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'I felt the shadow of execution over my head': A letter from Iran's death row

"It is all finished," the guard said.

On the other side of the thick brick wall of Iran's Raja'i Shahr prison, the bodies of six Sunni men from Iran’s Kurdish minority were hanging from nooses.

Hamed Ahmadi, Jahangir Dehghani, Jamshid Dehghani, Kamal Molaee, Hadi Hosseini, and Sediq Mohammadi were sentenced to death in September 2012 for moharebeh, or 'enmity against God'.

Iran's Supreme Court upheld the death sentences in 2013 even though the men denied any involvement in armed or violent activities, saying they were targeted solely because they practiced or promoted their Sunni faith. The Iranian authorities refused to review the men's cases, despite changes to the penal code that should have compelled them to do so.

After their exhausted relatives heard of the men's deaths — family members had been standing by the prison's entrance throughout the night pleading with authorities not to carry out the executions — they cried and said they couldn't help but think of the final words they had exchanged with their loved ones at a brief meeting on Tuesday, while the condemned men were bound by chains and shackles.

Remaining as well are the final written words of Hamed Ahmadi, in the form of a letter he had written in on death row and snuck out of prison. He talks grimly of living with the constant threat of execution. These are his words.

A letter from Hamed Ahmadi, awaiting execution

On a cold autumn morning in November 2012, they woke me up and told me that I would be transferred to Sanandaj prison, [Kordestan province]. The usual practice was that those who had been sentenced to death were moved only for the implementation of their sentence. I felt the shadow of execution over my head. The whole ward gathered together. Back then there were 10 people on death row. Some were crying, some were deep in their thoughts. We thought that maybe they were just transferring us, but the looks of the guards said something different. They blindfolded and handcuffed the 10 of us, and pushed us into a bus while shouting insults.

I tried to think about my good memories to boost my spirits, but it is hard to think about happiness when you are only a step away from death. When we arrived, they took us off the bus and threw our belongings on the ground. It was raining, and the ground was covered in mud. They replaced our metal handcuffs with plastic ones, but tied them so tight that the hands of some of the men started to bleed. They removed our blindfolds and took us to a room with walls covered by handwritten notes written by condemned men before their executions. We washed for prayers and started to pray, seeking peace and solace.

I started to wonder if I was ever going to see my daughter again. She was born after I was imprisoned. I asked God to give strength to my family and wished they would let me at least say goodbye to them.

The door opened. Our hearts started to pound. The nightmare of death was coming true. They separated us from one another. Our spirits were sinking, and our fears were rising. Time was passing slower than it had in our entire lives. The night before, the TV had broadcast a documentary about us. Everyone thought this was a sign that our sentence was going to be carried out soon.

But 45 days went by. Every day, we thought we would be executed the next day, but no one came for us. We approached death 45 times. We said goodbye to life 45 times.

Just when we started to become hopeful that we were not going to be executed, when we felt we could start thinking about life again, our names were announced in the list of transferees to Raja'i Shahr prison. Again, the nightmare of death. Again, the repetition of the image of a man dangling from a noose in our head. There, they gave us light blue clothes that are for those who will be executed. The image of the execution scene did not leave me for a second. Three days passed.

I became completely disoriented. My brain did not work anymore.

I banged on the door non-stop and yelled for someone to come and answer me: Why are we here? My family is worried. At least allow me to make a phone call. Finally, I was allowed to make a call. My sister started crying as soon as she heard my voice. "You are alive?" she said. "The MP for Sanandaj Salar Mohammadi has called and said all 10 of you have been executed." They had held a funeral ceremony for us.

I then called my brother. He was in front of the prison. I asked if he had heard about the six people who were no longer with our group. He cried and said, "They hanged them today, and didn't return the bodies." I lost control and started crying and yelling. The guys I had lived with in a cell for three and a half years were no longer in this world. I could not believe it. I felt wrecked and destroyed. None of them had been able to even say goodbye to their families.

Execution followed me and my family every second. My family was executed with me over and over. If they had not received news from me for one day, they would come to the prison immediately thinking that we were finished… We were left in this situation where every minute felt like we had a noose put around our neck.

Iran: the worst known executioner

Iran carries out more executions than any country other than China. In 2013, the Iranian authorities acknowledged executing 369 prisoners, although the real figure is believed to be more than 700, since many executions are unreported or done in secret.

Ethnic and religious minorities are disproportionately affected by these executions, which frequently follow unfair trials in which 'confessions' extracted through torture and other ill treatment are admitted as evidence.

Later this month, Iran will appear before the United Nations Human Rights Council to discuss its position on the recommendations it received during the country's Universal Periodic Review for the improvement of its human rights situation. In a recent report, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listed Iran's application of the death penalty a the top of a long list of human rights concerns in the country. The Iranian authorities can't expect to be taken seriously when there is such a contrast between their rhetoric at the UN and the human rights violations they regularly sanction at home.

Raha Bahreini is a human rights lawyer and our Iran researcher.
A version of this article was first published on Vice News

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