But as one would expect, such arrangements rarely result in happy marriages, and Najafi apparently argued frequently with his second wife, even though she lived apart from him and his first. On Tuesday, he carried a gun to Ostad’s apartment and at some point fired five shots, two of which struck and killed her. This incident was shocking on its surface, but it became more so as a result of Najafi’s treatment by authorities and the media after he presented himself at a police station to confess to the crime.
As Washington Post put it on Thursday, the murderer’s interview showcased “everything that’s wrong with Iran in one grotesque, televised scandal.” IW’s coverage of the crime and police interview confirms that large segments of the Iranian public reacted with outrage to the apparent efforts by state media outlet IRIB to portray the former city official in a sympathetic light. The police interviewers assisted in this effort, serving Najafi tea while he outlined his own version of the events that “resulted in me making this mistake, and her life ending.”
Many of those who commented on Najafi’s case via Iranian social media drew attention to the vast differences in treatment afforded to different types of criminals in the Islamic Republic. Well-connected individuals like Najafi may be subjected to very little investigation or light prosecution, even in the case of serious crimes like murder. But ordinary Iranians are routinely prosecuted to the full extent of the law, resulting in lashings and long prison sentences for instances of peaceful activism or the violation of sometimes vaguely defined religious laws.
In his article, Rezaian pointed out that IRIB’s deferential interview with Najafi was made all the more insulting to the general population by the fact that the same network has frequently aired the forced confessions of political prisoners who were tortured in pre-trial detention. According to IW the commander of Tehran’s police force issued a statement countering the public outcry and saying that Najafi was treated with respect because he had willingly appeared to confess the crime.
“As he was being taken to the detention center, he extended his hand to shake hands with the police and the police shook his hand,” the statement said. “This is more or less how we treat all accused and there was no difference.” But even if this were true of all instances in which a person appears before the police willingly, the statement ignores the fact that ordinary Iranians are only given such a prominent public outlet for their confessions when those confessions are coerced.
By appearing on television in a suit and drinking tea in the company of police officers who bowed respectfully to him, Najafi arguably took advantage of an opportunity to defend his own character to the public before he was even detained. Additionally, the IRIB presenter potentially corrupted evidence by handling the gun that had been used in the murder. Although the police argued that this was unimportant in light of Najafi’s confession, this comment strongly suggests the presumption of truth for every aspect of the killer’s statement, including his claim that the gun was discharged during a struggle after Ostad lunged at him.
Notably, this same credibility has not been afforded to the defendants in cases involving ordinary citizens. The judiciary’s refusal to consider mitigating circumstances is particularly apparent in cases where the defendant is a woman. For instance, in 2014, Reyhaneh Jabbari was executed at age 26 despite appeals for her release by a variety of human rights groups including Amnesty International. Jabbari acknowledged stabbing her alleged victim, Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, but alleged that another man had killed him after the fact. In any event, the stabbing was reportedly an act of self-defense, undertaken as Sarbandi was attempting to rape her.
In an open letter written shortly before her execution, Jabbari expressed her belief that she would have been killed anyway, had she not fought back. “The murderer would have never been found since we don’t have their wealth and their power,” she added, referring to the fact that Sarbani had previously been employed by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. Because of this, Jabbari’s death sentence was widely regarded as an example both of the inequitable treatment of men and women under the law, and of the tendency of Iranian authorities to defend one another while aggressively prosecuting their perceived domestic enemies.
The sexist features of the Iranian justice system were once again highlighted for international audiences last year, when similar outcry emerged from human rights groups in connection with the case of Zeinab Sekaanvand. The 24-year-old was executed two days after giving birth to a stillborn child, for a crime she was alleged to have committed when she was only 17. The execution of juvenile offenders is banned by two international conventions to which Iran is a signatory, and Sekaanvand was also apparently denied due process during a trial that refused to consider the underlying circumstances of the crime.
The defendant in that case claimed that the killing had actually been carried out by her brother-in-law, but many of her international defenders insisted that she should bear diminished responsibility even if guilty, because she had repeatedly suffered abuse from her husband since being forced to marry him at only 15 years old. Sekaanvand had reportedly approached the police on multiple occasions over the abuse, but had been rebuffed in accordance with the lesser legal rights afforded to women, particular in comparison to their own husbands.
Female testimony is explicitly afforded less weight than male testimony in Iranian legal proceedings, yet women are considered to be legally responsible, and marriageable, at a younger age. One might argue that such principle are contradictory and also that men’s legal advantages ought to make them subject to more, not less scrutiny in cases where they allege mitigating circumstances.
In the Najafi case in particular, his claim to have tried, unsuccessfully to resolve tensions with his second wife are inherently dubious. As Jason Rezaian pointed out, it is notoriously difficult for women to receive a divorce under Iranian law, but remarkably easy for men to demand one. This particular gender disparity has been variously highlighted for the Iranian public and for the international community, with influential Shiite clerics and state media variously praising the supposed effect on family cohesion.
In February, Iran Human Rights Monitor called attention to an interview segment on Iranian state television that appeared to deliberately normalize domestic violence and discourage women from fighting back against it. The segment featured a man who acknowledged and at no point apologized for physically beating his wife. It also pointed out that the woman, who was also present along with their children, had tried unsuccessfully to divorce her abuser on 27 occasions.
The IHRM report noted that 66 percent of married Iranian women have experienced spousal abuse at least once. And it implied that this situation is exacerbated by the treatment of this and other women’s rights issues at the hands of state media and government authorities. The presenter of the aforementioned interview made a show of not condemning the actions of the abusive husband, stating that while the television program did not aim to promote domestic violence, it also did not take a position against it.
Najafi’s televised police interview was in some ways reminiscent of such segments. When gently asked by an IRIB presenter whether it would have been better to file a complaint against Ostad, the self-confessed murderer seized the opportunity to defend his actions, saying that he had “tried different ways of dealing with our issues” and ultimately attributing the fatal outcome to his second wife’s “special temperament.” Without actually promoting murder, the state media coverage seemingly reaffirmed authorities’ expectations that women should be compliant at any cost.
Of course, this perspective has found many recent outlets, including crackdowns on women’s rights activism and expanded enforcement of Iran’s forced veiling laws. One Iranian Twitter user was quoted by IranWire as drawing attention to this trend while commenting on the Najafi case: “Tehran’s former mayor kills his wife with five bullets but then they give him tea at the station and bow to him respectfully. By the way, tell us how you treat someone who has been arrested for the crime of bad hijab.”
Numerous videos have spread across Iranian social media showing the country’s morality police harassing and violently attacking women whose head coverings were deemed to be too loose or to expose too much of their hair. Nonetheless, defiance of these sorts of laws is growing bolder and more frequent, in a testament to the expansion of the Iranian women’s rights movement.
This week, in what was possible a response to public pressure, the Iranian judiciary unexpectedly announced the release of Vida Movahedi, who had served only three months of a one year sentence for publicly removing her hijab and holding it over her head like a banner. This action has been copied many times since December 2017 and the movement was quickly dubbed “Girls of Revolution Street” in reference to the location of the initial protest.