By Maryam Dehkordi
November 12, 2019
“I said I didn’t do anything. Why should I shut my mouth? I just write what I see and what I hear.”
These were the last words Sattar Beheshti wrote on his blog – a collection of writing that was too aggravating and too outspoken for Iran’s authorities. After threatening, intimidating and torturing him, they eventually killed him in November 2012.
Before his death, Beheshti wrote about the murder threats, reporting that authorities told him: “Tell your mother she should wear black mourning clothes because you won’t shut your mouth.”
“They said, ‘We can do whatever we want and we behave however we want. You just shut up, and don’t report it. Otherwise, we will shut you up and nobody will even notice what happened to you’,” Beheshti wrote.
Today, seven years on, Sattar Beheshti’s mother Gohar Eshghi is still wearing black, as she has done since the day she received news of her son’s death. She can be seen wearing her mourning clothes in a recent video marking the anniversary of his death.
Gohar Eshghi was born in 1946 in Neishapour, a city in northeast Iran. Some of her relatives say she is illiterate. But after the death of her 35-year-old son, who died from wounds received during his tortures in prison, Eshghi’s voice has become one of the loudest calling for justice in Iran.
Eshghi’s life has been full of sorrow. She was her husband Sardar Beheshti’s second wide, with whom she had four children, Aliasghar, Sattar, Rahim and Sahar. Later, Eshghi separated from her husband and lived with her second son Sattar. Eshghi had been a housewife all her life – so in order to earn a living after the separation Eshghi had to work as a cleaning lady and even at a mortuary. Sattar Beheshti’s motivation for his own writing and calls for justice were perhaps inspired by his mother’s hard life.
Eshghi’s struggles gave her a toughness that meant she was not easily intimidated. She fought for justice – despite her old age, and failing health – and after her son Sattar died she became a symbol of Iran’s fight against oppression.
Sattar was the second child of Gohar Eshghi; he was 35 years old when he was killed. He was a laborer by trade and had developed a concern for many social issues.
One of Sattar‘s friends told IranWire: “I knew Sattar from social media. He was truly the son of such a [strong] mother. I remember a few months before his death, in May 2012, he told me that a teenager from Golestan Province, in the north of Iran, was coming to Tehran for a bone marrow transplantation and needed a blood donor for a transfusion. We made an appointment and went to the hospital to see if we could donate. Our blood types didn’t match and we couldn’t do anything for the teenager Farhad. Sattar meanwhile had brought a health insurance card not only for himself but also for me – so that I wouldn’t have to pay anything for the blood test. And he took a picture of me with Farzad. Every time I see that picture, since Sattar’s murder, I think of him.”
Sattar lived with his mother in Robatkarim, a small city close to Tehran, in a narrow street and in a small apartment. But “it wasn’t a home,” according to Mohammad Nourizad, an Iranian filmmaker and activist. “It was the the bare minimum, more like a shelter than a home. The ground was not carpeted or covered with anything sufficient – just blankets and only a few pieces of furniture.”
But Eshghi’s suffering reached a painful new level on November 6th, 2012, the day that a security official called her son-in-law to say that Sattar had died in prison.
Sattar’s sister, Sahar, told IranWire that: “The security officials called my husband and asked him to prepare my mother for the news, to buy a grave plot, and to pick up Sattar’s body on the next day. That’s all they said. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know why they killed him. What happened to him? My brother was fit and healthy when they arrested him and everybody knew that.”
From that moment Gohar became the woman now widely known across Iranian social media – a mother wrapped in black with a photograph of her son on her chest. She became the voice of her dead son and constantly demanded to know the truth of her son’s death in custody.
The security services offered Eshghi a financial settlement several times if she agreed to stay silent about her son’s death. They tried threats as well as inducements: after Sattar’s death the authorities told Eshghi that her daughter would also be arrested if they did not accept the settlement.
Eshghi signed the documents the authorities pushed at her – but then she immediately spread the news of it as widely as possible.
“The authorities showed me a warrant for my daughter’s arrest,” Eshghi told Deutsche Welle at the time. “They told me to sign their deal or they’d arrest Sahar. I was forced to sign the deal. I couldn’t accept another loss, so I signed it under duress.”
Forty days after Sattar’s death, during a memorial service for him, security officials attacked his family and beaten everyone including Eshghi herself. She sustained injuries to her leg, her shoulder and her head; but eve this could not dissuade her from speaking out.
“My silence is not for sale. And if they don’t consider our demand in calling for a fair trial [regarding Sattar’s death] then I will kill myself in front of the court” she said.
In April 2013, Eshghi published an open letter to Iranians saying she had received all kinds of threats because of her persistent calls for a trial of the alleged perpetrators of her son’s death. And although she knows not to expect justice in Iran’s current judicial system, still she will not relent.
“As a mother,” Eshghi wrote, “and especially as Sattar Beheshti’s mother, I’ll do anything to show the security officials that I‘m afraid of nothing and will never give up until my son’s killers are brought to justice. I won’t give up, even though I know hired assassins who could kill me easily whenever they want. How pleasant is the thought of seeing my beloved son again, on the other side.”
Eshghi continued to use every opportunity to keep Sattar’s memory alive. On Labour Day, 2013, she wrote a further open letter, this one to the workers of the world: “My son is no longer with us. But May Day reminds me of my beloved son; a diligent worker who paid with his life for his country and for his mother. Mother’s Day and May Day are different for me this year. I miss his voice, his presence, and his care. I am proud that my son belongs to a class [workers] who are the pillars of society – good people who have no capital other than a day in the calendar. And as Sattar’s mother, a hard-working laborer, I send May Day greetings to all workers in the world.”
When Catherine Ashton, the former European Union high representative for foreign affairs, traveled to Iran in 2014, Eshghi took part in a meeting along with other female activists like Narges Mohammadi, and spoke about her son’s death under torture. This meeting provoked Iranian officials – who quickly put Eshghi’s family under more pressure.
Finally, in August 2014, an Iranian court issued a verdict on the death of Sattar Beheshti. The “cyber” police officer Akbar Taghizadeh, who was the main suspect in Sattar’s murder, was sentenced to involuntary manslaughter and received three years in prison, 74 lashes and two years banishment to Borazjan in southern Iran.
Gohar Eshghi did not accept the verdict – insisting that Sattar’s death under torture was not manslaughter but premeditated murder.
She also said that, if it were up to her, Eshghi would not have sought punishment for the perpetrators under Sharia law. “I can’t even kill an ant,” she said, “if they would have apologized at the beginning, and said that they had made a mistake, I would never ask for someone to be executed.”
More recently, Eshghi participated in a non-violent civil action in August 2019, when she joined 13 other female activists to call for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down.
Gohar Eshghi and her demands for justice in the case of her son made her tiny home – the one without proper carpeting – a place for gatherings of political and social activists. With her black clothing, and the photograph of Sattar on her chest, Gohar will long be remembered as one of Iran’s most influential women.