Monday, October 20, 2014

Tehran In No Mood To Laugh At Khomeini Jokes

The leader and founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, waves from a Tehran balcony during the country's revolution, in February 1979.

Golnaz Esfandiari

A friend of the Imam asks him, "Would you like to drink vodka or tequila?" Outraged at the indignity, the pious Imam slaps the man in the face.

"What's wrong with homemade aragh sagi?" he asks.

This knee-slapper, which mocks Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fierce rejection of alcohol and his promotion of domestic production (aragh sagi is a home-distilled liqueur), is among hundreds of "Imam" jokes making the rounds via text messages and social media in Iran.

And while the anecdotes may seem harmless enough, Iranian conservatives say they are an insult to the founder of the Islamic republic.

On September 3, Iranian police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam warned that action would be taken against those insulting Khomeini.

“The fact that our streets are open and there is freedom in our country doesn't mean that drivers can drive at the speed they want in the streets," he was quoted as saying by the hard-line Tasnim news agency. "These insulting acts are considered a crime."

Ahmadi Moghadam flatly added that those who fail to respect "the limits of freedom" and violate the country’s laws will be dealt with.

Ayatollah Khomeini is a revered figure in the Islamic republic, where he is commonly referred to simply as "the Imam." Iranian state media generally portrays him as religious, knowledgeable, insightful, kind, merciful, and deeply caring about his countrymen. 

The recent slew of jokes largely mocks those traits.

He is depicted drinking alcohol, making fun of others, cursing and using crude language, and as uncompassionate, merciless, and mean-spirited. 

Some of the jokes appear to reflect common criticisms of Khomeini, while others highlight unfulfilled promises he made to Iranians, including his pledge to provide them free water and electricity.

"The Imam comes home and sees bills for water, electricity, and gas on the ground. He asks, 'Weren't these free?'" The joke concludes: "Forgetfulness was one of Imam's weaknesses."

Another is about a man who complains to the Imam that there is often no electricity and he has to eat his dinner in the dark.

"Imam suggests he use an oil lamp," goes the punch line, capped by the reminder that "bringing oil to people’s tables" was one of Khomeini's main characteristics.

London-based Iranian Internet researcher Nariman Gharib says the jokes first appeared on the instant messaging app Viber and later on Facebook.

One Facebook page, titled "Imam's Distinctive Characteristics," has received more than 20,000 "likes." The page administrators wrote that the page was created "only for a bit of fun and laughter" and that it didn't belong to any political party.

Iranians are no strangers to making jokes about their leaders, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. The Guardians Council head has been targeted over his advanced age and his more-than-three-decade presence on the country's political scene.

But jokes about Khomeini were relatively rare, at least until recently. But the power of social media to inspire trends and memes have helped spread the Imam jokes like wildfire.

Mocking Khomeini, Gharib says, has become "normalized."

"I think [conservatives] are angry because ayatollah Khomeini has lost his grandeur and making jokes about him has become very easy for people,” the researcher concludes.

Earlier this week, prominent Tehran-based political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that the jokes were being spread by hard-liners in a backhanded effort to put pressure on the government of President Hassan Rohani.

Rohani has promised Iranians more freedom, online and offline. But he's met with resistance from hard-line opponents who criticize his policies, including in the cultural sphere.

"[They want to say], 'Why is the Culture Ministry not acting against these behaviors? Therefore Rohani's government is to blame," Zibakalam was quoted as saying on September 2.

He suggested that hard-liners could also be using the jokes to oppose the introduction of high-speed Internet by the government and the potential halt of filtering of some social-networking sites.

Zibakalam said hard-liners could argue that considering the fast spread of Imam jokes even with slow Internet and blocked social media sites, the situation would get much worse once speeds rose and filters were removed.

The government recently granted licenses for 3G services to two major mobile operators, drawing criticism by hard-liners who claimed faster Internet would facilitate the sharing of un-Islamic content.

