Saving Nazanin

If Iran will callously disregard it’s internationally binding commitments not to kill, maim, and brutalize its own young women and children, how can other nations, by any sane reasoning, believe it can trusted on any matter.

Ateqeh Rajabi, a 16 year old girl, was publicly executed by hanging, August 2004, in the town square at Neka, Mazandaran Province, Republic of Iran. Her crime? “Acts deemed incompatible with chastity”.

The “incompatibility” in this case was sexual intercourse with an older man. During her trial (Ateqeh was not allowed a defense attorney and was left to defend herself), Judge Haji Rezail became outraged when the young girl removed her hijab (headscarf worn for modesty in Arabic cultures) He was further angered by her tendency to speak with a “sharp tongue”, presumably in her own defense.

Incensed by these unforgivable actions in his courtroom, Judge Rezail rushed to Tehran to urge the conservative mullahs comprising the Iranian Supreme Court to uphold, then and there, the death sentence he had pronounced on Ateqeh. They did; and upon his return to Neka, Judge Rezail personally carried out Ateqeh’s sentence by performing the execution himself.

Her corpse was left hanging for days as a deterent to other young girls who might stray. Though it was well known around Neka, the Iranian judge ignored the fact that 16 year old Ateqeh Rajabi was not only young, but mentally incompetent as well.

In an earlier Iranian case, May 2004, 19 year old Leyla Mafi was sentenced to 99 lashes to be followed by “stoning until dead”. Her story is a long and sad chronicle of abuse, lashes, cruelty and injustice. Layla had been forced into prostitution at the age of eight by her mother. At nine she conceived a child which led to her being whipped publicly on prostitution charges. At fourteen she had twins out of wedlock for which she was also brutally whipped under Iranian law

Leyla’s more recent infraction, the one earning her 99 lashes and a death by stoning sentence, involved her being charged with having another child out wedlock as well as being associated with a brothel. Amnesty International, which followed the case closely, reported that Leyla Mafa possessed the mental skills of an eight year old. Under pressure from several human rights organizations, the Iranian Supreme Court lifted the young girl’s death sentence in March of 2005, but upheld the 99 lashes which was duly meted out in February, 2006. After her punishment, Leyla was committed to an Iranian Institution for Women.

To our modern and civilized world these cases are extraordinarily crude, unjust, and excessive. But they occur all to often in the ancient, theocratic, male dominated culture of Iran. In fact, under current Iranian law, girls over the age of nine and boys aged 16 can face a death penalty for crimes such as rape and murder. Capital punishment is imposed in certain cases of illegal sexual relationships as well. At least 18 child offenders have been executed in Iran in recent years–eight of them in 2005.

If Iranian laws and judicial practices are heartless and unfeeling toward its women and children, the issue is made worse by a sick cultural bias in cases of rape. Observers of Iranian legal proceedings, many educated Iranian women among them, well know that victims of rape in Iran’s male dominated system can be and are, in a sordid twist of law, charged with the crime of having extra-marital sex. In an instant, the system that should assure them justice transforms them from victim to defendant. While their rapists are exonerated and go free, these women, some of them teenagers, face a penalty of 100 lashes–and even death.

This brings us to the case of 17 year old Nazanin Mahabad–uneducated and dirt poor–who, in a moment of profound courage during an attempted rape, took a bold stand for all of Iran’s women, children and young people. For her desperate action she earned a death by hanging sentence in 2006 at the hands of an Iranian court. Here is her story:

Nazanin and her niece, Samieh, had gone with their boyfriends to a park west of Tehran. It was to be a pleasant day in the sun and a needed respite from the poverty and endless menial labor that helped Nazanin and her five siblings subsist in a ruined home on the dusty outskirts of the city. It was a rare moment of girlish laughter and peace soon to be shattered. When three men approached the group they began harassing the girls and threatened the boys who fled in fear. It only took a moment then for the men to move on the girls throwing them to the ground and tearing at their cloths.

What stirred Nazanin to do what followed is a matter for speculation. Certainly it was a natural reaction rooted in a primal need to defend. But it may have been more. Nazanin had lived long enough in a society where rape was common and rapist were freed. Perhaps she saw the tragic irony in her situation. Be raped and face possible stoning or even death for extra-marital sex, or fight back for herself and her niece and face charges of attacking her male attackers. She chose to fight, pulling a knife she carried concealed because she knew well the dangers she and other girls routinely faced in around the poorer suburbs of Tehran.

Nazanin would take it no more. She stabbed one of her attackers in the hand, but when a second man suddenly attacked her with vicious and clear intent, she plunged the knife into his chest. He died from his wound. Charged with murder under the Iranian system, her story of rape called into question, Nazanin must have known that yet another Iranian court would leave her male attackers free and put another young girl to death by hanging. Her less than competent court appointed attorney seemed not to care, and Nazanin’s own simple plea had no influence in the court: “I wanted to defend myself and my niece. I did not want to kill that boy…no one came to our help.”

As the trial continued, Nazanin also asserted that she was acting to defend her honor and chastity. The Judge in the case rejected that argument out of hand, however, because a court ordered medical exam had shown Nazanin not to be a virgin. It was true. Little more than a year earlier, Nazanin, then 15, had been raped. Forensic physicians verified the scarring from that brutal attack as consistent with rape and the loss of virginity. This, and the fact that she had reported that rape as well to local police who ignored it, had no bearing in her Iranian court. In the end, she found herself facing a death sentence.

At that time, all hope must have abandoned Nazanin Mahabad. Alone in a prison, facing death, her fear became all consuming. But not all was lost. Word began to spread among caring factions in and beyond Iran. Pressure began to mount. Letters were written, thousands of them. Bloggers weighed in. Media picked up on the case and flashed Nazanin’s story to the world community of activists and organizations who wasted no time weighing in with Iranian officials. Petitions were created and sent with hundreds of thousands of names. By May of 2006, when Nazanin’s case came before the Iranian Supreme Court, the world was watching. And the Court knew it. In a not-so-surprising ruling by that time, it turned over Nazanin’s death penalty and sent the case back to lower court for a new ruling.

Today (Jan 14, 2007), with the assistance of new lawyers and the under the watchful eyes of a deeply concerned world, Nazanin Mahabad was exonerated of murder by the local court, her death sentence lifted. Thousands of anxious followers of this case breathed a collective sigh of relief. The court could have sent her to prison or even awarded the death penalty again, but the prayers, pressure and intervention of caring people won the day.

But Nazanin will not be set free yet. The court held that her self defense during the incident was an act of disproportionate force. A girl of 17 (at the time) defending herself and her niece against three men trying to rape them. Still, the court ordered that she pay blood money to the family of her deceased attacker in order to receive a full pardon. Until then she will remain in prison. Her lawyers are appealing the blood money ruling and seeking bail to free Nazanin at last.

The caring world still has some work to do in order to finally free Nazanin. I have little doubt it will happen. In the meantime we are left with Iran and its crude and warped system of justice for women and children. Its barbaric practices are even more disturbing in that Iran is among the nations of the world signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). As such they agreed with the rest of the world not to execute anyone for any offense committed when they were under the age of 18. These treaties also prohibit the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments.

If Iran will callously disregard it’s international commitments not to kill, mame, and brutalize its own young women and children, how can other nations, by any sane reasoning, believe it can trusted on any matter. I include in this line of thought their continuing assertion that they will only use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Authors Note: Want to help in Nazanin’s case? Go here: