By Dariush Farahani
March 26, 2020
In late 2017, following international condemnation, the Iranian government instituted a moratorium on the death penalty for drug-related offences. As a consequence, more than 5,000 individuals on death row in Iran were reported to be eligible to have their sentences commuted to life in prison.
Until the policy U-turn, Iran had consistently ranked second after China in its use of capital punishment. Although the legislative change was welcomed by human rights organisations, many argued the measure did not go far enough as a series of loopholes allowed for the continued of the death penalty against drug offenders.
Capital punishment still applies to those caught with a quantity of drugs above a certain threshold. The death penalty also remains in place for several categories of offenders, including those involved in the armed trafficking of narcotics, people employing minors and members of organised criminal gangs. Combined with Iran’s abysmal human rights record and flawed judicial process – legal representation is routinely denied to individuals charged with drug-related crimes – the gesture may ultimately prove to be a symbolic one.
At the same time, although some death sentences have been changed to time-limited custodial ones, a substantial fine is attached to the end of the sentence. These fines can be in excess of 100 million toman: an impossible sum for poor and marginalised offenders and their families. Some sources have claimed that after the sentence has been served in full, 40,000 toman may be deducted from the fine for each day the offender remains in prison.
Farideh and Majeed are one of countless households trapped in an untenable situation by these eye-watering fines. Majeed was sentenced to death on drug supply charges in 2015, after being arrested in possession of around 200 grams of heroin and 20 grams of shisheh (methamphetamine). In 2017 his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and finally in mid-2018 to 30 years – and a 200 million toman fine. This means that after his 30-year sentence has been served he could be forced to remain in prison for an additional 13.5 years, until the debt is eradicated.
Majeed’s arrest and sentencing pitched the family into turmoil. With their reputation tarnished, the children are now unable to marry and are punished in their workplaces. After the sentencing they scrambled to pay extortionate legal fees and try to make sense of the convoluted judicial process, throughout which Majeed was not given access to a lawyer.
Two years after the sentencing, Majeed was moved to a prison northwest of Tehran, more than five hours from his family. Since then his wife has only been able to see him three times, although he frequently calls to tell her about the horrors he is facing in prison.
To make ends meet, Farideh now works six days a week from 8am to 7pm in a small shop outside Tehran. There she irons and stitches clothes, earning a meagre 400,000 toman per month. Before Majeed was arrested, he had not permitted her to work.
We meet in the small flat owned by her brother where she now lives, in an alleyway outside Tehran. The flat is sparsely decorated with machine-made Iranian carpets on the floors, with covers on the furniture that she removes before sitting down.
A very devout woman dressed in full chador, Farideh ensures sure she is properly covered at all times as she speaks, pours tea and serves melon and other small treats. Neighbours in the block do not know where her husband is or why she now lives alone. She agrees to speak on the condition of strict anonymity.
“We have three sons and one daughter,” she tells me. “One son is in Sepah [an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], one is an officer in Artesh [the Iranian regular army], and one is an officer in the air force. Our son’s role at Sepah was changed from full-time role to temporary as a punishment after my husband was arrested and sentenced. They also took away the privileges he had earned, to prevent him from gaining promotion.
“Now, he cannot marry since my husband is in jail – no-one will accept a proposal from him. My children are embarrassed. And so am I.”
Majeed, she explains, was formerly a senior officer in the military but was discharged many years ago. After a period of farming, buying of selling during which, Farideh says, “With great hardship we passed through life”, Majeed became involved with drugs through a combination of want and pride. Unemployed at 55 and with a reputation to maintain, he refused to take a job as a labourer. The family were in a rented flat at the time and wanted to buy a car. So Majeed returned to his village, where a dilapidated 80-year-old house had been left to him by his father. While renovating the house, Majeed leased it to a group of Afghans. He told his wife to wait for him in Varamin until the work was complete.
“His sister called me one day and said that the police had taken him,” Farideh says. “In his court document it said that they arrested him with more than 200 grams of heroin and 20 grams of shisheh [methamphetamine].”
Majeed, she says, occasionally used shisheh but was not a daily user. The family occasionally caught him in the act, much to the children’s consternation. It later transpired he had been involved with drugs for around a year before his arrest.
“When he was first sentenced,” Farideh says, “We paid 10 million toman to a lawyer, who did absolutely nothing for us. We didn’t understand the legal process and what was needed or how to get him out.”
In mid-2018 the sentence was commuted to 30 years. “We paid three million toman to a lawyer recently to help him so that he can come out on temporary release every now and again, or try to reduce his sentence,” Farideh adds. “But the lawyer has not done anything for us yet.
“For about a year and a half he was in a jail a little closer to us. Now he is more than five hours away. I can’t go there myself; if my children go, I go.
“He calls me from jail, crying and saying ‘Send me money’. He tells me that they give him just a spoonful of lentils with water to eat. But how can I send him any money when I earn 400,000 toman per month? At least he sleeps well at night; it has become so difficult for me.
“His dream is to be released from prison, but I don’t think there is a way. He calls my son and sends him around, to go to the court and other places to try fix things for him – and me too! I don’t know Tehran. I can’t go on my own.”
Everyone in their village, Farideh says, now knows about Majeed’s crime: his first and last. “But not here in my building,” she adds. “It is so difficult. People look at you differently when they know what has happened. They say things behind your back.”
Farideh blames the financial strain the family were under for her husband’s decision. “Our children ask, ‘Why did our father do this?’” she says. “They are so against what he did.
“The first reason for all of this is unemployment and poverty. When your daughter marries, the bride’s family has to pay for all of the furnishings and household appliances. Only with difficulty did we manage to do this. It cost us everything.
“My husband’s nerves were destroyed by the hardships of life. People’s ability to cope with hardship and pressures differs.
“Now, I have to make tomato puree at home to survive. I come home from work at 8pm, and I cook puree until 3am and try sell it to friends. I buy tomatoes, which have become so expensive, and try sell at a higher price. You boil for five hours at least, stirring constantly, otherwise it sticks to the bottom of the pan and is ruined. I am up doing this every night. I sell it by word of mouth, I sell to my friends, who tell others, and so, word travels.”