The second trial session of Iranian Gonabadi Dervish, Mohammad Salas, Tehran, March 12, 2018. (AFP)

By Shahed Alavi

May 19, 2020

Early in the morning on June 18, 2018, Mohammad Salas Babajani, a Gonabadi dervish, was executed and the last chapter in his life was closed. Or so it seemed. Until now, in accordance with the rule of law, dead people could not be put on trial. But it appears this proposition is no longer valid. With a new trial now opening almost two years after Babajani’s execution, it is clear that if the Islamic Republic’s judiciary wills it, even the dead can still stand trial.

Salas Babajani is alleged to have killed three police officers by running them over with a bus and injuring a number of others during a violent clash between Tehran police and Gonabadi Sufis on February 19, 2018. The injured have now reportedly filed a complaint against him, asking for damages. According to Salas Babajani’s lawyer Zeinab Taheri, the trial in response to this complaint was held on Saturday, May 16. If the court finds for the defendant the damages will be paid “from public funds” because the defendant is “inevitably absent” and his family cannot afford to pay.

In fact, a brief quick review of the events from Monday, February 19, 2018 when Salas Babajani was arrested, until June 18 that year, when he was executed, shows that as strange and unusual as his postumous trial might appear, it is the logical outcome in the case of a man who was selected to be killed, without having known it.

On the evening of February 19, 2018, Salas Babajani’s was the first name reported among several casualties and arrested persons during the clashes. The report of his arrest was first tweeted at 6:47pm on the same night. Thirteen minutes later, at 7pm, the Telegram channel of Majzooban Noor, a website run by Gonabadi Sufis, confirmed that Babajani had been badly beaten and arrested.

Based on the above, it can be determined that Salas Babajani was arrested before 6:30pm. In an audio message on May 23, Salas Babajani himself said that he had been arrested while it was still light.

Wrong Hour, Wrong Bus

A copy of the indictment against Salas Babajani has been posted on social media. It states that the bus sped toward the policemen at or 6pm, when it was still light. But the time listed in the verdict is not supported by the available evidence and it seems it has been deliberately misrepresented to match the real time of Salas Babajani’s arrest.

On February 19, the skies over Tehran go dark at 7pm. And on the video posted online that shows the bus running over the policemen, it is already completely dark. In other words, the video must have been recorded after 7pm. We know, from the tweet posted at 6.47pm, that Salas Babajani was arrested before 6.30pm when it was not yet dark. Naturally, he could not have been driving the bus that ran over policemen after 7pm when it was dark.

This is not the only evidence that indicates Salas Babajani was innocent. Based on videos posted online from the moment of the attack, and another video of the bullet-ridden bus published on social media on the same day, the bus was an old Mercedes manufactured by Iran Khodro and the indictment gives its registration as 87E679. But the bus that Salas Babajani used to drive and where he slept at nights was a Swedish Scania, assembled in Iran by Shahab Khodro, with a different numberplate to the one cited in the indictment.

What’s more, a video of the bus used to attack the policemen shows a bullet-ridden vehicle. If Salas Babajani was driving this bus, either he would have been killed, or his body and face would at least have shown injuries from the bullets. But the Salas Babajani that was apprehended had no such injuries.

In an appeal against the verdict by the preliminary court, Salas Babajani’s lawyer Zeinab Taheri cited other aspects of the case of where due process had been bypassed. For instance, she said, no fingerprints were taken from the steering wheel, the gear stick or any other place inside the bus that could have proven the identity of the driver. Besides, Taheri added, the reconstruction of the crime was carried out in a “ridiculous” manner, without the presence of either the defendant or his lawyer and at the offices of the Police Investigation Unit, not at the scene of the crime.

Despite all this, on the same night on which the clashes occurred, a video of Salas Babajani confessing was aired. The video shows Babajani on a hospital bed, with bandages on his head from the beating he had received from police, “admitting” that he had run over the policemen by his bus. But it was a doctored video. Right at the beginning, as Salas Babajani is talking about the clashes, the video is visibly cut three times. There are seven cuts in total, with other videos superimposed of the footage of Salas Babajani talking. This video, of course, proves one thing: the Islamic Republic no longer has any compunction with extracting a confession from injured person on a hospital bed. In this case, after the confession was aired, the judiciary wasted no time in putting him on trial.

Salas Babajani was indicted within a week, and was tried and was sentenced to death within a very short time. On February 20, 2018, he was transferred to the court and was informed of charges against him. The first session of his trial was held on March 11 and he was defended by a court-appointed lawyer. Salas Babajani accepted the charges against him but denied that they were premeditated. The second session of the trial was held on March 12 and the third and last session on March 18. In this final session, Salas Babajani instead denied all charges and said that he had been forced to confess under torture. Despite this, on March 19, he was handed his death sentence and on May 18, 2018, the verdict was upheld. Ten days later on March 29, his request for the case to be reopened was accepted and was sent to Branch 35 of Iran’s Supreme Court. Later, Zeinab Taheri reported that the Supreme Court had denied the request.

Convicted Before a Verdict

In almost all reports of the three sessions of Salas Babajani’s trial published by Iranian media, and in all the interviews by government, police and judiciary officials, Salas Babajani was referred to as a “murderer” and not as an “alleged” or “accused murderer”: meaning that the media establishment and the Islamic Republic officials had pre-empted the outcome of the trial before a verdict was issued.

After the verdict was issued, Salas Babajani seemingly recovered enough from the shock to deny what he had previously told the court, and provided a very different narrative of what had happened on the night of February 19. He said he had been brutally beaten and his head had suffered no fewer than 17 fractures. When he regained conscious in the hospital at midnight, he said, a person who he later learned was the examining magistrate told him he had run over and had killed three people with the bus. Salas Babajani told him that he did not remember anything, but if they said he had killed three people, then he must have. Salas Babajani also said that after the second session of his trial he was beaten again, and his fingers were broken because, contrary to instructions, he had said that he did not remember anything.

But nothing said and no evidence prevented Salas Babajani from being hanged. Even the way he was executed was unusual. Quoting testimonies from Rajaei Shahr Prison’s inmates and guards, human rights activist Behrouz Javid Tehrani announced Babajani was executed not where the gallows stand but inside a prison shed. “He was in a cell for four days,” he said. “At 2pm today they took him to be hanged. He was smiling and reciting poetry right up until when he was hanged. They pulled him up a little with a crane and then Bagheri, commander of the prison guards, kicked the footstool out from under him. They took him from his cell at 2pm and hanged him at 4pm.”

One day after Salas Babajani was executed, his defense attorney Zeinab Taheri was charged by the judiciary with lying, “spreading falsehoods” and “propaganda against the regime” after she announced that she had evidence proving her client had been innocent and would publish the evidence. Taheri was summoned to Branch 2 of the Culture and Media Court and was arrested there. In an interview on August 8, 2018, Taheri said that she had been released from detention two weeks later. According to Tasnim News Agency, her case had been sent to Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court and she had been released on bail.

Now, close to two years after his execution, Salas Babajani is again on trial for the damages inflicted on seven people due to “deliberately causing injuries by attacking them with the bus.”

Those who followed his trial remember the following exchange well:

Judge: “You said you wanted to be executed. Why?”

Salas Babajani: “Because I am tired of suffering, of torture, of having my hands tied…I am fed up with being beaten, sir!”

Iran Wire

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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.