Amid the spread of the jokes, an image of a "secret letter" emerged online bearing the logo of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It called on Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi to filer social-networking sites by which the jokes are being spread.

Vaezi on September 4 was quoted by state media as saying that the letter was fake.

He added, cryptically, that those who attempt to put pressure on a government body in order to further their aims should know that they have not chosen "the right goal."

Senior Iranian Ayatollah Says High-Speed Mobile Internet Is Un-Islamic

A leading conservative cleric in Iran is worried about the "negative features" of high-speed mobile Internet and 3G services.

A senior Iranian hard-line cleric says high-speed mobile Internet and third generation mobile services are "un-Islamic" and violate "human and moral norms".

Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi said Iranian authorities should introduce measures that would prevent access to the "negative features" of high-speed mobile Internet and 3G services before making them widely available. 

Makarem Shirazi, a Shi'ite source of emulation, said expanding Internet services hastily can result in the spread of corruption including the access of young people to anti-Islamic movies and other content.

Makarem Shirazi made the ruling in response to an enquiry by a group of online activists.

In a statement posted on his personal website, Makarem Shirazi wrote that authorities should consult with the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which formulates and oversees Iran's Internet policies including its tough online censorship.

"Authorities should not merely think about the financial earnings of this program, and consider it as a type of religious intellectualism and academic freedom," Makarem Shirazi wrote. 

The ayatollah added that Iranian judiciary officials should also not remain "indifferent" regarding this "vital issue." 

The online activists had written in their enquiry to Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi that Iran's Ministry of Communication has announced it will soon give more mobile providers licenses for high-speed Internet services.

One company, mobile operator Rightel, had exclusive rights to provide 3G services in Iran, but in recent weeks two other mobile providers have also obtained 3G licenses. Yet 3G subscribers still account for only a tiny share of the overall mobile market in Iran.

The activist group added that Iran does not have the necessary  structure to prevent the "harm" that could result from such services, including "access to immoral movies and photos," "the weakening of family structures," and "spying and the sale of the country's confidential information."

The exchange highlights the pressure President Hassan Rohani faces from hard-liners in implementing his promises to lessen online censorship and give Iranians greater access to information. 

Rohani is the chairman of the SCC, the Internet body that Makarem Shirazi advised the government to consult. But the Iranian president is not the sole decision-maker in the SCC, which is dominated by conservative and hard-line members including the head of Iran's judiciary, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, and the head of state broadcasting.

The oversight body was established in 2012 following a decree by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said Iranians should be protected from the "damage" caused by the spread of information and communication technologies. 

Earlier this year, Rohani said that the Internet should not be seen as something that should be feared.

"We ought to see [the Internet] as an opportunity. We must recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web," Rohani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency on May 20.

Ayatollah Naser Makarem ShiraziAyatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi
Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi
Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi

The enquiry to Makarem Shirazi and his ruling, however, demonstrate that, for hard-liners, the Internet remains a cause of concern which they see as a threat to morality and national security, despite Iran's strict censorship, which leads to the filtering of thousands of websites and social media.

It's not the first time Makarem Shirazi has weighed in against 3G. Last year he spoke against video calls, saying they had more downsides than benefits.

His latest ruling has sparked criticism online.

"We're already facing filtering. What else do you want? What kind of nonsensical question is this?" wrote an Internet user in the comments section of one of the websites that posted Makarem Shirazi's ruling.

"The Internet is as necessary as water and food," wrote another user, while someone else maintained that the Internet should be seen as a tool for progress.

"In our backward country we see only the negative sides. According to this [argument] grapes should be considered haram because they can be used to produce wine!!!" the user said.

The ayatollah's ruling was also criticized on social media by some Iranians who said the cleric should not issue statements about issues he's not familiar with.

"You shouldn't speak about things you know nothing about," wrote a young man on Facebook.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

NOTE: On September 3, days after this story was published, Ayatollah Shirazi said his comments regarding 3G services had been distorted. The cleric said he is not against technology while adding that Western technologies are like muddy unclean water. "Water is the source of life yet when it is dirty it must be refined," the cleric was quoted as saying on his website. 

Thousands Attend Iranian Poet Behbahani's Funeral

Women hold pictures of Iranian poet Simin Behbahani at her funeral in Tehran on August 22.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Thousands of Iranians, including prominent intellectuals, artists, and rights activists, have attended a funeral ceremony held in Tehran for celebrated poet and women’s rights advocate Simin Behbahani.

Behbahani, known as Iran’s lady of "ghazal" for her use of a traditional genre that employs a series of couplets, died on August 19 in a hospital in the Iranian capital of heart failure and respiratory problem.

The two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature was 87.

Iran’s most famous classical singer, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, said Behbahani had made history: “Simin [Behbahani] will always remain alive in our history and live on in us,” Shajarian was quoted as saying by Iranian news agencies.

“Simin Behbahani, the crown of Iran’s women,” some chanted, according to a participant who spoke to RFE/RL.

Behbahani was laid to rest at Tehran’s Behesht Zahra cemetery, where her father is buried, Iranian media reported.

Her burial location has led to some controversy amid reports that Iranian authorities had prevented the family to lay Behbahani to rest at Imamzadeh Taher cemetery, where many prominent literary figures and dissidents have been buried.

Ahead of the ceremony, Fariborz Raisdana, a friend and colleague of Behbahani's in the Iranian Writers Association, wrote on his Facebook page about official pressure and said that in protest he would not attend the funeral.

Writer and journalist Ali Dehbashi, who attended the ceremony, told RFE/RL that the family had said that Behbahani had included two options in her last will for her burial place, including the Imamzadeh Taher cemetery. 

According to Dehbashi, a relative said at the funeral that the family had chosen the second option, which was Behesht Zahra.

The outspoken Behbahani had faced the wrath of Iranian authorities, who had censored her work and banned her from traveling to an International Women’s Day event in Paris in 2010.

In her poems, Behbahani tackled topics such as patriotism, women’s issues, war, peace, revolution, poverty, justice, and other challenges facing Iran and its people.

One of the speakers at Behbahani's funeral, writer and poet Javad Mojabi, said the poetess always remained loyal to her people.

Iranian tenor Shahram Nazeri sang one of Behbahani's popular poems, titled “My Country, I Will Build You Again."

Among the participants at Behbahani’s funeral was prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.

Many Iranians are mourning the death of Behbahani, who touched their hearts through her words and her stanzas in support of human rights and freedom of speech.

"Simin Behbahani, you are in our hearts," some chanted while paying their last respects to the poet.

With additional reporting by Radio Farda's Mohammad Zarghami

Famed Iranian Poet Simin Behbahani Dies At 87

Simin Behbahani (right) during a visit by human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (center) in 2010.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran’s most prominent literary figures and a vocal human rights defender who was targeted with censorship and smear campaigns by Iranian authorities, has died in Tehran. She was 87.

A two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, Behbahani died on August 19 of heart failure and respiratory problems at a hospital in the Iranian capital, according to local news agencies.

Behbahani gained renown as master of “ghazal,” a traditional genre of Persian poetry comprising a series of couplets, much like the Western sonnet. Her words resonated deeply among Iranians, both in intellectual circles and the general public. Some of her poems were set to music, and many are widely known by heart among Iranians.

Behbahani reconciled ghazal with modernity and reinvented the literary form, which traditionally had been reserved for men, says Farzaneh Milani, who has translated some of Behbahani’s poems into English and written the first collection of articles about her poetry.

“Ghazal was defined as a poem that a man wrote for a woman. Simin Behbahani changed that age-old pattern,” says Milani. “Now it’s a woman who is singing her love for a man. One can say that Iranian men were finally unveiled in a Persian ghazal; they became the object of love rather than the loving subject.”

Milani, who teaches Persian literature and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, says that, as a woman, she takes “great pride in the fact that [Behbahani] desegregated the arena of this old Persian form.”

“It’s no longer possible to talk about ghazal and only talk about men,” Milani says.

In her hundreds of poems, Behbahani tackled issues such as patriotism, women’s issues, war, peace, revolution, poverty, justice, and other challenges facing Iran and its people.
Behabahani, the winner of several international poetry and human rights awards, told RFE/RL in a 2012 interview that her work reflected her concerns for her compatriots, their joy and suffering.

Literary Roots

Behbahani was born in Tehran on July 20, 1927, into a family of intellectuals. Her mother was a poet and a French teacher, while her father was a writer and the editor of a newspaper. She wrote her first poem during World War II at the age of 14.

“Our country had also been affected, and after the war, people were facing a tough situation,” Behbahani told RFE/RL. “And I wrote a poem that began as follows: ‘Oh, poor and distressed nation, what holds you back?’” 

Her concern for social issues remained with her throughout her life, which was marked by two personal tragedies: the death of her second husband and the loss of a grandchild.

“In all my poems I want to be with my people and share [their worries and problems], and I don’t know if I’ve been up to the task or not,” she told RFE/RL's Radio Farda in 2012.

Respected Activist
Behabahani touched Iranians not only through her literary achievements, but also through her political stances.

Iranian rights activists often turned to her for moral support and inspiration, and she became the spiritual mother the women’s movement in Iran that has pushed for greater rights and equality in the Islamic republic. 

When an initiative called the “One Million Signature Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws” was nominated for the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom in 2009, the campaign organizers asked Behbahani to travel to Paris to accept the award.

A year later, Iranian authorities banned her from traveling to Paris for an International Women’s Day Event.
“Iran’s women’s rights movement lost its greatest advocate,” activist Talat Taghinia wrote in an article celebrating Behbahani’s legacy. “The encouraging presence of the lady of Iran’s ghazal in the women’s movement and her determination made activists more hopeful about the clear but bumpy road of achieving equal rights.” 

Behbahani, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 and 2002, was among numerous poets and writers who were blacklisted by Iranian hard-liners and denounced as subversive.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a friend of Behbahani’s, said the poet greatly contributed to the fight for freedom of expression in Iran.

“Simin Behbahani was for many years active in Iran’s Writers Association. She was a major supporter of those who had ended up in prison over their writings,” Ebadi told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Iranians have flooded social media with tributes to Behbahani by posting her pictures and work, including her poem “Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind.”

Behbahani wrote the poem after Iran’s brutal 2009 crackdown on opposition activists who took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest alleged election fraud: 

Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind.
The grim-faced rising cloud, will grovel at the swamp's feet.
Stop this screaming, mayhem, and bloodshed.
Stop doing what makes God's creatures mourn with tears.
My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment.
My enemies' afflictions also cause me pain.
You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me.
But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

In one of her last interviews with RFE/RL, Behbahani said she wanted to be remembered for her honesty and sincerity.

“In my life, I’ve always said what my heart told me to say, and I’ve expressed the way I felt. If anyone wants to remember me, [he or she] should remember me as an honest and sincere person whose heart was always with the people,” she said.

Radio Farda broadcaster Elahe Ravanshad contributed to this report

Iran Lawmakers Urge Ministry To Condemn 'Rights Abuses' In Riot-Hit U.S. Town

Police actions in the restive Missouri town of Ferguson have sparked outrage both in the United States and beyond.

Golnaz Esfandiari

The unrest in the U.S. state of Missouri sparked by the fatal police shooting of a black teenager is being played up by Iranian hardliners, with several lawmakers calling on the Foreign Ministry to react and highlight what they describe as blatant human rights abuses in the United States.

The August 9 shooting in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, has sparked days of sometimes violent protests that have been further fueled by what critics have called a heavy-handed response by authorities.

"The Foreign Ministry should ask Americans about how they allow themselves to treat their people, especially blacks, in such a manner while magnifying other countries' problems," Esmail Kowsari, a senior member of the Iranian parliament's national security committee, was quoted as saying in an interview with the hard-line Fars news agency. 

Without elaborating, Kowsari said the United States portrays the tiniest problems in other countries, particularly Iran, as a major issue. Kowsari said it is the duty of the Foreign Ministry to pursue the issue "strongly."

The United States regularly criticizes human rights violations in Iran in its annual reports on human rights practices and international religious freedom. Washington has also blacklisted a number of Iranian officials over human rights abuses and censorship. 

Iranian officials dismiss the criticism as interference in their country's internal affairs. 

Lawmaker Hamidreza Tabatabayi said it is "necessary" for the Foreign Ministry to react to the unrest and to take a stance against human rights abuses in the United States.

"The United States claims to be the leader of the world and [defender] of human rights, but it shoots protesters on its own territory," Tabatabayi told Fars, while adding that Tehran shouldn't remain "passive" over events in Ferguson. 

Pressuring The Government

Police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades during some of the clashes in Ferguson that followed the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer. But they say they have not used gunfire against demonstrators and that two people who were shot on August 18 were wounded by protesters' gunfire.

Fars interviewed several other lawmakers including Ebrahim Nekou, who expressed hope that the Foreign Ministry would have a "suitable" reaction as soon as possible.

"The Foreign Ministry and Iran's diplomacy apparatus should take clear stances in support of the protesters in Ferguson and condemn the police crackdown on demonstrators and the crimes of America's rulers," Nekou said. 

Nekou was also quoted by Fars as saying that Tehran should not lag behind other countries in condemning abuses in Ferguson.

Another lawmaker, Mansour Haghighatpour, suggested that parliament take a stance instead of the Foreign Ministry.

"As a defender of the protesters in Ferguson, we can issue a statement and condemn the racist actions by the police."

Haghighatpour also spoke to Fars, said to be affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards Force (IRGC), which through its interviews with lawmakers appeared to be attempting to pressure the government of President Hassan Rohani into reacting to the events in Ferguson.

'News Blackmail'

In recent days, the violence and protests in Ferguson have featured among Fars' top stories.

Fars also carried a commentary-- picked up by several other hard-line websites and blogs -- that pondered how the State Department might respond if a Ferguson-type scenario had happened in Iran.

"Without any doubt foreign media would have pursued news blackmail [i.e. excessive coverage of the story in order to pressure Tehran] as if there had been a mass killing. The State Department would have tried hard to adopt a human rights resolution against our country," Fars wrote, while expressing regret over the lack of action by Iran's Foreign Ministry. 

Fars also said that U.S. support for the so called "seditionists" -- meaning protesters who took part in 2009 antigovernment demonstrations in Tehran and other cities -- was a "clear example" of interference in Iran's internal affairs, adding that no one had forgotten about it. 

The calls on Iran's Foreign Ministry come as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif leads a team negotiating with the United States and other world powers in a bid to reach a deal ending the long-running standoff over Tehran's disputed nuclear program. The talks have been criticized by hard-liners who have claimed that Tehran is making too many concessions. They've also said that the United States cannot be trusted. 

Ferguson has featured prominently in conservative media, including the Tasnim news agency,, state television, and the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan." 

The unrest has also been covered by the website of Iran's paramilitary Basij force, which is accused of attacking peaceful protesters who took to the streets in 2009 following a disputed presidential election. 

Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has weighed in.

Over the weekend, a Twitter account believed to be maintained by Khamenei's media team blasted the United States over the events in Ferguson in a series of tweets. 


Iranian Math Genius's Photos Too Racy For Media Back Home

Apparently, images of Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani without Islamic hijab were too risque for Iranian media.

Golnaz Esfandiari

"No hair, no ears, no neck." That's how one journalist described a front-page portrait of Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani that an Iranian newspaper digitally doctored to obscure her hair and skin to placate censors in the Islamic republic.

