The hanging last Saturday of a young Iranian woman convicted of murdering her alleged rapist has caused an international outcry, including condemnation by the US Department of State and the British Foreign Office. Amnesty International, which had led a campaign to save the 26-year-old, said the execution was “deeply disappointing in the extreme”.
Amnesty says Reyhaneh Jabbari was convicted after a “deeply flawed investigation”, and the United Nations office of human rights says her conviction was based on confessions made under threat of torture. Since Iran is a country where Islamic law, with its notable bias against women’s testimony, holds sway one is inclined to believe that.
In a world where ISIS has made execution a spectacle of horror for anyone who has the stomach to look at its beheading videos, or even for the imagination, a judicial hanging or lethal injection seems almost civilised. And yet there is something about the cold-blooded termination of a person’s life that chills most of us and makes our conscience rebel. When the person is a woman, the last vestiges of chivalry in the human race make it seem worse. It is not only “bad” for the person killed, but also for those who do it, witness it, tolerate it. There are many reasons for this reaction but together they have led the majority of countries to abandon capital punishment either in law or in practice.
That is not the case in Iran, which adheres to the Qur’anic law of “an eye for an eye”. On the contrary, Amnesty says executions are on the rise there, numbering at least 369 last year and 250 so far this year, which makes Iran second only to China in the number of people it executes. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on Iran, gives even higher figures: 687 in 2013, and at least 852 from June 2013 to June 2014.
(The US was fifth in 2013, with a tally of 39.)
Amongst all these executions, those involving women (around 30 last year) gain international attention because the status of women in Islamic majority countries is very much on the radar of the human rights movement. Sharia laws regarding marriage, guardianship and modesty are regarded by Western – and many Muslim – feminists as oppressive towards women.
Rape, along with other forms of violence against women, is a huge international issue, the subject of a special campaign by the UN and many governments. Yet in some Muslim countries it is common for a woman who claims she has been raped not only to be denied justice, but to be charged with fornication or adultery – and even punished by flogging or stoning. If the law does not kill her, her own family may well do it, as regular reports of “honour killings” testify.
Under Iranian law if a woman injures or kills a rapist in self-defence, she will have to demonstrate that her defence was equal to the danger she faced, and that inflicting harm was her last resort in escaping rape. Without any witnesses, this must be hard to do.
It is against this background that the cause of Reyhaneh Jabbari became an international social and mainstream media campaign.
According to a New York Times summary of news reports, Jabbari, then 19, met Dr Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, 47, a physician and former employee of the Iran Ministry of Intelligence, in 2007 in an ice-cream parlour in Tehran, where he overheard her saying she worked as an interior designer. She made an appointment to visit his practice to assess a possible renovation. Some Iranian websites say they saw each other a couple of times before Dr Sarbandi was killed on July 7. The Times continues:
That day, Ms. Jabbari had a knife in her bag, which she testified she had bought two days earlier for her protection. A police interrogator told the semi-official news agency Mehr in August that the victim had been stabbed in the back while on his prayer rug and had collapsed while running down a staircase shouting “Thief! Thief!” Ms Jabbari was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to death.
When her appeal against the sentence failed at the Supreme Court in April, US and European Union condemnation forced the government of President Hassan Rouhani, who won election last year on promises of liberal reform, to intervene to get it commuted. Justice Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi said in early October that a “good ending” was in sight, referring to attempts to get Sarbandi’s family to agree to a reprieve.
The family said in April they were waiting for Jabbari to tell the truth about what happened. More recently they said they would not forgive her because the local news media had portrayed Sarbandi as a rapist.
As in many rape cases, it is difficult to know the truth about this one, although to say as much is to outrage many women’s rights activists, whose presumption is just the opposite of that of a Sharia court; the woman’s claim is to be believed until it can be proved otherwise.
One serious problem with Jabbardi’s claim is that it changed.
At her trial in 2009 she said an accomplice had killed Sarbandi after she had merely stabbed him in the shoulder. However, she refused to reveal details of this other man and later retracted that claim, insisting that she had killed the doctor in self defence against his attempt to abuse her. In a voice message to her mother and family in April this year after the Supreme Court appeal failed she said:
That ominous night it was I that should have been killed. My body would have been thrown in some corner of the city, and after a few days, the police would have taken you to the coroner’s office to identify my body and there you would learnt that I had been raped as well.
Jabbari also made references to being beaten, and she is not the first woman to have alleged beatings and maltreatment in custody. The UN office for human rights has taken these allegations seriously. It believes Jabbari’s confession was coerced, at least by threats, and that her claim that someone else actually killed him was not investigated. Aged only 19 when she was first arrested, she was put in solitary confinement for two months and reportedly did not have access to her lawyer or family.
After the execution on Saturday the prosecutor’s office in Tehran said in a statement that “Jabbari had repeatedly confessed premeditated murder, then tried to divert the case from its course by inventing the rape charge. But all her efforts to feign innocence were proven false in various phases of prosecution. Evidence was firm. She had informed a friend through a text message of her intention to kill. It was ascertained that she had purchased the murder weapon, a kitchen knife, two days before committing murder.”
Certainly, the evidence looks firm. If one were to choose a case with which to demonstrate the unfairness of Islamic law and society towards women it would not be this one. Not without a lot more of the kind of information Jabbari was unwilling or unable to reveal without, perhaps, incriminating herself in other ways and dishonouring her family. The fact that her life was on the line puts everything else in doubt.
In many Western countries, a 19-year-old woman just starting to make her way in the world, who became entangled with an older man, client or not, became afraid of him, felt exploited by him, or even felt driven to take his life – this young woman would get a sympathetic hearing in court and, even if convicted of premeditated murder would face at the most a long prison sentence, during which she could learn and change and eventually begin a new life in freedom. It has happened.
Reyhaneh Jabbari had the misfortune to belong to a society that believes in an eye for an eye, a life for a life, as if cutting off another life rather than allowing it time to be reformed could really make up for the crime of killing. The international community is trying to shame Iran into pulling back from this path. It would help if the most prominent Western nation in the human rights league, the United States, would show that it, too, can do without capital punishment completely.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.