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Why Breaking The Silence on Rape is so Risky in Iran

October 14, 2020
Nilopufar Lari
11 min read
Keyvan Emamverdi, who was arrested for raping at least nine women, has been charged with "corruption on earth"
Keyvan Emamverdi, who was arrested for raping at least nine women, has been charged with "corruption on earth"

In early September 2020, thousands of Iranian women went online to share experiences and testimonies of rape, sexual abuse and harassment they had endured. The campaign, inspired in part by the #MeToo movement that reverberated around the world in 2017 and continues to this day, aimed to raise awareness of how often these forms of violence take place in the Islamic Republic.

The campaign highlighted the abuse and shocking behavior of men from all backgrounds, ages and professions, including well-known figures such as artists and writers.

Keyvan Emamverdi, a former archeology student at the University of Tehran, was one name that repeatedly emerged on Twitter and other platforms. Dozens of women described how he had invited them back to his home, and then raped them after spiking their drinks with drugs. As the number of accusations grew, authorities took action, and not long after the multiple allegations, the head of Tehran’s police, Commander Hossein Rahimi, announced that police had arrested Emamverdi. Rahimi said that Emamverdi could have raped as many as 300 women. In the end, nine women filed a legal complaint. 

Several weeks later came the news of the charges Emamverdi faced. On Monday, October 12, 2020, Hamshahri Online quoted Member of Parliament Somayeh Rafiei, who announced that he faced the serious charge of “corruption on earth.” If found guilty, Emamverdi could face execution.

Iranian civil society and human rights activists went on to social media to protest, voicing their frustration and calling for human rights to be upheld. They want justice for these crimes, they say, and they want this behavior, which has been reinforced by aspects of Iranian society for years, to stop. But they value human rights, the right to life among them. For them, the death penalty is inhumane, wrong, and unjust. They do not believe Emamverdi or other rapists should face that form of punishment. They also expressed concern that such a move could put an end to their call for justice, with women deciding not to speak up about what happened to them and bringing lawsuits against the perpetrators because they do not believe such a harsh punishment is just. Imagine what it would be like, many argued, to go through the turmoil and horror of being raped and then having to live with the burden of someone losing their life.

Activists also objected to the charge of “corruption on earth,” arguing that this was not the crime that had been committed. Women were raped. Rape can also be punishable by the death penalty in Iran, but in rape cases, the women are often entitled to financial damages, as well as damages that attempt to amount to moral compensation. Both punishments can be handed down, but with "corruption on earth," it is less likely the women who have been raped will be compensated in any way.

Death Penalty for Both Charges

"There is no mention of sexual harassment in the Islamic Penal Code," the lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi told IranWire. "However, Article 224 of the Islamic Penal Code is specific about rape and according to this article, if proven in court, the defendant will be sentenced to death.”

Article 224 of the Islamic Penal Code addresses adultery. Note 2 of the articles states: "Whenever a person commits adultery with a woman who does not consent to have sex with him, while she is anesthetized, asleep, or drunk, his behavior is considered adultery. When it is adultery by deception or omission, with a minor, or by kidnapping, threatening or intimidating a woman [whether sexual activity occurs or not], the above sentence also applies."

According to Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, however, the charge of “corruption on earth” is different: "According to Article 286 of the Islamic Penal Code, if a rape is committed on a large scale [ie if the person rapes more than one woman], the person is charged with 'corruption on earth', which is punishable by death."

Article 286 of the Islamic Penal Code covers a wide range of crimes, not just rape."Anyone who commits crimes against the physical integrity of individuals; crimes against the internal or external security of the country; spreads lies; disrupts the country's economy; carries out arson or destruction; spreads toxic, microbial or other dangerous substances; establishes corruption or prostitution centers or assists them in any way; causes severe disruption of public order, insecurity, or major damage to the country’s integrity; damages the physical integrity of individuals, or public or private property; or causes widespread corruption or prostitution is considered a corruptor on earth and will be sentenced to death."

Many political activists and prisoners have been charged under Article 286 in recent years.

Aghasi added that he did believe harsh sentences for serious crimes were appropriate. ”I am not saying that the death penalty is good, but in the face of such an accusation, I personally do not agree with light sentences. Anyone who plays with the mental and physical security of people should be severely punished so that no citizen is able to easily pursue similar whims and desires."

Financial and Moral Damage to Victims

IranWire also spoke about the case with a Tehran-based lawyer, who asked not to be named. The lawyer acknowledged that both charges of “corruption on earth” and rape can be punishable by death, but, as some activists pointed out in their online comments, she says that actually plaintiffs have less of a chance to secure financial or “moral” compensation then they do if the “corruption on earth” charge is applied. "On the charge of ‘corruption on earth’ the public prosecutor's office is engaged in the case and the private plaintiff's argument is superseded. The accusation is investigated in the Revolutionary Courts, and experience has shown that the Revolutionary Courts do not hold fair trials. On the other hand, if the charge of rape is put forth, the plaintiff has a better chance of getting part of her claims and relieving the pain."

"There is material and moral compensation for the victim in rape cases," the lawyer explained. "This means that according to the rape charge, if the girl is a virgin, legal damages such as arsh al-bekareh [compensation for loss of virginity] can be issued to her, something like the blood money that is determined by a legal expert, as well as mehr al-mesl damages [an agreement set out at the beginning of a marriage in case the marriage dissolves], which is determined by criteria such as the family background and education of the victim; an amount is determined for the victim as it is with mehr. There is also compensation for moral damages to the victim, such as the perpetrator issuing an apology or the sentence being announced in the press, or something similar. These are dismissed if the charge of ‘corruption on earth’ is issued, which focuses solely on the death penalty."

