Oct 16, 2011

The Price of Life

Gavin Macdermott

Staff Writer


Last Monday was ‘World Day against the Death Penalty’ and whilst many Trinity students were enjoying the eccentric spectacle of Bollywood filmmaking in Front Square, some human rights activists were attending an altogether quite different event.  DU Amnesty, Scholars at Risk and Trinity Equality Fund had the pleasure of welcoming Mohammad Mostafaei, an Iranian human rights lawyer, to the Davis Theatre to give a talk entitled ‘No to Execution: A Mediation on Five Tragic Situations’.  Mohammad was forced to flee his native Iran last year after working as a defence lawyer for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery convictions.  According to a recent article in The Guradian her death sentence is “on hold”.  Mohammad himself, his wife and brother-in-law were imprisoned by Iranian authorities.  Now based in Norway with his family, Mohammad was released after international pressure mounted on the authorities.  He has been sponsored by Amnesty International and Trinity Equality Fund to tour Ireland promoting the anti-death penalty cause.

Sheelan Yousefizadeh, Campaigns Officer for DU Amnesty, accompanied Mohammad on his tour around Ireland which took him as far as Galway and back which included a meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs.  Despite hailing from Iran originally, Sheelan’s main exposure to life there has been through the media.  Getting to know Mohammad during his tour here has given her the insight she was really looking for.

Mohammad’s experience in defending death row prisoners is extensive.  So much so that he has managed to save over fifty people from execution in Iran over the years.  Given the level of risk associated with his line of work, one could easily become discouraged to fight against an oppressive regime.  However Mohammad’s belief in the cause stems from childhood events which impacted on his principles.

“When I was about 15 years of age, someone came up and hit me in the face in the street and then ran away.  My pride was hurt most.  I was living in a difficult and unhealthy society.  So, I went to find a knife and go looking for this person.  I really wanted to stab him.  Fortunately some people around me realised what I was doing and stopped me.  If I had stabbed that person, I surely would not be here tonight.”  Mohammad feels his life changed from that moment.  It was an event that has allowed him to see through the eyes of his many clients he has defended from execution in Iran and it appears to be an underlying source of his motivation.   However, he has developed a reasoned academic case against the use of the death penalty.

One plucky member of the audience challenged Mohammad on whether there was really was no one person in the world who deserved the death penalty referring particularly to the cases of heinous criminals such as paedophiles and cold blooded murderers.  Mohammad responded saying that taking a life should not be in someone else’s hands.  Fair enough, but what about preventing crime itself?

Mohammad believes that the death penalty does not in actual fact reduce crime but encourages a culture of criminality.  His theory is that if taking a life is easy and shameless, as Mohammad feels the Iranian government make it seem, then no respect for law or life can be maintained.

Mohammad cited the recent atrocity committed by anti-Islamic mass murderer Anders Breivik where 69 unarmed young people were gunned down by Breivik.  He commended the peaceful behaviour of the Norwegian public who brought flowers, recited poetry in solidarity instead of calling for execution and violent retribution.  In fact Mohammad holds Breivik’s “just trial” up as an example.

Mohammad then contrasted this tragic case with Saudi Arabia’s of the death penalty practices.  8 Bangladeshi citizens and 2 Saudis were beheaded with a sword on the 8th October 2011 as they were convicted of theft and murder.  Indeed this is one of the most horrific methods of execution. However; it was Mohammad’s account of 17 year old Ali-Reza Mulla-Hasani’s execution in September 2011 that stirred the audience most.

Ali-Reza was convicted of manslaughter after drawing a knife on a man during a fight.  Mohammad stresses this action was taken due to a “lack of intellectual growth” and “cultural deficit” among other factors.  Yet, Ali-Reza was sentenced to a public execution by hanging after an unfair and severely curtailed trial.  Mohammad described his murder as unvoluntary and that he nearly fell a few times on the scaffold and when he was hung “a nation witnessed the trembling of his body and his death.”

There are two categories of thoughts and deeds that fit the profiles of states which implement execution as punishment for criminals according to Mohammad.

