Outcry over the execution of Navid Afkari has prompted the Fars Province Department of Justice to issue a statement about the case. But the official riposte, published on Wednesday, September 16, gave rise to more questions than answers.
To try to understand what the content could mean, IranWire has spoken to Babak Paknia, a lawyer who was involved in the case and was in contact with Afkari's family.
Navid Afkari, a wrestler from Shiraz, was executed in Iran on the morning of Saturday, September 12. He had been sentenced to death over the murder of a government official during the protests of August 2018: charges he always denied.
International condemnation of the state-sponsored killing of Afkari poured in throughout last week. A day after his execution, an audio recording of Afkari’s last conversation with his brother surfaced online; at 11:30pm on the Friday night, it appears the young man had no idea he would be hanged in a matter of hours, nor that this was to be his last exchange with his family.
In its statement, issued yesterday, the Fars Province Department of Justice attempted to address this matter. It claimed: “According to the law, the execution judge must inform the convict before the execution of the sentence so that he can meet someone if he wants to, or call someone.
“This has been done. Afkari was informed that before the execution of the sentence, he could request a face-to-face meeting or a phone call, but he only requested a phone call to his family and gave a mobile number.
“This was mentioned in the minutes, which the late Mr. Afkari also signed and put his fingerprints on. In addition to Mr. Afkari, six prison officials have signed the minutes, and every legal step was taken before the execution of the sentence, carefully and under the specialist supervision of the judge."
Minutes Suggest Officials Failed to Follow Due Process
The supposed minutes were reproduced along with the statement, but the document as it appeared only raised more suspicion. They are scrawled on a blank sheet of paper without a letterhead, and in the text, which is signed by Afkari, there is no reference to the prisoner's last call or meeting.
The lawyer Babak Paknia, who was close to the case, told IranWire: " I have never seen minutes of this importance penned on a regular sheet of paper.
“It is not stated here whether the prisoner wanted to see anyone for the last time. In the regulations it says [he has the right] not just to see his family, but to see whoever he wants. That is, if they wanted to enforce the bylaws, they should have asked who he wanted to see. But such a thing is not mentioned here at all."
The statute Paknia refers to is Article 35 of Iran’s “Rules of Punishments of Lashes, Sentences of Life, Qisas [retribution] and Execution”. It states that the execution judge must give the convict the opportunity to declare whether they wish to see anyone before their death.
"I hope the suspicions are not true,” Paknia adds, “but the signatures on the minutes are questionable, and I am beginning to see malice in the evidence. I think they may not have told Navid Afkari at all.”
Statement Peppered with Legal Concerns
The minutes are not the only problematic element of the statement issued by the judiciary in Fars province regarding the Afkari's case. The remarks, says Paknia, may be acceptable to a reader who is not well-informed, but no lawyer would accept them.
The first part of the statement reads: "Mr. Navid Afkari's case has been reviewed by several competent judicial authorities and judges, and court hearings have been held in the presence of a lawyer and publicly in the criminal court.
“The verdict has been reviewed by the Supreme Court and after these steps [were taken], all the judges investigating the crime were convinced that the convict was guilty and based on this Mr. Navid Afkari has been sentenced to qisas [retribution]."
The notion that the case cannot be challenged because of numerous reviews by judges, Paknia said, is itself questionable. Under Article 477 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, if the head of the judiciary finds any court-issued verdict to be unlawful, it can be overturned and the case sent to the Supreme Court for a retrial.
“Despite it being tried by different judges,” Paknia says, “there is still the possibility for error and it is still possible to exercise this right.”
Elsewhere in the statement, Fars Province Department of Justice states: “The judges' reasons for voting in this case are numerous. The knowledge of the court is derived from several bases: from explicit confessions to telecommunications, technical investigations and the evidence of witnesses.
“Even if there is a flaw in any of this evidence - which is not the case in this investigation - the verdict is issued based on a range of evidence and is not legally questionable."
Babak Paknia completely rejects this claim. In law, he says, if even one of the bases on which a judgement is reached turns out to be flawed, “it suffices to say that the whole set of reasons no longer stands. Because it’s possible that without that one element, the judge might not have been convinced.”
Paknia adds that the defence lawyers present at the Afkari brothers’ trial “did not reject just one element; we objected to several. But again, a flaw in only one of them would suffice to call the sentence into question."
In Navid Afkari's case, he says, one of the witnesses withdrew his testimony, but the court gave no weight to this. The statement claimed that the retracted statements made no difference to the verdict – but as Paknia notes, “the law [Article 1319 of Iran’s civil code] absolutely says that if the testimony of witnesses is cited and then the witness withdraws his testimony, this issue should be considered."
Final Chance of a Reprieve Snatched From Family
When news of Afkari's execution broke, Mehdi Mahmoudian, a civil activist involved in the case, tweeted that Afkari's family had had an appointment to meet with the family of the man for whose murder Navid Afkari was sentenced to death.
If they had met, there is a possibility that the family could have secured a pardon for him with their consent. But the meeting was scheduled for Sunday, September 13 and Navid Afkari was executed on the Saturday morning, robbing them of this opportunity.
The Fars authorities’ statement, however, insisted that no such meeting had been planned. “The process of investigating this case took two years,” it read, “from the date of the murder and the arrest of the accused to the final verdict.
“During this period, various judicial authorities conducted a thorough expert examination of the case and in each of these stages, it was possible to obtain the consent and pardon of the blood relations. In this case, unfortunately, no action was taken by the murderer's family. The consent of the blood relations was not obtained, and they have repeatedly insisted on qisas [retribution] and execution to the provincial judicial authorities."
"Yes, it took two years from the date of his arrest, but the sentence was not finalized two years ago," says Paknia. "After it was finalized we set about trying to obtain their consent. The statement says the family of the victim 'apparently' did not make any effort; but one can not possibly rely on 'appearances' to hurry the execution of a sentence."
The lawyer added that the statement does not address one of the most serious legal shortcomings of the case: "Please, show the notice of execution of the sentence to the lawyer in the case. They have left this issue unanswered.
"Given my knowledge of Navid Afkari's spirits and the audio files released by him as well as the audio file of his last call, I, as a lawyer, cannot accept that he knew that his sentence was about to be carried out."