May 9 marked the one-year anniversary of the tragic execution of Iranian Kurdish teacher and human rights activist Farzad Kamangar. Four other political activists–three men and one woman– were executed along with him on that day. Farzad Kamangar was just 34 years old when he was hanged and had been subjected to unimaginably brutal torture for months after his arrest in 2006.
This tragedy is compounded by the fact that the Iranian authorities continue to refuse to turn over his body to his grieving family for proper burial. Meanwhile, at least sixteen other Kurdish activists remain at imminent risk of execution in Iran.
Farzad Kamangar was arrested by Ministry of Intelligence officials along with two other members of the Kurdish minority, Ali Heydariyan and Farhad Vakili, in Tehran around July 2006. The three men were sentenced to death on 25 February 2008 after being convicted of Moharebeh (enmity against God) in connection with their alleged membership in the armed group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Khalil Bahramian, Mr. Kamangar’s lawyer, said: “Nothing in Kamangar’s judicial files and records demonstrates any links to the charges brought against him.” He said the trial lasted no more than five minutes, with the judge issuing his sentence without any explanation and then promptly leaving the room.” He added, “I have seen absolutely zero evidence presented against Kamangar.”
Iranian Kurds, who live mostly in the northwest part of Iran, are primarily Sunni Muslims whereas the majority of Iranians are Shi’a Muslims. Kurdish regions have been economically neglected, resulting in entrenched poverty. Kurds have faced increasing repression over the past several years, their rights to cultural and political expression have been violated, and many Kurdish activists have been charged with involvement in armed groups. They have been convicted and sentenced after unfair trials in Revolutionary Courts, sometimes just lasting a few short minutes. Unsubstantiated charges of Moharebeh– which can carry the death penalty– have increasingly been used against political activists, especially Kurds, in order to suppress legitimate dissent.
Kurdish political prisoners are often singled out for particularly vicious and sadistic torture in detention. Farzad Kamangar described the savage and prolonged torture he experienced for over more than one year: “While they were writing down my details they asked me of my origins as soon as I said ‘Kurd’ they flogged me all over my body with a hose looking whip. Because of [my] religion I had to endure profanities, insults and beating. I was even severely battered because of the Kurdish ringtone that I had on my mobile. They would tie my hands and put me on a chair and put heavy pressure on various sensitive parts of my body…they would remove my clothes with force and threatening me with rape with a baton or sticks….they would chain my feet and with electric shocks who was created by small appliances that they had tied to my back, they would shock different sensitive areas of my body, the pain was immensely agonizing.” Shirin Alam Holi, a female Kurdish activist who was executed at the same as Farzad Kamangar, said security agents started beating her as soon as she arrived at their headquarters without even asking one question. Her interrogators were men and she was tied to the bed with handcuffs. They would hit and kick her face and head, her body and the soles of her feet and use electric batons and cables.
Among the Kurdish activists in imminent danger of execution is Zeynab Jalalian, who is 28 years old. She was sentenced to death in early 2009 after being convicted of Moharebeh. Her conviction was based on nebulous and unsubstantiated allegations of membership in a Kurdish armed opposition group. She is reported not to have been granted access to her lawyer during her trial, which is said to have lasted only a few minutes and during which no evidence was reportedly produced against her. She has said she was tortured and sexually abused in detention and in December of 2010 was reportedly struck in the head by a broken bottle, causing her scalp to bleed profusely. Her eyesight is said to be failing due to blows to the head and she is in overall poor health.
The execution of Farzad Kamangar was especially bitter for Amnesty International activists who worked tirelessly on his case for years. However, we continue to take inspiration from the courage he exhibited despite the pain and suffering he experienced in prison. He constantly expressed concern for the well being of the Kurdish people and his fellow activists and wrote a number of moving letters from prison, some containing parables. In one letter he wrote, “I think to myself what a time it has become that my right to live and my life should collect dust in the courts in this order and that pardon and my mother should answer the phone with fear, switch on her television with nervousness and await the day when the death of her child becomes a shadow of fear over the lives of others.”
Another letter was titled My Shoes Are Not All that Connects Me to this Land. In it he summarizes the enormous challenges faced by all brave dissidents in Iran: “I shall not forget that, in this land, words sometimes turn into ‘crimes’ and ‘unforgivable sins’ as soon as one utters them. The brush of the pen on a blank piece of paper can ‘agitate the public mind’ and result in prosecution. Speaking what one thinks can be considered ‘propaganda’. Sympathy can be ‘conspiracy’. And protesting can be treated as an attempt to ‘overthrow [the regime].’ Words are legally charged, so one should be careful.”
As we remember Farzad Kamangar one year after his execution, we should follow the example of his tireless advocacy on behalf of human rights, even from the depths of prison. Activists can write to Iranian authorities calling for the death sentence of another Kurdish activist at risk of execution—Sherko Moarefi—to be set aside. Taking this simple action would be the perfect way to honor the memory of Farzad Kamangar.