An Iranian woman stands at the Hamoun wetlands in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province as it dried up. (Getty)

By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour

January 7, 2021

On the morning of Sunday, January 3, two Baluch prisoners, Hassan Dehvari and Elias Qalandarzehi, were executed along with another prisoner, Omid Mahmoudzehi. IranWire spoke with Elias Qalandarzehi’s sister, a neighbor of the two men, and with their lawyer about the events leading up to their execution.

Traveling the 335 kilometers from Saravan to Zahedan Central Prison on short notice, the family of Elias Qalandarzehi barely made it in time to hug their son for the last time on the night of January 2. Hassan Dehvari, however, called his family and asked them not to go to the prison to visit him. Instead of farewell, he said, he asked to be left in the “merciful hands of God”.

Dehvari and Qalandarzehi were sentenced to death for “rebelion” [baqei, armed rebellion against Islamic rule]. They were accused of being members of — or at least having a strong link with — the terrorist group Jaish al-Adl. But both had said they had been put under pressure to confess to having such a connection, when the reality was they had no relationship with the Jaish al-Adl group.

Hassan Dehvari and Elias Qalandarzehi were transferred to the quarantine ward of Zahedan Prison sometime around December 20, along with three other prisoners, Behnam Rigi, Shoaib Rigi, and Javid Dehghankhold, where their death sentences were due to be carried out. Behnam and Shoaib Rigi were executed, but the other three were returned to the prison’s public ward.

Dehvari and Qalandarzehi contacted their families on the morning of Friday, January 1, and announced they had once again been transferred to the prison quarantine ward, ready for execution.

Prison officials told the family of one of the prisoners: “Your son is in a 50/50 situation and we hope that on Saturday morning, known to be the morning of execution in Zahedan prison, the judge will issue an order suspending the sentence. Go now and pray.”

Mohammad Reza Faghihi, the lawyer of the two men, told IranWire that on January 1, 2021, he had registered his clients’ request for retrial at the judicial office and hoped that through the re-examination of the case, it would be possible to change the charge of “rebellion,” and for their death sentences to be revoked. He said there were many legal ambiguities in the case of the two prisoners and that with the help of the head of the judiciary and judicial officials, they could be given another chance to resume their trial.

Hassan Dehvari and Elias Qalandarzehi had repeatedly pleaded not guilty and said their confessions were given under duress and torture.

They were arrested on February 5, 2015. Qalandarzehi was arrested by security forces in the village of Asik near Saravan while he was meeting with a property owner to arrange a rental contract.

The relatives of the two detainees say they were accused of having links to the Jaish al-Adl group because some of their relatives had connections with the group and were much more politically active than they were. The families claim Qalandarzehi and Dehvari were in fact being held hostage by authorities so the families would lead them to the real Jaish al-Adl activists.

Although the death sentence was handed down to the two prisoners years previously, Mohammad Reza Faghihi began representing the two prisoners about 40 days before their execution, hoping he would be able to bring their voices to the attention of the judiciary.

A Flawed Case

“My findings indicate serious defects in the judicial process in the case and that the verdict was not justified,” Faghihi told IranWire just a few hours before his clients were executed and when he still had hope that he could stop the execution. “There are problems from the preliminary investigation stage to the trial. Our only way was to prepare a request for retrial addressed to the Supreme Court because of the complications, and I managed to register the request for retrial today [January 1] in the Secretariat of the Supreme Court before the end of its office hours. I hope we can talk to the esteemed judges of the branch in charge of this case.”

Faghihi explained the process whereby the charges against the two defendants were altered and increased. “What is worth pondering is that one day after the arrest of my clients, that is, on February 6, 2015, they were informed of the charges in the Saravan city court. According to the judicial devolved notice given to Saravan by Zahedan [court], the clients were charged with acting against national security by cooperating with the Jaish al-Adl opposition group. After being informed of this charge, they were transferred to a detention center and were detained until seven months later. On September 8, 2015, they appeared at the Zahedan Public and Revolutionary Prosecutor’s Office, where the initial charge, which was one charge, was increased to three or four charges. Elias Qalandarzahi is charged with four counts and Hassan Dehvari with three counts, including a new charge of moharebeh [waging war against God].”

According to the lawyer, however, there were even further amendments to the charges: “In December 2016, in Branch Two of the Revolutionary Court of Zahedan, the judges first informed the defendants of the charges listed in the indictment (the same three or four charges that were initially presented) and then the charges were dismissed, and this time the charge of “rebellion” was attributed to the clients, and on this basis a death sentence was issued. On 2017, the verdict from the court in the first instance was upheld by the Supreme Court and the sentence was communicated to Zahedan prison to be carried out.”

Faghihi believes that according to the process and based on arguments set out in the case file, there is no conclusive, convincing, or solid reason for the charge of “rebellion” to be brought against his clients.

“The charge of rebellion has its own idiomatic, legal and jurisprudential meaning, and I think this charge has been wrongly attributed to these two. Also, both defendants made important claims in the court session, contrary to the statements they made during interrogations in the detention center and at the prosecutor’s office, and requested that these claims be considered. Substitute lawyers [selected by the court, not by the defendants] were also at the trial. They also presented issues to the court in the form of proposed bills, but eventually the death sentence was issued and finally upheld by Branch 47 of the Supreme Court, which was in charge of the appeal.”

