By Aida Ghajar
January 10, 2019
Anam Dehvari once had plans to become a physician like his brother. But then his life was turned upside down: his brother and father were both murdered.
According to Dehvari, his father was the first Sunni cleric to discuss politics during his sermons. At the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president and Sheikh Dehvari was a harsh critic of him. Dehvari regularly condemned discrimination against the Baluch and Sunni people in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan, and blamed the Ahmadinejad administration for it. But, following a number of public debates, the Intelligence Ministry began persecuting him, intimidating and interrogating him, eventually ending with Sheikh Dehvari’s assassination. His murder case is still open and has never been resolved.
On November 11, 2008, Anam Dehvari came home from school at around 8pm, but no one was at home. He went into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich when he heard gunshots. At first he thought it was the Revolutionary Guards exchanging fire with smugglers in the region — a sound he heard regularly — but after a little while, his mother arrived, crying. “They hit your father,” she said.
At this point in our conversation, Dehvari was unable to continue. He stared at the floor and shed a few tears in silence. “This is why I don’t tell these stories,” he said.
“My mom did not know what ‘hitting’ meant, and neither did I. She had heard from a neighbor that my father had been hit. I could not keep it together, but did not know what to do either. My mom said [that it had happened] ‘next to the mosque.’ My father had seven or eight mosques. He built all of these, along with schools, across the city. First, I headed for the city’s main mosque on my motorcycle, but everything was normal. I went back home with no answers for my mom. I did not know where to go or what to do, but I thought to check our community mosque as well. The mosque was close to our residence. When I got there, I found out those gunshots had been targeted at my dad.”
Sheikh Ali Dehvari was hit by 13 bullets. When his son got there he saw him unconscious on the ground. It had taken Anam Dehvari 20 minutes to get to there after the gunshots, but there were no emergency or police personnel around — only security agents, who were filming the scene and provided no help. “People gathered around my dad’s body. That night, my little brother, who’s only 12, was with our father. He is a shy kid and always walked a few steps behind Dad. Our father was assassinated in front of him.”
At this point in our conversation, he could not control his emotions again and began to cry. “My little brother saw this horrifying scene and ran away, headed nowhere and who knows for how long. My father was on the ground for 90 minutes until the ambulance came. They collected Dad’s body to investigate the cause of death. I was with him all the time. They removed the bullets from his body in front of my eyes. [Over] the next days, the whole city was shut down. We buried him in the cemetery and his ceremony was the second biggest of a Sunni mullah in Iran.”
“It still haunts me.”
Clashes with a Powerful Ayatollah
The next day, the police informed the Dehvari family that the assassin had been apprehended. They said it had been an angry neighbor. “They told us he was angry at our father because of how he ran the mosque. We went to the police station and released him [the neighbor] ourselves. They [the police] wanted to even abuse my father [even in] death and cause more pain in the community. We knew he was assassinated because of his debates with Ayatollah Qazvini, the representative of Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi in Afghanistan.”
Dehvari explained that his father had faced Ayatollah Qazvini in several debates in public, and that they had also clashed in private exchanges too. “The plot to kill my father started then, when Ayatollah Qazvini called him a Wahhabi. This was while my father was a close friend to Shia mullahs and had invited the Supreme Leader’s representative in the region to our home multiple times. We used to record his speeches before the debates. One day, the security agents showed up at our door and asked for the CDs. They told us that our family could be a danger for the regime. But if you listen to my dad’s speeches you can’t find a single point against Shias or the regime.”
The murderers did not stop the at killing Anam Dehvari’s father. Two years ago, his brother, who was a medical student and an activist, was fatally poisoned. He had gone home that night but could not eat his dinner. In the morning, when his wife tried to wake him, she was confronted with a cold, dead body. A professor at the university where his brother had been studying told Dehvari that he had died from fatal poisoning, but that the university was under a strict order from Tehran not to reveal the cause of death. So, as with Dehvari’s father, the case remains open and unresolved.
“My way to cope up with these tragedies is to forget. I don’t remember the exact detail and dates anymore; I tried my best to forget it all,” he told me.
I asked him whether he feels safe now that he is no longer in Baluchistan.
“No, I don’t, especially here in Turkey. I’m cautious, as much as possible. I don’t have Iranian friends and, before meeting with you, I Googled you and asked around about you. All my friends know my location and if I’m not back by 11pm they will contact the police.”
I asked him why he has not applied for refugee status.
“I can’t. If I become an asylum seeker, I’ll lose my privilege to work. I work as a media producer right now.”
A Surprise Scholarship
Then he told me what happened after the deaths of his family members. “In May 2011, I left the country because I had a scholarship from the Median University in Saudi Arabia. I got my passport when I was 17 and a half years old, since I was about to go to Malaysia — which then did not happen. My dad applied to the university on my behalf, without my knowledge. One night we received a phone call from the office of the Intelligence Ministry, asking me to come in for questioning. Since I was active on social media, I deleted all my accounts and headed there with my uncle. There was a guy called Salemi who told me that I had been granted a scholarship from the university. I did not even know an application [had been submitted]. The university published the list of their award winners for the year and this was how they [the authorities] had found about it. I was surprised. Salemi said I couldn’t attend this program since [he said] ‘Medina University belongs to Wahhabis.’ He wanted me to promise [not to go] and said if I did they will do to me what they did to my father. He said it right to my face.”
This intimidation and the mention of his father spurred him on, and he decided to ignore their instructions and go to Saudi Arabia. It is now seven years since he left Iran at age 19. After finishing his education, he moved to Turkey to be closer to Iran and to pursue his activism. Today he regularly gives interviews with the media about his father and brother’s cases, but he says he avoids getting involved in religious debates. He wants to forget the past and start a new life.
At the end of our conversation I asked Anam Dehvari what he has missed most during these seven years living outside Iran.
“My family. I was not with them during the most important period of my life. Now, when I think back, I can’t vividly remember many of my life events in Iran. Maybe I had a difficult past and that’s why they are deleted from my memory. I was alone and everything was very bitter. It was very difficult.”