On March 1, the Revolutionary Court in the southwestern city of Kerman sentenced Zar Khatoon Mazar-Zehi, a 46-year-old Baluchi woman, to death for transporting drugs. Baluchi human rights organizations reported that she is a widowed mother-of-one who was unable to afford a lawyer. She is understood to have repeatedly told police and judiciary officials that the package police say was discovered on her was not hers.
IranWire discussed the case with an informed source who asked to remain anonymous. Regrettably, no photograph of the condemned woman was available.
Zar Khatoon Mazar-Zehi was born in 1977 in Saravan, and until her arrest four years ago was a resident of Khash County in Sistan and Baluchistan province. She was detained on December 30, 2017 at a checkpoint in Ghaleh Zangi, near the city of Rayen in Kerman province, while on her way to Shiraz.
Ever since then, Mazar-Zehi has been imprisoned in the city of Kerman. She was informed on March 15 that she had been sentenced to death.
“Zar Khatoon was arrested on a bus from Kerman to Shiraz after agents searched her and a few other passengers,” the source close to the case told IranWire. “Because she needed money, she had a package of drugs tied to her belly. But the drugs weren’t hers; somebody had paid her to take them to Shiraz.”
Worse still, they added, Zar Khatoon did not even know that the package contained drugs. She had been told it contained ingredients for making cosmetics. She repeatedly said as much to the police, her interrogators and, of course, the court. “She even gave the agents the name and details of the person that gave her the package,” the source said. “But they didn’t believe her.”
Zar Khatoon had lost her husband to tuberculosis the year before. Her daughter was recently married and had a child. Her parents had died long before, and she was left without any form of financial support.
“They were poor even when her husband was alive,” the source said. “After he died, she did everything she could to meet their needs. Right now, she can’t afford a lawyer; relatives are hoping to get the money together to hire a lawyer for an appeal.
“During interrogation, they constantly threated her with the death penalty. They wanted her to agree that drugs were hers. They knew perfectly well that an impoverished woman like her couldn’t possibly own that quantity of drugs herself, or [pay for] the means to transport them. But they wouldn’t accept that version of events.”
The Death Penalty in Iran: Odds Stacked Against Poorer Women
Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam is the president of Iran Human Rights, an advocacy organization opposed to the death penalty. “In general,” he told IranWire, “the death sentence targets the least powerful elements of society. This is true not only of Iran but all over the world.
“In its application to women, the reasons given are usually drug trafficking or qisas [the Islamic law that allows for violent “retribution” to be enacted by a victim of crime or their family members]. Because women are more financially disadvantaged and the doors to fewer jobs are open to them, especially in deprived areas, they more frequently fall prey to drug traffickers.”
According to Iran Human Rights’s records, drug trafficking was the most common offence that led to women being hanged in Iran in the last 12 years. “Most of them were single mothers from families in extreme poverty.
“Hourieh Sabahi, Leila Hayati and Roghieh Khalaji, for instance, were all executed in 2011 in Hamedan Prison on drug-related charges. They were all single mothers and the sole guardians of their children.
“Leila Hayati was convicted of selling seven kilos of heroin, which she denied up until the very last day of her life. ‘Look at my life,’ she said. ‘How could you believe I’ve sold seven kilos of heroin?’”
Last October to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty, Iran Human Rights published a report that included further mention of these three women’s cases. Hourieh Sabahi was a 35-year-old mother of five, including one disabled child. Roghieh Khalaji, was 32 and had two children. Leila Hayati was also a single mother to an eight-year-old girl. The Sabahi family were so poor that after Hourieh’s execution, they could not afford to pay the burial fees.
Lives Extinguished in Silence
In a speech delivered in March 2016, Shahindokht Molaverdi, President Hassan Rouhani's then- vice president for women and family affairs, spoke of a unique and troubling situation in a village in southeastern Iran. “There is a village in Sistan and Baluchistan where all the men have been executed,” she said. “Their survivors are now potential smugglers, both to avenge their fathers and to make ends meet. Nobody is supporting these families.”
She warned officials that if these bereaved women and their children were not supported properly, the cycle of crime would go on forever: "Society is responsible for these families, who are the victims of the crimes of their guardians."
“It’s no surprise that when you execute the men,” Mahmoud Amiry-Moghaddam says, “the women are left with no choice but to carry drugs – for a pittance. The judiciary of the Islamic Republic knows better that anybody that such individuals are not professional drug traffickers, and their apprehension and execution will not deal any kind of a blow to the cartels. But they also know these women’s cases often remain unknown. So they find them to be desirable victims for their policies of capital punishment and intimidation.”
Of those executed women whose cases have been recorded by Iran Human Rights, some 69 percent met their fates without the wider public being informed. “Usually, due to poverty and the cultural background, women who have been sentenced to death are executed in silence. You hear a lot less about them compared to men.”
The recorded number of drug-related executions in Iran also tripled in 2021 compared to 2018, 2019 and 2020. “Unfortunately,” Amiri-Moghaddam said, “Ms. Mazar-Zehi is just one of the newest victims. News about her sentence leaked out thanks to activists in Sistan and Baluchistan; if not, she too may have fallen victim to these policies in silence.”