and 74 lashes for “disrupting public order through participation in illegal gatherings” and to three and a half years in prison for “defying and insulting government agents in the course of performing their duties.”

The Revolutionary Court also sentenced him to death for “corruption on earth through organizing a four-member group hostile to the regime and leading this group with the intent to harm national security.” But the court also sentenced him to various prison sentences on a range of charges including “propaganda against the regime” and “insulting the Supreme Leader.”


What Authorities are in Charge of the Case?

The case of the Afkari brothers was first sent to Branch 8 of Shiraz Investigations Department and the result of the questioning led to the filing of a case with the first criminal court. Branch 1 of Shiraz Criminal Court was presided over by Judge Mehrdad Tahamtan. At the same time, another case against the brothers was under investigation at Branch 2 of Shiraz Criminal Court, presided over by Judge Ahmad Boroumandi. And, at Branch 1 of Shiraz Revolutionary Court, Judge Mahmoud Sadati was responsible for investigating the charges against the Afkari brothers.

When they were transferred from the Criminal Investigations Department to the Intelligence Bureau, the investigations were conducted by Branch 10 of the bureau’s Investigations Department under Afshin Mohammadi Darreh-Shoori.

“There was no hard evidence for the charges brought against the Afkari brothers,” Fereydoon tells IranWire. “The only evidence cited by the judge was the confessions by the defendants, but the defendants insisted they had made the confessions under torture.”

The first session of the Afkari brothers’ trial was held in April 2019 at Branch 1 of Shiraz Revolutionary Court presided over by Judge Mahmoud Sadati. Right at the start of the trial and even before the charges were examined, Judge Sadati, after reciting a few verses from Koran, told the defendants that “one of these Fridays I will hang you myself at the prayers ground.”

According to IranWire’s source, one day after the trial started and without summons and without following the due process, the judge called them back to the court and tricked them into signing a document that he said they had forgotten to sign. The paper, which was signed by the defendants without the presence of their lawyer, linked their case at the Revolutionary Court to their case at the first criminal court. The result was that, by combining the charge of murder with other charges at the Revolutionary Court, the judge was able to bring the charge of “warring against God.” Thus, Navid Afkari was sentenced to death, Vahid Afkari was sentenced to 25 years in prison for complicity in Navid’s crime and Habib Afkari received a prison sentence of seven years.


Trapped in the Judicial Spider Web

It took two years and close 1,700 pages to bring the Afkari brothers to court but why, during all this time, did their family keep silent? Whey didn't they tell the media anything about it?

“They were so entangled in the court process and its disasters that they were like the victims of a spider that had woven a web around its bait and had left no opening for escape,” says Mr. Fereydoon. “They opened cases one after another and brought charges against them in truckloads, so much so that they were exhausted. The parents of the Afkari brothers have turned into shadows of their former selves.”

All through their incarceration, the Afkari brothers have been kept in separate wards in Adelabad prison — Habibi in Security Ward 14, Navid in Sa’adat Ward and Habib in Ward 11 — and throughout all this time they have not been able to meet with each other.

For a long time, even their parents were not allowed to visit them. Only once, during the interrogations, were they allowed to see Navid from afar to assure them that he was still alive.

Mr. Fereydoon says that the Afkari brothers were very good children to their parents. Even the idea that they were in this situation and had committed so many imaginary crimes was very difficult to accept for their parents and anyone who knew them.

According to this informed source, one of the main levers used to force the brothers to confess to the bogus charges against them was the threat of arresting other members of their family. “They threatened them that they would arrest their parents, their sister and their other brother,” he says. “They had told Navid and Vahid that, if they do not confess, they would arrest Habib as well and when they did arrest Habib they succeeded in keeping the whole affair out of the public eye.”

In an audio file received by IranWire, Navid Afkari tells the public that he is getting closer to the gallows step by step. He says he had been silent up to then because he was hoping that justice would prevail, but that now that he was about to be hanged he needed the support of public opinion and people who believe in justice.

He tells the people that, if he is executed, they must know that, in the 21st century, with all the human rights organizations in the world, the United Nations, the Security Council, and so on, an innocent man has been executed despite the fact that he tried and fought with everything in his power.


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