The tale of Two Nazanins
On a rainy day in November, Nazanin's mother visited her for a second time. She sat in the chair opposite Nazanin in the waiting room and complained that, like when they were back in Sanandaj, the neighbours no longer spoke to her. This time, though, it had nothing to do with Nazanin's father but with Nazanin. Arsalan, now almost one year old, drooled on her mother's shoulder as she lamented, "Everyone knows we have a daughter in prison for murder." "But I am innocent," Nazanin said quietly. "While I was at the police station, I had to go into a room with Somayeh and the two men who attacked us. I stood before a judge. He was tall, he had glasses and he was nice. He asked me to tell him what happened. When I was done, he said to me, 'You should have cut off his penis, brought it here and put it on my desk. I would have freed you myself.' Dayah," Nazanin whispered. "I am going to be free. This judge believed me." But Nazanin's mother was no longer listening but instead was complaining about her health ailments, including the trouble she was having breathing and her sore, arthritic hands that prevented her from cleaning properly. Nazanin felt completely alone. As soon as she returned to her cell, she crawled into bed. Her mother didn't visit her again for many months.
"Put these on," Mrs. Mohammadi said, tossing a pair of brown plastic shoes onto Nazanin's bed. It was an early morning in January. The call to prayer had taken place, but the breakfast cart hadn't yet arrived. Nazanin was confused and tired from lack of sleep because of the drugs.
"You also need your manteau and chador. A guard will come and get you in 10 minutes. Be ready," snapped Mrs. Mohammadi as Nazanin rubbed her eyes. "Where am I going?" she asked when Mrs. Mohammadi turned to leave. "To court," she replied curtly.
When Nazanin entered the courtroom, she saw Roozbeh and Hamid. When she passed the two other young men who had attacked her and Somayeh, they called her names under their breath. "Ghatel, jendeh"—"Murderer, whore."
Nazanin was escorted to a seat at the front of the room beside a slim man who had slicked-back brown hair and was wearing a black suit. He leaned over and introduced himself as her State-appointed lawyer. "I'm handling your case," he said quietly. "You don't have to do anything. Let me do all the talking unless one of the judges asks you to speak." He pointed to five men sitting at a table facing Nazanin. "Those are the judges. If they ask you something, you answer the question."
Nazanin, not wanting to catch the eye of any of the judges, looked down. "What is going on here today?" she whispered to the lawyer.
"It's your court case to decide if you are guilty of murder or not."
Nazanin gasped. "I wasn't told that." "Ghatel," one of Yousef 's friends said a little more loudly.
One of the judges slapped his hand on the table, ordering the room to be quiet. He introduced himself as Ghazi Mohammadi—Judge Mohammadi—the chief judge in the case. He then introduced the other judges, including Judge Rahimi, as well as the court assistant, who was taking notes, and the prosecutor. As Judge Mohammadi explained in Persian the court rules, Nazanin looked around the small, dimly lit room, taking in the dull yellow walls and scuffed floors. Most of the spectator seats were empty. No one from her family was there. "Does my mother even know I am here today?" she whispered to her lawyer. "And where is Somayeh?"
"I don't know," he replied. "I have 60 cases at my office. I do my best. I wish I could do more."
Judge Mohammadi continued. "We have witnesses in the courtroom and the accused. We have the testimonies and the reports of the police and the medical examinations.
"Please call up the first witness," Judge Mohammadi said, motioning to the court prosecutor.
The prosecutor stood up. "Roozbeh Molaei," he called out.
Roozbeh swore on the Qur'an that what he was about to say was the truth. He then answered the judge's questions, starting with his age and education, followed by what he remembered about the incident.
After Roozbeh testified, the attackers were asked to stand up. One was introduced as Salman Parchami, the other as Mahmoud Tekeh. The young men said that they were innocently hanging out the day of the incident. They claimed that they had not chased the girls on motorbikes, nor taunted them at the market. They testified, rather, that the girls had approached them to speak with them, but that they had tried to ignore them.
