Effat Mahbaz lost her brother and husband during the massacres of political dissidents in the late 1980s. In that period, she herself spent seven years being tortured in Evin prison.
Now, in a letter to Jamila Alam al-Hoda, the wife of Ebrahim Raeesi – a member of the Khomeneist “death panel” that oversaw the killings in 1988, and also Iran’s current chief justice and the 2021 presidential election frontrunner – Mahbaz asked a simple question.
"How can you accept your husband’s candidacy for the highest position in the country, knowing he is the murderer of so many Iranians?"
In her letter, Mahbaz made her own case against Raeesi plain: "Your husband is the killer of my husband.”
She added: “I am the wife of an executed person. My 35-year-old husband Shapour was executed by your 28-year-old husband. How do you feel about your husband, my husband's killer, wanting to become the president of all Iranians?"
Effat Mahbaz was arrested on March 21, 1984, as a then-laboratory science student at the University of Tehran and a member of the Pishgam Organization, a student group affiliated with the leftist Organization of Iranian People's Fadaian (Majority) campaign.
Her husband, Alireza (Shapour) Eskandari, also a Pishgam member, was arrested at the same time. He was executed five years later in August 1988, while she was released from prison on leave in 1990.
Effat Mahbaz also lost her brother, Ali Mahbaz, a member of the People's Fadaian Organization, in the early 1980s. Ali was arrested in October 1981 and executed on December 19 of that year.
Her letter to Jamileh Alam al-Hoda, like countless other letters people have sent to Iranian officials and their affiliates, has naturally gone unanswered.
"I was 25 years old when I was arrested, and now I am a 62-year-old woman," Mahbaz told IranWire in an interview, the full transcript of which is reproduced below. "I actually wrote this intending to inform the Iranian people, to make them aware of what happened to the prisoners in the 1980s and the tragedy of the massacre. So as not to forget the events of this decade; so that history doesn’t repeat itself.”
How did you and your spouse get arrested?
My husband and I were among the majority faction of the People's Fadaian Organization and, like all young revolutionary forces in those days, full of passion for our homeland, we were striving for equality and social justice.
Alireza was a chemical engineering graduate of the Polytechnic University. I was a laboratory science student at Tehran University of Medical Sciences, and naturally, like many other students, I was expelled from the university.
Shapour was first arrested on the street in 1981, like many other young people, for no apparent reason. He was in prison for four months, during which time his family and I did not know whether or not he was alive.
At that time, the names of those who were executed each day were announced on the radio and television. One evening in Tehran, Alireza Eskandari's name was read out on television on the list of executions.
I went to Evin Prison the next day after. At the counter, I asked an officer about my husband, Alireza Eskandari, and where he was. The officer asked his colleague, loud enough that I could hear him: "The woman whose husband we executed yesterday is asking where he is." And he laughed out loud.
This was how I and my generation were treated in the 1980s. Of course, I did not stop searching for him and went to the morgues and hospitals to find where he was. Finally, Shapour returned that same year: 1981. But on the first day of April 1984, we were both arrested in Imam Hossein Square and transferred to Evin Prison.
What was the reason for your arrest?
At the beginning of the revolution, anyone who was a dissident – or believed in anything other than the Islamic Republic – was arrested. My husband and I were not part of an armed group and did not believe in armed struggle. Our activity in the Fadaian group was defined as cultural.
Of course, this does not mean that I approve of any other executions. By no means can the executions of that time be approved. Many of those whose organizations believed in armed struggle did not take up arms themselves.
Most of the people I associated with were students who were arrested with their bags and books during the protests. I lost my brother Ali at the beginning of the executions; he was a member of the majority faction of the Fadaian, and a doctor. He wanted to go to the [Iran-Iraq war] frontline to help the wounded. But for those sentenced to prison and execution, these things did not matter. My brother was arrested at his workplace in October 1981 and executed on December 19, 1981.
Were you allowed to visit or call your husband while you were in Evin Prison?
