Qesas Was Not the End of the Story: A Man Sentenced to Death as Teenager Recounts 12 Years on Iran's Death Row
Freedom after 12 years in prison; freedom and a second chance at life for someone who was only a few steps away from having a rope around his neck. It has been a few months since Abbas was released. He was only 17 years old when he was arrested for murder. He was a high school student, but a single moment of carelessness and the inability to control his anger landed him in prison for murder, and even took him as far as a few steps away from the gallows. Abbas saw the hanging rope up close; the same rope with which they hand hanged so many others like him. But luck was on his side. The family that had been looking for Qesas for 12 years and had done anything they possibly could to have the death sentence implemented, had changed their mind overnight and had forgiven Abbas. How and why, even Abbas himself doesn’t really know. But whatever it was, it was nothing short of a miracle for Abbas and his family, a miracle that has given him a second chance at life. What follows are the details of this case and Abbas’ story.
"It took about 10 years from the time the Qesas sentence was issued until it became final.. [It] was overturned several times; even the venue where the case was tried was change"
What happened that got you sentenced to death, to Qesas?
It was 2005. I was coming back from work. The murder victim’s brother-in-law (his wife’s brother) was with me. When we got close to my home, we noticed that several people had gathered in front of the house. They were screaming and yelling and there was no one home except my mother. I got angry and got into a fight with them but there were too many of them and I couldn’t do anything by myself. One of them, their leader, was a real bully and acting like he was a tough guy. I pulled out a small knife that I had on me, only to scare him so he would go away. I had no intention of stabbing anyone whatsoever. At that very moment, one of the neighbors jumped in to end the fight, and suddenly I realized that there was blood on the knife and on my hand; the knife had hit him by mistake. In effect, I had stabbed a family member of the friend that was accompanying me. Unfortunately, the knife had cut his main artery. He died when he got to the hospital due to severe hemorrhaging.
You mean you stabbed someone who had nothing to do with the fight?
Yes, unfortunately I stabbed him by mistake. Actually, the knife just hit him. I had no intention of stabbing anyone, I just wanted to scare them.
What happened next?
I ran away but I turned myself in after a few days because I had had no intention of killing anyone; I had no issues with the murder victim. I thought to myself that these things would result in a reduced sentence.
How old were you then?
I was 17. I was a high school student. I used to work at a construction site with my friend after school. We went to work after school that day and we were on our way home when all of this happened.
Did the court sentence you to Qesas?
Yes, I was sentenced to Qesas, but that sentence has a long story. It took about 10 years from the time the Qesas sentence was issued until it became final. The nature of the event was such that the Qesas sentence was overturned several times; even the venue, [the town] where the case was tried was changed. Ultimately, however, the Qesas sentence was confirmed.
Can you give us more detail?
I was sentenced to Qesas at the first trial but the Supreme Court did not uphold the sentence. Then it was remanded for a new trial. Again, I was given a Qesas sentence, but the Supreme Court overturned it. In its decision, the Supreme Court had stated that the murder was not intentional [and therefore not subject to Qesas], and that if there was other evidence pointing to intentional murder, then that evidence had to be presented. The subject of “Qasameh”* even came up. Then the case was transferred to the city of Borujerd even though the murder had taken place in another city, Khorramabad, which was where we also resided. But, in any event, the case was transferred to Borujerd, and a Qesas sentence was issued once again.
The sentence was approved by the Court of Appeals Branch Four. This time, the Supreme Court upheld the Qesas ruling and the case was sent to the Sentence Implementation Bureau to be carried out. The process of obtaining permission to implement the death sentence, “Estizan”, also took a long time, that is, the final sentence was sent to Sentence Implementation in 2009-10, but Estizan was only issued in 2013-14. The case had a number of defects and it was therefore submitted to the Khorramabad court. The process of considering the defects took an additional 2 years. In 2016-17, all the defects were addressed and taken care of. It took a long time for my case to be adjudicated and become final.
And you were in jail the whole time?
Yes. They changed the prison where I was held three times. I got a final sentence 11 years after the incident.
Of course I wasn’t counting the days to my execution but I was thinking that I would be hanged sooner or later anyway. Even the thought of it bothered me. That’s a very difficult situation: To know that some day they will call your name to take you to the gallows.
Did you do anything to obtain the victim’s next of kin’s forgiveness that entire time?
I was in jail and couldn’t personally do anything. My family was the one pursuing that track but the victim’s family didn’t want to hear of it. They didn’t want to forgive, all they wanted was Qesas. And here I was in prison, worried and anxious about whether I would escape from the throes of death. But it seemed that all the efforts were in vain. I had lost hope. Of course I wasn’t counting the days to my execution but I was thinking that I would be hanged sooner or later anyway. Even the thought of it bothered me. That’s a very difficult situation: To know that some day they will call your name to take you to the gallows.
So how were you able to obtain their forgiveness?
I still can’t believe it. I still have dreams about jail even though it’s been a few months since I was released. It was like a miracle. It’s as if God had softened their hearts. I was in jail when one day I was informed that they were going to forgive. I couldn’t believe it at first because they say things like that to a lot of prisoners and to people sentenced to Qesas. They say things like that so that the prisoner can keep his/her spirits up. Death row prisoners’ mental state is really very awful. And the prison atmosphere is very heavy, dreary, and depressing. So I didn’t believe it until a few days later when I learned that it was serious. I became more certain when I heard it from prison officials. But now there was another problem: Coming up with the Diah [blood money]. My family didn’t have any money and I was a kid when I went to jail, which meant that none of us had any money at all.
Did you get the money from benefactors?
Yes, the Imam Ali Society helped a lot. More than 230 million Tumans were collected for my release. I owe my freedom and a second chance at life first to God and then to the benefactors at that Society.
When were you released from prison?
On December 3, 2017. Around the same time of year that incident happened. The fight took place on October 27, 2005, and I turned myself in a few days later and was arrested.
You endured 12 years of prison?
It was really hard. Every day seemed like a lifetime. The only things that kept me going were hope and my faith in God. To be honest with you, there were days when I would be extremely down, especially the final months and days when I thought that everything was over, that I was done for.
How did you feel when you were finally released from prison after all those years?
I can’t describe it. I have no words to describe how I felt the day and the moment I was released from prison. I was “under the blade” as the guys in prison would say, a few short steps from the rope. Only another person who has been freed from the throes of death can understand how I feel.
There was another problem: coming up with the blood money. My family didn’t have any money and I was a kid when I went to jail, which meant that none of us had any money at all.
What are you doing now?
I don’t have a decent job. The job market is really bad for everyone, let alone for me, an ex-convict. But I thank God anyway; I’m a daily construction worker and sometimes I work at the butcher shop. The same God who saved my life takes care of my daily bread.
*In Islamic law and in Iranian criminal law, when the evidence is not sufficient to prove the occurrence of a crime (such as murder or other physical injuries) but the judge has a strong suspicion and belief that it was committed by the defendant, the process of Qasameh is used. This process consists of 50 male relatives of the murder victim swearing that the defendant perpetrated the murder, which is sufficient to convict the defendant of murder.