At one point, Salman was asked if one of his friends had pulled off Nazanin's headscarf. "Yes, because we wanted the girls to leave us alone," he answered.
"Is that all you did?" one of the judges questioned.
"Did you say anything to provoke the young women?" Judge Rahimi asked.
"No..." Salman said, trailing off. "That girl there," he then continued, pointing to Nazanin, "threw bricks at me."
"What did you do back?"
"We may have thrown something at her, but it was all innocent. You must believe me," he pleaded.
"Did you, Yousef or Mahmoud say or do anything else to make the girls angry?" Judge Mohammadi probed.
"No... I mean... maybe we said something like 'Come with us to an abandoned house.' But we wanted to frighten them so they would go away. It was not serious. We would never have done such a thing."
"That is a lie," Nazanin said, rising to her feet. "They are all lying."
The judge shouted at Nazanin to sit down and be quiet.
A recess was then called, though everyone remained in the courtroom. The judges huddled together and spoke in hushed tones. After what seemed like forever to Nazanin, Judge Mohammadi cleared his throat and stated dryly, "The mother of the young victim has not appeared at this meeting; however, she has asked this court to sentence Nazanin to death."
He turned to Nazanin. "Do you have anything you want to say?" Nazanin blinked. She didn't understand. Her lawyer nudged her to stand up. "I... I... what are you saying?" she managed to get out.
"Do you have anything you want to say in response to the wishes of the deceased's family?" Judge Mohammadi asked again.
The courtroom became quiet, all eyes glued to Nazanin. Her gaze fell to the floor.
"Believe me," she stated in a low steady voice, "I did not intend to kill Yousef. I was just trying to defend myself and my niece, Somayeh."
"What made you stab Yousef ?" the judge asked matter-of-factly.
"I... I..." she stammered and then, in a more controlled voice, said, "He had grabbed my breast. I thought he was going to... you know... the way men do." She paused before continuing. "I am not a bad person. I am a good person. How many times do I have to say that I did this to defend our honour and chastity?"
Judge Mohammadi banged his hand on the table. Nazanin was having a hard time focusing and she caught only a little of what he said next. "Branch 71 of the Criminal Court finds Ms. Mahabad Fatehi, known as Nazanin, guilty of the murder of Yousef Bagheri, son of Ali. We will retreat to a closed section to determine her punishment."
Nazanin, too stunned to speak, sat back down and remained seated as all the judges except Judge Mohammadi left the courtroom. The court assistant called for her to come forward.
"You have to sign that you accept the verdict," he explained as Nazanin stood motionless in front of him. "Your crime is the murder of a 23-year-old boy," he continued. "Your signature indicates you have accepted the conviction. Do you understand?" he asked. Nazanin continued to stare at her brown plastic shoes. "You are signing that the trial was fair and justified."
"Take your index finger," her lawyer said, making Nazanin look, "and place it in this blue ink."
Nazanin's vision blurred. Nazanin could see the court assistant and her lawyer out of the corner of her eye, but their instructions to her were garbled. Numbly, she followed her lawyer as he showed her where and how to place her blue-inked finger on the bottom of the page.
"That is your signature," he said.
"Ms. Fatehi," Judge Mohammadi said in a loud voice, jolting Nazanin from her trance-like state. She had forgotten that he was there. "What happened that made you want to stab Yousef ?" he asked again.
"I thought they were going to rape Somayeh.
I had to protect her. I am innocent. I am innocent," she repeated over and over as the prison escort dragged her away.
When Nazanin returned to the prison, she was placed in a different cell. A guard told her that Madar Azar had packed her clothes, toothbrush and purse for her. All of the items had been placed on top of her new bunk bed. This ward, Nazanin was informed, was close to Madar Azar's. "You will see her in the courtyard," the guard said. "But we felt you would be safer here."
Nazanin sat down on the bed. "I was safe where I was," she said in a low voice, pulling out her dresses and undergarments to make sure everything was there.
"But you are guilty now," said the guard. "Who knows what the others will do in the middle of the night to a teenager guilty of killing a man."