The altered picture of Mirzakhani, who this week became the first woman awarded the Fields Medal, mathematics' equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was published in the Iranian reformist daily "Sharq," whose journalist tweeted the snarky quip about the manipulation of the image.

Mirzakhani's achievement appears to have created a challenge for Iranian newspapers forced to follow stringent written and unwritten censorship guidelines concerning images exposed female skin and hair.

Women in Iran are required to wear the Islamic hijab to cover their hair and body, and newspapers and websites often digitally alter pictures of women to make them acceptable to censors and hard-liners.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton are among women whose photographs have been doctored by the Iranian media in recent years.  

Other images of Mirzakhani, a professor at Stanford, also appear to have undergone digital editing in order to be published by Iranian newspapers.

While some conservative media -- including the hard-line "Kayhan" daily -- completely ignored Mirzakhani's achievement, others posted an old picture of her wearing the hijab.

The government-run daily "Iran" appears to have photoshopped a scarf from an old photo of Mirzakhani onto a newer image of her without the hijab. The reason for the move was not clear. "It might be because they wanted to use a high-quality photograph, but weren't allowed to publish it without adding a veil," a web project hosted by the news channel France 24 noted.

Maryam Mirzakhani gets a head scarf.
Maryam Mirzakhani gets a head scarf.

The portrait of Mirzakhani published by "Sharq" reportedly underwent several rounds of alterations before it was approved by the newspaper's editors.

Iranian journalist Farvartish Rezvaniyeh posted images on Facebook showing the changes made to the portrait by artist Hossein Safi. The original portrait stands side-by-side with a version altered by the artist, which in turn stands next to the final version published by "Sharq."

Farvartish wrote that "Sharq" had asked the artist to change his original portrait to make Mirzakhani's hair less visible, adding that the final editing was done without the artist's knowledge. 

"Oops! Did we censor her picture? Seems we had to!" a journalist for the newspaper, Sobhan Hassanvand, wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Iran's "Hafte Sobh" newspaper cropped Mirzakhani's photo on its front page, leaving only her face and editing out her short hair.

Maryam Mirzakhani loses her hair.
Maryam Mirzakhani loses her hair.

In a statement posted on his official website, Iranian President Hassan Rohani congratulated Mirzakhani for winning the Fields medal.

"Today the Iranians can feel proud that the first woman who has ever won the Fields Medal is their fellow citizen. Yes! The most competent must sit at the highest position and must be the most respected," Rohani said in the statement.

Rohani's unverified Twitter account -- said to be run by people close to him -- posted a Tweet featuring two photographs of Mirzakhani side-by-side, one with a head scarf and one without.

The tweet was met by cheers by some Iranians, who praised Rohani for posting an unveiled photograph of the mathematician.

Photogallery Wave Of Forgiveness Washes Over Iran

  • The convicted killer, identified only as Balal, is led to the gallows. He was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing another young man, Abdollah, in a fight seven years ago, when both were 17.
  • The day before the planned execution, Balal's mother said she had lost hope that he would be pardoned.
  • People gather to watch the planned execution in the town of Noor in Mazandaran Province.
  • The family of the murder victim was expected to participate in the hanging by pushing a chair out from under the prisoner. The custom is endorsed by a part of Sharia law known as "qisas," or retribution.
  • Balal's relatives cry as the time of the execution approaches.
  • The victim's parents stand by as the noose is put around Balal's neck.
  • At the decisive moment, the victim's mother approached Balal, slapped him in the face, and said that she forgave him.
  • The decision meant that the prisoner's life was spared. The victim's parents removed the noose from his neck.
  • A member of the security forces thanks the victim's father, Abdolghani Hosseinzadeh, for the family's decision to forgive the killer.
  • The mother of Balal, left, and the mother of Abdollah, the victim, cry together.
  • Relatives of Balal thank Abdollah's father for their family's decision to pardon him.
  • Relatives of Balal embrace. The pardon does not mean that he will be freed; the victim's family only have the right to call off the execution.
  • The parents and sister of the victim, Abdollah Hosseinzadeh, at their home. The family had lost another member, their 11-year-old son, in a motorbike accident.
  • Abdollah's parents visit his grave.
Golnaz Esfandiari