For the first 11 months, I was kept in solitary confinement. During that time, my husband was severely tortured. I heard this through his connections after I was released from prison. But our first meeting after 11 months took place in a room with several guards, for 15 minutes. I dared to stand in front of the guards that day, and hugged my dear Shapour, and told him how much I loved him.
Between then and when he was executed, I met him six to eight times from behind the glass in the meeting hall. We could also write letters to each other, of course, abiding by the prison rules and in the range of four to five lines long. I published mine and Shapour's letters in my memoir, Don't Forget Me, in 2008.
Were you able to meet your husband before he was executed?
Our last meeting took place on July 28, 1988, behind glass and in the presence of the guards in the meeting hall. We both knew this was going to be the last meeting, because on June 26, 1988, several of our close friends, who were sentenced to life imprisonment, had been executed.
That day, our conversation behind the glass was like the last farewell. They even deprived us of the chance to hug and kiss for the last time. Shapour was one of the first prisoners to be executed in the massacre of 1988 on July 27, along with a number of other political prisoners, and he was buried in the mass graves of Khavaran Cemetery.
When and how did you find out about your husband's execution?
Prison guards and prison officials deliberately broke the news of our loved ones’ executions with the aim of breaking our spirits. But how exactly did I hear about my husband's execution?
From August to December 1988, family visitation was cut off. Some families even hoped their children would be released at the behest of some officials; some had completed their sentences or were coming to the end of them.
I found out about Shapour's execution in December 1988 during a meeting with my family. We collapsed in grief and pain inside the prison, as the families outside did. But we did not give up and resumed our lives in jail, saying no to them and not turning backs on our organizations.
Two and a half years after Shapour's execution, in 1991, my husband's family was given a death certificate for their child. The date was given as July 27, 1988, and this was how we understood the exact date of his death.
How was Mr. Eskandari's family informed about the execution?
The prisoners had two bags of clothes: bags bought from the prison store. One was for [current] clothes and the other was a bag for the next season. In those days, local committees had contacted individual families and asked them to go to Evin Prison. They did not give the reason for the invitation.
Consider this. An elderly parent or wife would go to the door of the prison, in the hope of hearing from her loved one, whereupon they would be handed a bag and hear: “Your child was corruptor, and we executed them; here are his/her clothes”.
Then they warned the families to stop any mourning ceremonies from taking place. Even the grave of their child or spouse was still unknown. The only share for the family was the bag of clothes bag that smelled of them.
I still have the shirt my husband wore. I’m not saying this to upset you. I’m saying this so that the crimes are not forgotten, that they are not repeated. But unfortunately, many people in our country are unaware of these catastrophes. Unfortunately, they are repeated every decade.
So you don’t know where your husband was buried?
I know approximately where in Khavaran he is buried. Families and mothers dug up the soil with their bare hands at night, and saw the mass graves. They saw their children, five or six bodies, buried in holes. They saw their bodies and faces.
Of course, in 1981 the situation had been different. After my brother was executed, they gave us the grave number and said: “Fourth row, number 68”. We knew exactly where he was in Khavaran. But later, [the graves of] all those buried in Khavaran were bulldozed.
In your letter to Ebrahim Raeesi's wife, you mentioned the tortures of 1988. Can you talk a little about it?
Before answering this, let me say that for the first few years, there was no distinction between men and women in [methods of] torture and execution.
But in late 1984, Ayatollah Montazeri wrote a letter to Khomeini asking for the abolition of women’s executions, based on religious reasons. Of course, in 1988, women members of the Mojahedin [-e Khalq Organization, an opposition movement] were still executed by a special decree. My close friend, Fatemeh Modarresi Tehrani, known as Fardin, was executed on March 26, 1989. In previous years, she was regularly interrogated [and asked] to express her disgust with her party; she did not, and was executed.
But the matter of my torture goes back to August 1988: that is, when male and female prisoners were being tortured in different ways. I and several other left-wing women prisoners were taken to court one by one in September. Questions were asked, such as my name and surname, and whether we were Muslims, to which I replied, "My parents are Muslims."
Another question was: "Do you pray?" My answer was "No". Another question was "What group do you belong to?"; I replied: "The Fadaian’s majority faction."
"Do you agree with your organization?" They asked. I said, "Yes."
After several of these questions, the judge made an order for lashes five times a day at prayer sessions. Some women went on hunger strike to protest against the ruling, and many attempted suicide by slashing their wrists or throats.
Those lashes had an awful effect on our souls. After prison, I saw a psychologist for a long time. It was not at all easy for me and others like me, who had experienced prison in the 1980s, to forget these conditions. Still years later, when I hear Ahangaran [a religious singer] or the sound of the Qur'an and the call to prayer, I recall being flogged, and feel bad.
In those years, was it possible for prisoners’ families to meet with the members of the death panel or officials? Or when you were released, could you freely go and see someone like a Ebrahim Raeesi?
Mr. Raeesi was in such a position even in those days that no one could meet him. At the age of 20, he had become one of those who oversaw killing and torture on Khomeini's command. We could not approach him.
In 1981, when my husband and brother were in prison, we went to parliament with some other families to follow up on their situation and talk to representatives about finding our loved ones. Mehdi Karroubi was the speaker then, and one of those with whom we met twice. I remember he listened to us and promised to look into it, expressing hope and telling us, "Our children will return home to their families."
I would also like to mention here the living memory of Turan Sharifi, whose son Farzin was executed at that time. He accompanied us in our complaint, asking the authorities for answers about the killing of his son and for the imprisonment of others. I was 22 years old then. Now, I’m a 62-year-old woman.
You said that you came out on leave in 1990; did you return to prison after that?
International and UN pressure for the release of prisoners increased after the mass executions. It took us two years to be released. Of course, prison officials repeatedly told us that were a bunch of useless women and that they basically regretted not executing us. They themselves said that they could easily get rid of us.
There were 180 of us women who refused to disavow our organizations and their goals. Under international pressure, they agreed to give us a few days of leave. They told us to write a request for 10 days, which I did, and I came out with two guarantors and property deeds submitted by each member of the family.
After 10 days, my brother went back to the prison and his leave was extended for another 10 days. These extensions took place several times until I and a few former associates came to the conclusion, why should we bear the pain of extending it every time? They had our home address and could come to get us whenever they wanted. So we didn’t, and they did not come to us. Our freedom was, in fact, born from harassment and anxiety.
When you were released, what did you do, and what made you decide to leave Iran?
While in prison, we had hoped for freedom; that hopefully one day we would get out of prison and start our lives again. But interestingly, after I came out, I realized what had happened to me there. I just felt my husband's empty place.
Wherever I went, his absence disturbed me greatly. It was very hard. I am a resident of the beautiful city of Langaroud [in Gilan province] and because many people love the beach called Chamkhaleh in this city, my nickname in prison was Chamkhaleh. But when I got there after my release, I could not stand on that beautiful beach for even an hour.
I fought with all my might to be able to live again. I started treatment with a psychologist. I wrote my memoir of those days in prison when I got a little better. But even though I wrote the book myself and edited it many times over, every time I read it again, tears flow from my eyes for the young Efat in Don’t Forget Me.
Two months after my release, I got back to work with the help of Dr. Jalil Mostashari. He supported prisoners like me so to find work. Having a job and a social identity after imprisonment helped us a lot to regain our sense of being free human beings. Two and a half years later, I decided to leave Iran and came to Germany.
What was your purpose in writing the letter to Jamileh Alam al-Hoda? You must have thought you wouldn’t get an answer.
The letter I wrote is not for Ms. Jamileh, but for the Jamilehs of my country; for young men and women who do not know what happened to prisoners in the 1980s.
I wrote so that these people would not be forgotten. I and others like me, who are still seeking justice for the crimes [committed in] those years, are still waiting for an answer. I wrote this letter for the awareness of the people of our country. My hope, and my main addressee, is the younger generation, so that maybe the killings in Iran will be stopped. We, the plaintiffs, are hoping for a day when in our homeland there will be no more imprisonment, torture or execution.