When the guard had left, Nazanin laid her head down on the pillow, curled up her legs and closed her eyes. Just before they had left the courtroom, the guard had given her a white pill to take. Unlike the orange pill, this medication took Nazanin into a deep sleep—but not so deep that she could escape her dream of the walls. It was the second time the dream had taken hold of her—the first time had been about a month earlier. In the dream, hands were pushing her up against a tall cement wall. When she turned to fight back, no one was there. Then the walls began to move in on her.
Nazanin groaned in her sleep and banged her fists against the wall. "No, no," she screamed. "Get away from me."
A few weeks later, Nazanin found herself awake in the wee hours of the morning, pacing the corridor. At about five o'clock, a middle-aged woman whom Nazanin had never seen before stumbled out of her cell and across Nazanin's path. Nazanin's eyesight was blurry from lack of sleep, and her mind was in a fog. Thinking that the woman wanted to kill her, Nazanin snarled, "You cannot pass me."
"Why?" asked the woman, stopping in her tracks. "I want to use the toilet."
"Because you think I am a runaway. That I sleep with boys to make money. That I am a jendeh," she spat.
The woman shook her head. "I've never met you before. You don't know what I think, azizam." But Nazanin's mind was playing tricks on her.
At first the woman appeared to be Mohsen, and then one of the judges in the courtroom, laughing at her. Nazanin shook her head wildly, trying to clear it. As the woman tried to skirt past her, Nazanin lunged. She started to hit the woman and was pounding on her chest just as Mrs. Mohammadi opened the door into the corridor.
Nazanin was sent to solitary confinement somewhere deep in the basement of Rajai Shahr Prison. She slept on the cold stone floor, with only an itchy, threadbare wool blanket to keep her warm. There was no light except that which streamed in through the cracks in the door. She had no change of clothes, nor was she given water with which to clean herself. Cockroaches crawled on the leftover food the guards refused to take away and which had started to rot. She was enveloped in the odours of her sweat and the urinal in the corner, which was a dug-out hole in the ground.
Her meals consisted of warm broth containing a few vegetables and pieces of meat, three times a day. Once after taking a spoonful, she felt something hard and sharp in her mouth and quickly spat it out. When she held it up to the light, she saw that it was a jagged tooth. Nazanin screamed and banged on the door, but no one came. All she heard was laughing: the other prisoners in solitary confinement were laughing at her.
Nazanin lived in this cell no bigger than a shed for nearly two months. Her only sanctuary was prayer and the Yaseen Sura. She tried to hang on to Hana's words that even in the darkest days, light will shine. But Nazanin's heart was sinking fast.
Whatever remaining hope she had left her the day a guard came to get her. Nazanin thought she was returning to her cell, but the burly guard hissed, "We have to make one stop first." She scowled as she wrapped a headscarf around Nazanin and handcuffed her.
"Why do I have to wear these?"
"Because you are wanted in the main office." Nazanin's feet dragged as the guard guided her down the long corridor. Nazanin choked on the stench of vomit, blood and disinfectant. Panic gripped her and her body jerked. She moved to kick the guard in an attempt to run away but stopped herself, knowing that if she did, she would be sent back to solitary confinement.
When they finally reached the door leading to the office, Nazanin felt her legs about to collapse. "I am going to faint," she told the guard. "Can I rest for a bit?"
"No," she said. "They are waiting for you. I think they have something to tell you about your trial."
In the reception area, Nazanin was ordered to sit. She hung her head, feeling the stares of the others in the room. Then the office door swung open and a woman stepped out and waved for Nazanin to approach. As she stood up, Nazanin was conscious of her own smell—her perspiration and foul breath—from being unable to clean herself properly.
Khwa, let this be good news. Let me be free today, Nazanin prayed silently. Let the judges have decided that I am innocent after all. And that I can go home.