In other words, if a person is found guilty of corruption on earth instead of rape, the victim loses her right to financial and moral damages from her aggressor.

In the Keyvan Emamverdi case, five plaintiffs have condemned the death sentence in writing. Knowing that the sentence for adultery is the death sentence, they have decided to break their historical silence, the letter says, "so that it opens a door to deal with this type of crime and, importantly, to change the law and the punishment, which we do not consider fair."

Shima Ghousheh is the lawyer for four of the nine plaintiffs in the Emamverdi case. On October 12, she issued a statement about the case  and posted it on Twitter, saying her clients had filed a complaint alleging rape, but that authorities changed it to “corruption on earth.”

"As plaintiffs in the case of Keyvan Emamverdi, we consider it necessary to give an explanation about our complaint filed with the judicial authorities,” the statement read. “Our complaint is clearly presented as adultery [as set out in Article 224 of the penal code] and calls for that crime to be considered in court. We require that our moral damages be investigated in a fair court. With this complaint, we demand an investigation of these crimes in a fair manner. We, as plaintiffs, decided to break the historical silence of women using the law, despite being aware of the legal ruling on rape, to open a door to deal with this type of crimes and, of course, to change in the law regarding the punishment, which we do not consider fair."

Another Execution Won’t Eradicate Rape

Women’s rights activist Mahdieh Golroo also talked about the risks of speaking out and activists’ concern about Iran carrying out yet another execution. "Yes, many women may self-censor and stay silent because the perpetrator is accused of corruption on earth or rape and this could lead to execution. But there are dozens of other reasons why women cannot easily talk about rape.

"Recently people have been talking about rape on Twitter and elsewhere online, but the reality is that not everyone in Iran has access to Twitter so they can write about this, or they do not yet have the courage to raise the issue, or they do not feel like victims. Many women think they have made a mistake and that they put themselves in a situation where they could be raped. The fact is that talking about rape in Iran has not yet become commonplace. Many people still think they should not talk about it, or if they want to talk about it, they face opposition from their relatives, thinking their reputation will be tarnished, or that the reputation of a relative who has committed the crime will be tarnished."

Golroo has herself been the target of sexual intimidation and harassment recently: in September she revealed that Revolutionary Guards had pressured her to spy for them, and threatened to publish compromising photographs of her if she refused to cooperate.

Speaking specifically about the Emamverdi case, Golroo says, ”I personally oppose the death penalty. But there are a few things to keep in mind about this recent case. People have been asking what will happen to Keyvan Emamverdi or any other person who has made unforgivable mistakes or committed crimes and affected many people, if they are not executed.” She says many people believe execution will help the women who have been affected, and that they can live in peace after the criminal is dead.

“But my question is: Can the only way to punish people be with death? In many developed countries the death penalty has been abolished, and incidentally in some of these countries the crime rate has also decreased. In fact, the threat of execution did not reduce the crime in this case or in other cases, and we cannot say that rape will not happen again after the execution of Keyvan Emamverdi. If we oppose the death penalty, we do not mean that the perpetrator should not be punished. But we do have a problem with the death penalty.

"In the current environment, in today’s society, women and men must work together for two demands. They must speak out against the death penalty, and for women who have had such experiences not to censor themselves and to pursue their complaints. But one cannot take precedence over the other. We need to talk about both of these issues at the same time, so that maybe one day the Islamic Republic will change its laws and then we can talk about these issues more logically."

Illegal Release of Details to the Public

Amid all the discussions about human rights, the death penalty and justice, another issue looms: the details of the case against Keyvan Emamverdi’s was not revealed to the public in a correct or legal manner. The media found out about the charges against him not through the judicial authorities as they should be by law. Instead, it was a member of parliament, Somayeh Rafiei, who went public with the information following on from a meeting Tehran’s police chief Hossein Rahimi had with 30 parliamentarians on October 12. As a result, several legal matters that should have remained classified were made public and then published widely. The manner in which the public was informed of the details — via an MP and a law enforcement officer — and the fact that a verdict has not been issued are both illegal under Iranian law.

"When I heard the news, as the plaintiffs' lawyer, not from the court, but from journalists and the media, I was really surprised,” lawyer Shima Ghosheh told Etemad Online.

“That is why I went to the prosecutor's office this morning and asked the investigator to find out the reason for this move."

As well as posting on Twitter about the initial complaint, Ghosheh also tweeted about her follow-up: "I expressed my objection to the case investigator, and he promised to follow up if the people who spread the news in this way had violated the law. The case investigator also confirmed that this information was confidential and should not have been reported or shared anywhere."

However, when the case investigator talks about people violating the law and "spreading the news in this way," this does not mean that Commander Hossein Rahimi will be censured or face any repercussions.

IranWire spoke with another person with close knowledge of the Emamverdi story who said Commander Rahimi’s claim that 300 women had been raped by Emamverdi was “wrong” and said he had spread fake news. He also said Rahimi’s claim that there were 46 videos at the defendant's home showing him having sexual relations with his victims was untrue. According to the person IranWire spoke to, so far nine women have officially filed complaints with the judiciary, and a number of videos were discovered in the house of the accused, though the number of videos is not 46.


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