The first category Mohammad outlined for the audience encompassed the Islamic states employing extreme interpretations of Shari’a Law.  This particular legal system has gained notoriety amongst western societies and Mohammad feels that the essence of its cruelty comes from harsh interpretations by judiciaries.  It operates on the basis of Qerases according to Mohammad which promotes ‘eye for an eye’ sentences and judiciaries justify the death penalty with selective “Qur’anic verses”. He believes that Shari’a could be interpreted differently and that the severity of Shari’a has led many Muslims to turn away from their religion.

The second category Mohammad spoke of related to governments who are incapable and incompetent in managing the social, political, cultural and economic spheres in a balanced manner.  In the case of Iran, Mohammad believes that execution is a politically repressive tool for an authoritarian regime.  It prevents political diversity and spreads fear amongst the population so that the government can maintain its control.

‘In Iran I was a defence lawyer for a youth who went before the gallows seven times but each time somehow I managed to save him.   Yet this youth, Behnood Shojai, was finally executed while thousands of Iranian people, some famous artists and political figures, demanded for him not to be executed.  Nonetheless he was hanged before my unbelieving eyes.’  Obviously, the thought of a minor being sentenced to death in Ireland is unthinkable in the 21st century but it is common practice in Iran and Saudi.

Interestingly enough in a brief interview with Mohammad and Sheelan, who was kind enough to translate, he explained that he firmly believed that in Iran the interests of the government lay in the country’s rich natural resources rather than the welfare of its people.

How does Mohammad envisage a change coming about in Iran?  “When Troy Davis (a death row prisoner for 22 years) was executed for murder in the U.S., hundreds of thousands were opposed to his death.  Eventually, people will rise up in Iran and a spark will light a fire for revolution.”  Although the two countries have many differences it is the free press and independent judiciary that are needed in Iran in Mohammad’s opinion.  The power of the Iranian government will wain over time but Mohammad is insistent that people must be aware of the fact that the current rulers in Iran are not representative of most Iranian people.  In fact Mohammad likens the incumbents’ policies to those of Muammar Gaddafi.  If an electoral system can develop in Iran to meet internationally recognised democratic standards of say the U.N, then there will be progress in law reform.

Would Mohammad himself run for public office?  “I prefer to be a witness and to point towards wrong doers!” he exclaims, “I like to discuss things.  I would have no real interest in candidacy.”  He reiterated the role that citizens in established democracies like Ireland can play; lobbying the government and international bodies like the U.N to put pressure on countries with considerable human rights abuses.  However, he feels many of the western powers are more concerned with their own material interests abroad rather than human rights abuses.

Mohammad’s ultimate dream is to see a world without the death penalty and barbaric punishments.  He wants to see a world where everyone has their right to a defence honoured.  The 21st century calls for progressive prison sentences such as life terms without parole. The technology and facilities are available to rehabilitate prisoners.  One could not doubt the audacity of Mohammad Mostafaei and his outstanding success in defending the lives of those convicted.

However, in a world where political trends show the fight between dictatorship and democracy is still raging, we might be waiting a while longer for Mohammad’s dream.

Most credit should be even to TCD’s Scholar’s at Risk Committee for organizing such a fascinating event. According to Dr. Roja Fazaeli, chair of the SAR committee and lecturer of Islamic studies:

The lecture was primarily organised by the SAR committee in TCD as a part of an ongoing SAR lecture series to raise awareness and promote the work of the Scholars at Risk Network (TCD is a member). We applied for the equality fund last year and were successful in attaining it. We invited Mostafaei at least six months ago and later on Amnesty Ireland asked through the SAR committee to invite him to do a tour of Ireland. Two weeks to the event I asked the TCD DU Amnesty to join the event. The work of Mostafaei is definitely very important and SAR committee is there to help individuals like Mostafaei. The lecture series is meant to not only highlight the person but also the work of SAR so we can get support in the future as no one knows about us.

Children on Death Row in Iran, Mohammad Mostafaei and his Work

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