When asked why the families of the prisoners did not inform the public about what happened, the lawyer said: “The breadwinners of these two families have been imprisoned for many years for this case. Saravan district is a deprived city and the families are just managing to live, just scraping by, hanging on by their fingernails. I accepted this case without any financial expectation, knowing the families and clients were not having success. I was hoping God would help and that our efforts would lead to a halt to the execution so the two young men could return to life.”

Families and Friends Speak to IranWire

IranWire spoke to one of Qalandarzahi’s and Dehnavi’s neighbors in Saravan, Vali Mohammad.

Mohammad runs a clothing shop near Hazrat Ali Saravan Mosque and knows both families of the prisoners. “These two young men worked as laborers and sold gasoline, what most of Saravan’s unemployed youth do,” he said. “They found an old cargo van and refueled several times near the border, sold it and returned.”

Qalandarzahi’s sister Parvaneh Qalandarzehi confirmed that gas transportation and sale is a common occupation for young people in the area; even educated people pursue this type of job, given there is no option of other available work.

“It is alleged that one or two of their relatives were in contact with the Jaish al-Adl group, and at the time of their arrest, it was initially thought that they were also members of the Jaish al-Adl group,” said Vali Mohammad. “For this reason they were pressured to confess to having explosives and equipment. But they were socially not the type to join these sorts of activities. When I talked to the family of one of them, they said they assumed that their child — because his uncle was in this group and asked him for food, fuel and equipment — had provided the necessary items for them. The boys had said they had made a mistake and were unaware of the consequences of what they had done. Such actions do not imply an effective membership to or relationship with the group.” He pointed out the poverty levels in Saravan and said that people were trying to make money however they could, indicating that what they did was not illegal or helping people to carry out illegal activities.

A Sister Speaks

IranWire also spoke to Parvaneh Qalandarzehi about her brother Elias on January 2, before he was executed.

“Yesterday, Friday, they called us at 10 o’clock. First an officer spoke and then they handed the phone to Elias. He said, ‘let’s meet for the last time.’ I could not tell my parents the truth, but we set out to go to the prison anyway.”

Elias Qalandarzehi was born in 1994, the second child born to his family. He was arrested just three days after he found out his wife was pregnant, and during those years he rarely saw his daughter Zahra, who is now five years old. There were long intervals between visits; he was only allowed visits once every three or four months. When the family was allowed to visit, it was difficult, as the family do not own a car and Zahedan is 335 kilometers from their home in Saravan.

“Our last meeting was in Aban [November] last year and we have not met since then,” Parvaneh Qalandarzehi said, “Elias’s job was in gasoline. His dream was to build a gas station in our city. One day he came home and took his savings of 500,000 tomans [$20] and said he was going to sign a contract with the landlord to rent a new house. But he was arrested by agents during the meeting with the landlord.”

Elias Qalandarzehi’s sister says at first it appeared as though there wasn’t even a serious case against her brother. How, she asks, did a case that didn’t hold up end up with an order for execution? How, when the family has been expecting his release, could it end suddenly in death? “Several times during the comings and goings and through intermediaries, we heard that my brother had been a suspect because our relatives cooperate with the Jaish al-Adl group abroad. About 10 days ago, by chance I saw the names of Elias and Hassan on social media and realized that they were in danger of execution. On the same day, I called the intelligence office and the prison authorities and followed up until, unusually, Elias called home at 9pm and said he was fine and had been returned from quarantine.”

Parvaneh said she was worried about her father, who is 60 years old and who has been through a lot recently. “My father should not go to work. He is at an age where he should stay at home and it was time for Elias to support his family. But with his imprisonment, my father is now wrecked and his five-year-old grand daughter was left virtually homeless.”

“Today, the first of January, we arrived in Zahedan Central Prison from Saravan after a lot of hardship. We called this place and that place to provide transportation and traveled the distance of 335 kilometers from four in the afternoon to nine at night. When we got there, the prison officials said we should trust in God. My brother was in good spirits. He was laughing. He said no one knew as much as he did, that his hand was not stained with anyone’s blood and that he had not deprived anyone of life. That was why he relied on God and said he had not done anything he regretted. He kept repeating that his confessions in 2016 were given under pressure during the interrogations. He hugged each member of the family one by one, my parents and all of us; he kept his spirits up until the last moment we left the prison.”

Parvaneh Qalandarzehi says that although he was strong with the family, her brother was angry with his jailers. When he was brought in to visit, he was handcuffed and lost his temper with the guards, exploding in anger.

“Elias may be released one day, but our family will never forget that day,” Parvaneh Qalandarzehi said. “That evening [before his arrest] he had came to get his ID card to rent a house in the village of Asik, and it was seven months and 20 days later before we had news about his condition. We did not even know why he had been arrested. We were shocked seven months after we saw him.”

But Elias, Parvaneh’s brother, who had been held in prison from the age of 19, died by hanging on the morning of January 3, 2020, along with Hassan Dehvari and Omid Mahmoudzehi.

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.