This is not a lawful execution: Iran’s attempt to kill Saman Naseem

The bleak news that Iran is intent on carrying out another of its many unlawful executions - this time of 22-year-old Saman Naseem - is further proof that the country continues to stand outside the law, defiantly unreformed despite the airy talk of change under President Hassan Rouhani.

Naseem was 17 when he was arrested as a suspect in a violent confrontation between a Kurdish separatist group and Revolutionary Guards. Whether or not he’d actually been directly involved doesn’t seemed to have bothered the authorities. Their interest was apparently entirely focused on getting a confession. Saman says he was tortured every day for over three months (97 days to be exact) until he put his fingerprints to a confession his interrogators had prepared in advance.

Now Naseem’s in solitary confinement and possibly hours away from death. His execution was actually scheduled for dawn today, but has - as yet - not gone ahead. His family don’t even know why it was halted, or where he now is, or whether he’s going to be executed later today, or tomorrow, or next week …

If the Iranian authorities get their way and Naseem does indeed become the latest grisly statistic from a country that executes hundreds of prisoners every year, it will be uncommonly outrageous even for a country with a track record as bad as Iran’s. In particular, his case has hinged on a flagrantly unfair trial involving plausible allegations that torture was used to terrify him into providing a “confession”.

In a letter written from his cell, Naseem has said:

'During the first days, the level of torture was so severe that it left me unable to walk. All my body was black and blue. They hung me from my hands and feet for hours. I was blindfolded during the whole period of interrogations and torture, and could not see the interrogation and torture officers.
They repeatedly told me that they had arrested my family members including my father, my mother, and my brother. They told me that they would kill me right there and would cover my grave with cement.
When I wanted to sleep during nights, they would not let me rest by making noises using different devices, including by constantly banging on the door. I was in a state between madness and consciousness... During the trial, even the presiding judge threatened me with more beatings.'
Saman Naseem

This sounds a lot like what happened to the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose ordeal at the hands of an eau de cologne-scented interrogator is depicted in the new Jon Stewart film Rosewater. The weeks of blindfolded questioning, random beatings, insults and threats push Bahari to the edge of madness. In some of the film’s strongest scenes, Bahari is visited by his dead father who cajoles and half-taunts him, an echo of the “father figure” interrogator who deploys a sinisterly caressing quality in between bouts of aggression to disorientate and wear Bahari down (shades of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s O’Brien, one of Orwell’s most darkly memorable characters).

Like Naseem, Bahari endures over three months of physical and psychological torture, and also like Naseem Bahari signs a false confession to try to bring his ordeal to an end. The parallels more or less end there though, because the high-profile Bahari was bundled out of jail on bail and escaped out of the country alive. Naseem, from the persecuted Kurdish minority of Iran’s remote and relatively deprived West Azerbaijan province, has less connections but … well, let’s fervently hope he survives. I’d like to think there’ll be a film about how Naseem narrowly survived the gallows at some point (the Guardian’s very affecting graphic-art film on the Iranian death row lawyer Mohammad Mosafaei has done something along these lines in the past).

If there’s one Iranian director who might tackle Saman Naseem’s story, it’s Jafar Panahi, about whom I’ve written before (here and here). Himself the victim of years of judicial intimidation from the Iranian authorities, his new film Taxi cocks a snook at the fact that he’s officially banned from even making films. It also apparently features a scene where a woman is arrested for attending a male-only volley-ball match, à la Ghoncheh Ghavami. One of Panahi’s best works is the charming-but-deadly-serious This Is Not A Film, another calculated riposte to the Iranian authorities.

On the subject of Saman Naseem’s near-death, almost-hanged experience today, this treatment itself constitutes a form of torture being inflicted on another human being by the state. Meanwhile, an execution of a child offender like Naseem would be entirely unlawful. Imposing the death penalty on offenders who were below the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes is clearly forbidden under international law. If Iran goes ahead with this killing they’ll once again stand disgraced in the eyes of the world. This would not be a lawful execution.

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