News : Human rights

Iran: Lessons from Samereh Alinejad’s Act of Mercy

In an article released by the Associated Press on Thursday, reporters Amir Vahdat and Adam Schreck tell the story of Samereh Alinejad, a mother whose teenaged son was killed in a brawl seven years ago, and who chose to show mercy to the killer at what would have been his execution on April 15.

The article includes haunting images from the scene, not only showing the prisoner, Bilal Gheisari, being led to the gallows, but also offering a glimpse of the crowd that had gathered for what would have been a public execution.

“Hundreds crowded outside the jailhouse in a northern Iranian town to see if the mother… would exercise her right to kick the chair out from under him to let him hang,” the article states. But overall, this report treats the events as a human interest story, only tangentially referring to the staggering numbers of executions in Iran – the second highest such figures in the world.

The details of this story do shed some light on the inhumanity of the Iranian criminal justice system, but only if they are explored more closely than the Associated Press has seen fit to do. The public nature of Gheisari’s would-be execution is typical of capital punishment in Iran, and it clearly demonstrates a tactic of intimidation on the part of the regime that carries those punishments out. That brutality is made worse by the fact that it is applied inequitably and sometimes targeted at political prisoners.

 The AP report describes the Islamic legal concept of qisas, or “an eye for an eye” as giving victims’ families the opportunity to oversee executions. It then adds: “They also have the option to have mercy - often in return for blood money payments of $35,000 or more.”

The consequences of this aspect of the system include a profoundly greater likelihood of execution if one is poor and unable to raise such a considerable amount of money. Conversely, capital crimes against the poor are much less likely to lead to actual execution, since an offer of much needed money can tempt victims’ families away from the desire for revenge.

 There’s something to be said for the fact that Samereh Alinejad and her husband were not swayed by this offer, though they chose mercy nonetheless. The couple has suggested that money raised by Gheisari’s family be donated to charity instead. Unfortunately, not every beneficiary of qisas is so big-hearted. And the inclusion of victims’ families and the general public in the execution process demonstrates a morbid effort to spread blood from the hands of the regime onto the hands of its citizens.

However, there is still too much blood to be concealed, and the Iranian government knows that its high rate of executions and terrible record on human rights threatens its standing in the world. This leads the AP reporters to speculate that the release of this recent story by the semi-official ISNA news agency shows that the regime is attempting to encourage other people to follow Alinejad’s lead in pardoning their families’ killers. But of course, if the government was truly concerned about the epidemic of executions, it is fully capable of changing its own laws to slow their pace – a pace of about two executions per day so far this year, including a major surge of executions during Rouhani's tenure. And this does not include the treatment of political dissidents, in particular the activists of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), 120,000 of whom have been executed by the Ayatollahs over the past three decades.

 Instead, the regime is simultaneously striving to encourage citizen participation in its brutality, while also hoping that those same citizens take the lead in reducing the number of executions that are actually carried out. It is an impressively savvy strategy, though it is also absolutely deplorable. If it works, it will allow the government to retain all of its power to arbitrarily sentence citizens to death, while also being able to show the international community that the number of executed prisoners has dropped.

 This is why context is so important. It is frighteningly easy to imagine readers one year from now, nodding agreeably at reports of lower rates of execution, without knowing that those reports reflect the relative humanity of the people of Iran, but say nothing about the continued brutality and repressiveness of its government.

 Of course, even though it isn’t ideal, this is still a desirable outcome. It is certainly preferable to the creation of a populous that shares its government’s bloodlust. And despite that government’s efforts to spin the situation to their favor, Alinejad’s story is not so much a human interest story as it is an example of how humanity itself can be an act of defiance. Here’s hoping that other citizens will act similarly, not because the government has encouraged it, but rather because they have decided not to participate in the legal apparatus of a corrupt and violent regime that thrives on bloodletting.

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