Iranian Gonabadi Dervish Mohammad Salas in court in March 2018. (Supplied)

By Aida Ghajar

June 20, 2020

Two years on from the execution of a Gonabadi Sufi whose trial and sentencing were pushed through at record speed, IranWire has received documents from the court that indicate that his life could have been spared and that the death penalty verdict was flawed. The information also suggests that the haste with which the case was handled was an attempt to manipulate public opinion at a volatile time in the Islamic Republic.

In the early morning of June 18, 2018, the Islamic Republic executed Mohammad Salas Babajani, a Gonabadi Sufi accused of killing three police officers by running them over in a bus during clashes between dervishes and the police on February 19, 2018.

A day after his execution, Zeinab Taheri, one of Salas’ lawyers, announced that she had “irrefutable proof” that her client had been innocent and she planned to publish the evidence. But before she could take any action she was arrested by Branch 2 of the Culture and Media Court and nothing further was heard on the matter.

According to the lawyer and jurist Mohammad Olyaeifard, the documents from the case against Mohammad Salas sent to IranWire contain ambiguities that, with a different legal interpretation and focus, could have ended without Salas facing the death penalty.

IranWire has received more than 30 pages of the rulings by lower courts and the Supreme Court and also briefs by Mohammad Salas’ defense attorney Saeed Ashrafzadeh. These documents have been published for the first time and show that after the police violently clashed with dervishes in February 2018, the judiciary was determined to execute at least one of them to sow terror among dissidents, including among the pacifist Sufis.

IranWire asked Mohammad Olyaeifard to review the  documents. After studying them, he concluded that the case made against Salas is questionable in two respects: the investigation process and the disproportionate relationship between the crime and the punishment. He believes that, in order to “sow terror” and to “teach a lesson,” the judiciary ordered the case to be processed out of turn. The indictment was drawn up in just three days.

Regarding the first aspect, the problems regarding the code of criminal procedure, Olyaeifard points to the defendant’s right to a lawyer, an issue also referred to in the documents for appeal. Although a court-appointed lawyer was provided for Mohammad Salas, the documents and the briefs lack dates and reference numbers, meaning that it is not clear from what point in time the defendant had access to a lawyer, despite the fact that Article 35 of the constitution clearly states: “In all courts of law, the opposing parties to a dispute have the right to choose an attorney for themselves.” Also, Article 48 of the Code of Criminal Procedure rules that “the accused can demand the presence of a lawyer from the start of detention.” Olyaeifard notes that “at the time of the arrest it was not decided whether his crime was a common crime or a security-related one. Therefore, he had the right to a lawyer from the moment he was arrested, but there is this suspicion that perhaps Salas did not have a lawyer until his first trial session.”

Interrogated on the Hospital Bed

The second point regarding flaws in the criminal procedure is the issue of interrogation. According to the Code of Criminal Procedure, the accused must be interrogated free from pressure, threats, intimidation or illegal inducement, and only if the accused is mentally and physically fit for interrogation. But Mohammad Salas was first interrogated when he was lying on a hospital bed with a bandaged head “as it was shown on state TV,” says Olyaeifard. “From a legal point of view, this interrogation was not acceptable although, after he was released from the hospital, he was interrogated at the Police Criminal Investigation Bureau and he accepted the charges against him. But these confessions were not legally valid either because he was not in the right physical and, perhaps, psychological, state.”

Olyaeifard also highlights the absence of testimony by experts. Both Mohammad Salas and his lawyer had requested that traffic experts be brought in to testify and, according to Article 257 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, if the judge, opposing parties or their lawyers request expert opinion, this must be satisfied. “By measuring the speed of the vehicle,” says Olyaeifard, “the expert could have concluded whether the defendant intentionally committed murder or not, but the court did not agree. This is a violation of the due process. In the case of Mohammad Ali Najafi, the former mayor of Tehran who shot his wife dead, he requested expert opinion and the court accepted to include expert testimony that, according to his lawyer, characterized the killing as second-degree murder. In Salas’ case they should have agreed to expert testimony.”

Olyaeifard points out that, by the order of the head of Tehran province’s Justice Bureau, Salas’ case was processed out of turn.“This disrupted the normal process. In only three days, they interrogated the accused, did the investigation and issued the indictment. On February 19, the accused was interrogated, on February 20 the crime scene was reconstructed without the presence of the accused and on February 21 the indictment was issued, meaning that in only three days the issue of the murder of three people was wrapped up without paying any attention to whether they were willful murders or manslaughter. In my experience, this sets an unprecedented record.”

Furthermore, under Iran’s Islamic laws, execution is not carried out until the question of retribution or “blood money” is settled. The court carried out Mohammad Salas’ execution so quickly that now, after two years, other plaintiffs have stepped forward to demand blood money, resulting in a grotesque second trial for Salas after his death. “It was done this way to manipulate public opinion,” says Olyaeifard. “They wanted to sow terror and teach others a lesson, telling them: ‘if you get into a fight with the police, in just three days you can be indicted,’ to say the least.”

Punishment Must Fit the Crime

The second overarching aspect of Salas’ case that is cause for alarm is the issue of disproportionate punishment for the crime. This  involves technical legal questions regarding the details of how, based on the evidence presented to the court, the judge could have proceeded and how he actually did proceed.

According to documents in the case file, the defendant accepted the following account: after he was beaten, he was angry, sat behind the wheel of the bus, drove into the crowd and hit three people. But Salas repeatedly stated that he had no intention of killing anybody. Olyaeifard believes that, under these conditions, both the court’s verdict and the manner in which the court reached the verdict are marred by technical issues. “First and foremost,” he points out, “the accused accepted charges after he was beaten and his head [injured] and his arm broken, and while he was angry about clashes that had led to the beating of others and to the shooting of tear gas and shots being fired in the air. As I said, even if he had managed to defend himself well during the interrogation, under such conditions he was not in the right physical and psychological state and, therefore, his confessions are problematic.”

But, in any case, technically Salas did not accept the charge of first-degree murder. “He said he did not sit behind the wheel with the intention of killing anybody,” says Olyaeifard. “In this case, second-degree murder or manslaughter must be considered.”

According to him, if an individual kills a person in a car accident, the operating principle is that the driver has committed manslaughter. Then the driver is imprisoned for a short time and the insurance company pays for the retribution and the damage. “The question of first-degree murder does not enter into an accident,” Olyaeifard says. “The charge of murder [in Iranian law] has two clauses. The first is that a person intentionally wants to commit murder and succeeds. The second is that the accused is not intent on murdering anybody but commits an act that results in murder. In the case of Salas, the court decided that the first clause applied.”

Article 290 of the Islamic Penal Code defines a willful murder. According to Clause A of the article, a murder is considered willful when (a) a person commits an act with the intention of committing murder and (b) the action results in murder. “The question is,” says Olyaeifard, “based on what evidence did they establish the intent to commit murder? In all phases of the investigation the accused repeatedly said that he was not intent on killing anybody. How did Brach 9 of the Criminal Court and Branch 39 of the Supreme Court reach the conclusion that there had been intent and that Clause A of Article 290 applied?”

Ignoring the Difference between Willful Murder and Manslaughter

According to Olyaeifard, the Supreme Court argued that since Salas’ action resulted in murder, he had committed willful, or first-degree, murder. “The accused accepted that he drove into the crowd but he had no intention of murder,” he says. “Since we have no proof of willful murder, this charge cannot apply, but the court said that it does because the action resulted in deaths. How many traffic accidents result in deaths? Many, but nobody is executed for it. Did they have expert testimony to tell them that he had driven in a way that showed intent to kill?”

Olyaeifard says that the case could have resulted with a different verdict, meaning that, based on what Mohammad Salas had accepted, he could have been charged with manslaughter. “There are two types of manslaughter,” he says. “One is when a person kills somebody out of negligence, as happens in common traffic accidents. The other is when a person takes an action intentionally but there is no intent of murder, as was the case with Sattar Beheshti [the blogger who died under torture in custody of the Iranian Cyber Police in 2012]. The case said that the interrogator was torturing Beheshti and the medical examiner announced that his arms and legs were broken, so this could not be denied. In other words, the interrogator intended torture but did not commit willful murder. Well, they could have done the same thing here. They could have cited Article 291 and charged Salas with manslaughter, especially because in willful murders the murderer usually knows his victims and plans for murder but, for Salas, it was not personal and he was not acting out of prior enmity.”

But the court ignored all these points and declared it a willful murder, even though due process was not carried out properly either. “The court had no evidence that Salas had committed willful murder,” Olyaeifard says.

Testimony for One Side Only

The other technical problem in the case concerns witness testimonies. The plaintiffs were the police but the witnesses were also members of the police force. “According to the law, there is no problem if relatives or colleagues testify in support of each other,” says Olyaeifard, “but here the plaintiffs and the witnesses were one and the same. The other issue is that, if this is the case, the defendant and his lawyer had the right to question the witnesses and present their own arguments. Why was cross-examination ignored in this case?”

Based on the available evidence and documents from the case file, the lawyer for Salas had repeatedly objected that the reconstruction of the crime scene had been conducted without the presence of the defendant, that no fingerprints had been taken from the bus in question and the video that had been referred to as evidence against him was not shown at the trial. Altogether, 15 objections of this kind appear on the request for appeal, but the court ignored them all.

For this reason Olyaeifard insists that the wrapping up of the case in just three days created numerous problems. “The court repeatedly refers to a video that was broadcast on state TV,” he says. “The defense attorney repeatedly requested that the video be played in the courtroom but it was never played. How can you charge somebody with murder based on a video but refuse to accept the request by the defendant and his lawyer to show the video? The ruling says the video was broadcast by Iranian TV. But was the defendant sitting in front of the TV? The lawyer said that there were also other videos recorded by people on the scene that proved that Salas did not commit willful murder and requested that they be played in the courtroom, but the court did not accept this suggestion by the lawyer.”

All of this shows, Olyaeifard says, that “Branch 9 of the Criminal Court and Branch 39 of the Supreme Court had no evidence to prove willful murder.”

Truth Loses Out to National Security Charge

After pointing out the defects in the legal process and the evidence, Olyaeifard addresses why it was decided that Mohammad Salas should be executed. “In the court ruling, interrogation transcripts and briefs by the lawyer, one of the charges against him is ‘acts against domestic security’, a security-related charge in other words,” he says. “They could have gone either way: actions against [national] security or the traffic accident. Considering the court process, my understanding is that the security charge overshadowed the traffic accident and that is why the truth did not come out. With a security charge, criminal and legal truths remain hidden. In security issues, government agencies are not after legal truth. But if they wanted to limit themselves to the security charge they could not have arrived at the death penalty because the defendant had not touched a firearm and even the charge of ‘corruption on earth’ against him was not successful. When they found out that they could not advance the security charge to get their desired sentence, they pushed the case of the traffic accident and got the punishment they wanted. This way, it was more convincing for the public that a driver who had run over three people be put to death.”

Now, two years on from the execution of Mohammad Salas, documents and evidence of his case have been made available. Had these documents been accessible before his execution and had they been discussed the way we did in this article, he might be alive today — in prison, in exile or with his family — despite his confessions that were obtained under adverse conditions.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.