A woman sitting behind a desk in the office motioned for Nazanin to sit in the vacant chair in front of her. "The court found you guilty. And now I have your sentence," the woman said in a deep, hoarse voice that hinted at years of cigarette smoking. "Besme ta aala"—"In the name of God," she began. The woman put on a pair of glasses and began reading from a document. "Ms. Mahabad Fatehi—Nazanin—according to the request of the immediate family of the deceased, the oliya dam, you are sentenced to ghesas. The issued sentence is given to you, and you may apply for an appeal within 40 days of issuance of this sentence."
Nazanin could feel her heart pounding. "What does that mean?" she asked in a weak voice.
"The law of ghesas is the law of retribution. It means an eye for an eye—that if you made someone blind, you are blinded... if you killed someone, you are killed."
"You are sentenced to death by hanging," the woman said. "You need to sign now and wait until your execution date." She slipped the piece of paper toward Nazanin. The guard grabbed Nazanin's right index finger and pressed it against a blue ink pad, then on a line at the bottom of the document.
The woman behind the desk waved for the guard to take Nazanin away. "Tell the next person to come in," she ordered.
Nazanin tilted her head and stared at the woman. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"Because you killed someone," the guard answered. The door to the office swung open and a nurse walked in carrying a needle. "This will calm your nerves," the guard said as the nurse headed toward Nazanin.
"No!" Nazanin screamed, kneeing the guard in the stomach. She then ran behind the desk and knelt in front of the woman who had read out her death sentence.
"Be Khoda, I swear to God, I am innocent. It was self-defence," she said in Persian, holding her hands up in front of her as if in prayer. "Please... please listen to me. You haven't even asked me any questions. You didn't hear my side of the story. You just gave a decree without â€“"
The guard slapped Nazanin across her cheek with such force that she fell onto her side. Her headscarf slipped off and her long black hair flew across her face.
"Please do not give me death," she sobbed as saliva ran down her chin. "I have just turned 18.
I am just a child."
"Get her out of here," the woman behind the desk ordered the guard, who picked Nazanin up around the waist. "Get her out of here!"
Back in my condominium, that evening I first heard about Nazanin and after I had made my decision to help her, I managed to sleep for a couple of hours. I woke to the sound of Etta James' "A Sunday Kind of Love" on my alarm clock.
As Etta sang about wrapping her arms around someone, I wondered who was holding Nazanin. I imagined her alone in her dark, cold cell.
"God," I whispered. "Guide me. Because I don't know what I am doing. Help me help Nazanin."
I then remembered that before I had fallen asleep, I had emailed Vincent to tell him I would do what I could and ask whether he knew anything more about Nazanin. I rushed to the computer to see if he had replied. He had. But he knew no more than I did.
Vincent, a translator by profession, wrote that he had learned about Nazanin from a blog that had reported the story from an Iranian news website. Vincent didn't even know Nazanin's last name. All he had to add was that he had tried to get this story to certain French journalists, but they had said it wasn't newsworthy enough because executions in Iran were commonplace. This got my blood boiling, and I could feel my whole body heat up with anger.
My action plan included first finding out if Nazanin's story was true: Did she really exist? Did this really happen to her? I'd then need to find out whether anyone else was helping her. And finally, and most importantly, I needed to find her—the name of the prison she was at—and also her family. In general, I needed to learn far more than I already did about Iran's laws, especially those pertaining to women and children.
After sending out an email to all my friends and contacts asking if they had any suggestions of ways to help Nazanin, I figured I should draft a petition to be ready for the worst-case scenario: that Nazanin's story was true. So I searched online to see what I could discover about similar cases. I learned that a woman named Afsaneh Norouzi had been sentenced to death for killing a police officer who had tried to rape her on the tourist island of Kish. Norouzi, a mother of three, said she was defending herself. While Norouzi waited to be executed, Iran's Supreme Court heard the appeal and ordered a retrial. Some reports credited pressure from abroad, generated by a woman in Germany named Mina Ahadi, for the court's decision. In the subsequent trial, Norouzi was freed. She had spent three years in prison.
I breathed a little easier. If Afsaneh Norouzi could get off after being accused of killing a policeman, then surely Nazanin has a chance.