April 16 was supposed to be the last day of Balal's life. Seven years after stabbing another teen dead in a street fight, Balal was to be publicly executed in front of his victim's family, in a small town in Iran's northern province of Mazandaran.

Instead, Balal was given a new lease on life when, in the very last minute, he was spared by his victim's mother. The dramatic scenes of Balal, his neck in a noose, being pardoned have received extensive coverage in the media and on social-networking sites.

Since then the scene has been reenacted dozens of times in a wave of forgiveness that belies the authorities' efforts to push the death penalty.

Last week alone, according to the reformist "Shargh" daily, nine individuals sentenced to death were pardoned by victims' families.

Observers say a concerted publicity campaign is at play, but money is also a factor.

Artists, television celebrities, and rights activists have been publicly calling on citizens to spare the lives of those sentenced to death and the media have been sympathetic in their coverage.

In Balal's case, for example, popular TV presenter Adel Ferdowsipour spoke to an audience of millions  in favor of him being pardoned.

But Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, a well-known Iranian lawyer who has represented several convicted killers, says that what media call a wave of mercy is in fact a "business."

Under Islamic laws applied in Iran, the families of convicted murderers are able to buy their kin's freedom from victims' families. The official rate for blood money is 150 million toumans -- or about $50,000 -- but often the sum requested is higher.

In Balal's case, his victim's family reportedly received blood money of about 300 million toumans.

"Based on the information I have about some of the cases, I have to say that a large part of the reconciliations in Qisas" -- a reference to the Islamic law of retribution -- "cases are happening in exchange of enormous sums of money from the families of those convicted," Khoramshahi said earlier this month in an interview with

The Tehran-based lawyer added that media should encourage people not to request huge sums of money for showing mercy.

Iranian Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said in April that during the past Iranian year -- from March 2013 to March 2014 -- the lives of 358 condemned Iranians were spared under the Islamic law of retribution.

Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, spokesman of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization, says it is not clear how many pardons were prompted by the lure of financial compensation.

But Moghaddam thinks that some Iranians are finding "value" in showing mercy.

"I think as much as the establishment is trying to promote executions," he says, "a culture that goes against it -- a culture of mercy -- is being promoted." 

Moghaddam says Iran's civil society and anti-death-penalty groups should be given credit for the trend.

One of the groups active against executions is the "Step By Step To Stop The Death Penalty In Iran" campaign, founded by a number of prominent intellectuals and rights activists including former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.

Maleki tells RFE/RL there's a growing distaste for the death penalty in Iran and a tendency toward mercy.

He agrees that many families spare the lives of their relatives' killers for money. At the same time, he says he's come across a number of cases where the families pardoned convicted killers out of compassion.

"It will take time before it becomes ingrained in the society," he says in a telephone interview from Tehran. "People have to realize slowly that money cannot replace forgiveness and sacrifice."

Maleki notes that the trend comes as the Iranian establishment continues to hold public hangings.

"The establishment only knows violence and blood," he says.

One journalist in the Iranian capital says the establishment is already benefiting from the wave of forgiveness because "it shows a more human face of Iran."

But others fear that violence is so deeply rooted in Iranian society that it will take a long time before things change.

The country carried out 665 executions in 2013, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

And with Iranians under tremendous pressures that discourage communication and dialogue, the wave of mercy is not likely to last, according to prominent university professor and sociologist Mostafa Eghlima.

"It's not easy [for people] to forgive someone who has killed their children," he concludes.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

Guerrilla Translators

Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at

Most Recent Posts

No records found for this widget:3218