In an unexpected move by Iran’s justice system, the country has allowed for a 10-day delay in the execution of a 26-year-old woman, accused of murdering her alleged rapist seven years ago, who has become a cause for human rights activists and Iranian citizens alike.
In 2009, Reyhaneh Jabbari was sentenced to death for the killing of Morteza Abdolali Sarbandi, a former employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence. Human rights groups within Iran and beyond its borders have criticized the handling of the case. Jabbari had no lawyer when she was questioned during a two-month stay in solitary confinement and though she admitted to stabbing Sarbandi in the shoulder in self-defense, she also claimed there was another man in the house with them that day and that he was the one who killed Sarbandi. According to Amnesty International, Jabbari’s version of incident has never been fully investigated. Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. Special Rapporteur for human rights in Iran, has said that Jabbari’s confession for the murder was produced under duress and that she was acting in self-defense. Shaheed has called for the authorities to review her case and re-try it.
According to an April statement by Shaheed’s office, Sarbandi hired Jabbari, an interior decorator, to redesign his office. Under those pretenses, he took her to “a residence where he physically and sexually forced himself upon her.” The medical examiner’s report found that a glass of juice at the scene contained a tranquilizer. Versions of Jabbari’s story have also made their way online through what Facebook posters allege to be translations of her letters from prison.
Government officials initially confirmed that Jabbari’s execution was scheduled to take place this past Tuesday morning. She had been transferred to Rajai Shahr prison the day before, and her mother, Shole Pakravan, posted on Facebook that she had been told to come on Tuesday morning to collect Jabbari’s body. She wrote, “I cannot believe these bitter and difficult hours are real. Meaning, seven and a half years of pain and suffering, this is how my dear child comes to her end?” But on Tuesday, the 10-day grace period was announced.
The execution had already been postponed once in April, following an international petition that garnered 200,000 signatures and a plea from Shaheed. As the new date approached, social media outrage resurged. Supporters have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #SaveReyhanehJabbari and are gathering on several Facebook pages, all variations on the same theme— “Don’t execute Reyhaneh Jabbari,” “I am Reyhaneh Jabbari,” “Save Reyhaneh Jabbari.”
According to Amnesty International, Iran executes more people annually than any country except China. Information on capital punishment in Iran is difficult to confirm, and there is a large disparity between official figures and estimates by human rights groups. Iranian officials say 369 executions took place in the country in 2013, but Amnesty International estimates the figure is closer to 700. Though far fewer women are executed than men, executions of women are often the cases that manage to gain a high profile internationally. The activist Maryam Hosseinkhah has speculated that the attention to female executions is caused in part by the link between the circumstances of the women and their crimes, often shaped by discrimination and inequalities in the structure of civil law and Iranian society. Earlier this year, for instance, the case of Razieh Ebrahimi got a lot of media attention. Ebrahimi married her abusive husband when she was 14 and shot him three years later. Though her execution was stopped when the authorities learned she was only 17 at the time of the crime, her request for a retrial was refused, and her fate is unknown. Farzaneh Moradi, another young bride convicted of killing her husband, was hung in March.
In looking at Jabbari’s case, it’s worth noting the disparity between the written law and its practice. A rape victim killing his or her rapist is not grounds for the death penalty under the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, because the death penalty is not required of a murderer if the murder victim had previously committed a crime punishable by death under the code. Rape is one such crime. However, judges have broad latitude in their interpretation of facts and evidence under the Penal Code—Article 211 states that judgments can derive from “knowledge of the judge,” vaguely defined as “a certainty resulting from manifest evidence in a matter brought before him.” Activists say women have little recourse when judges abuse this power.
One avenue that remains open to Jabbari is a pardon from Sarbhandi’s family. In Iran, a victim’s family has the final say on whether an execution will take place because the legal system includes the Qur’anic concept of diyya (restitution), under which a killer can be pardoned by a victim’s family through the payment of some sum of money. If pardoned, the convicted person typically serves a prison sentence in lieu of execution. In one high profile incident earlier this year, a woman slapped her son’s killer but allowed him to live, sparing him as he stood on the gallows with the noose around his neck. Earlier this year, the prosecutor general of Iran announced that family pardons prevented 358 executions in 2013. The practice is polarizing—diyya is disparagingly labeled as blood money by some, while others consider it a form of restorative justice. In Jabbari’s case, many in the country are framing the execution postponement as a final window of opportunity to convince Sarbandi’s family to spare her.
Back in April, Sarbandi’s eldest son, Jalal, told several Iranian newspapers that he would not consider mercy for Jabbari until she told the truth. He isn’t the only one calling for the truth. On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued a statement saying the Department was “deeply troubled by reports that Iranian authorities are finalizing plans to execute Reyhaneh Jabbari” and issuing a “call for the relevant authorities to reexamine the evidence in this case with utmost transparency.” Unfortunately, the soapbox the United States stands on is a bit wobbly—until 2005, the United States was one of only six countries in the world to still execute juvenile offenders, alongside Iran; we executed the mentally disabled until 2002, and according to conservative estimates, 1 in 25 Americans sentenced to death is innocent.