Victims and Witnesses
One Execution, a Lifetime of Torture: Witness Statement of Serveh Mahmudzadeh
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center
August 10, 2018
My name is Serveh Mahmudzadeh. I married Habib Afshari on June 11, 2007, and my daughter Dilan was born on February 21, 2010. In Kurdish, “Dilan” means happiness and joy.
Habib and his brother, Ali, were born in the town of Miandoab and resided in Mahabad. Habib Afshari Shurjeh, sometimes mistakenly referred to as Habibollah, even in official news, was born on June 15, 1987. His father’s name was Kaakollah and had four sons other than Habib and Ali, and three daughters.
We used to call Habib “Rozgar” at home, which in Kurdish means “one who has been saved”. He and Ali had a seventh and eighth grade education, respectively. Their father was a laborer. Habib, too, had become a laborer after dropping out of school and before joining Komeleh. Before Habib and I got married, Ali was working in Iraq as a house painter. After the wedding, he moved to Iran and took up residence at his father’s home. Habib and Ali became street vendors around Mahabad’s parks and green areas for a while, selling tea.
Habib had also engaged in the traffic of alcoholic beverages for a little less than four months. He was arrested when he was transporting a shipment to Zanjan during the Islamic month of Moharram, and spent six months in jail, whereupon he was released when his father and brother pledged in writing before authorities that he would stop. He was also flogged for his actions but I don’t know the details.
One of Habib’s main character traits for which he was known among friends and relatives was that he would come to the defense of whoever he thought had been subjected to an injustice. People around him knew him as a simple, kind, and funny person. He had been doing karate since the age of 11.
Habib’s biggest wish was for a “free Iran” and “for the Kurdish people to obtain their right and have their land”. Habib had told me on numerous occasions “I may be angry and hold personal grudges for the injustices that have been done to my friends and fellow citizens, but my ultimate wish is for the Kurdish people to govern themselves in their homeland, for Iran to be free, and for the Kurdish people to return to Iran”.
His brother, Ali Afshari, wasn’t that interested in sports; he loved singing and music, and had a good voice too. He was also kind and good natured: if you talked to him only a couple of times, by the third time, you’d feel as close to him as if you’d known him ten years.
When Habib and Ali were kids, their uncle (their mother’s brother) Abbas Sharifi, known as “Abbas the Guerilla”, who was a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s Peshmerga, was killed in a skirmish with Iranian regime forces in the village of Badam near Miandoab. Ali was accompanying his uncle during that skirmish. But it was their older brother, Mohammad Amin, who established Habib and Ali’s contact with Komeleh. Mohammad Amin was living in Iraq when I married Habib. He had been arrested six years earlier in possession of a number of weapons, and based on reports that had reached security forces in the region. He was transferred back and forth several times between Mahabad Prison and Orumieh Prison. He was serving his ten-year sentence in Mahabad Prison, when, after about six years, his father put up a deed as bail so that he could come out on temporary leave. He came out of prison several times on 10 to 15-day leaves, and then on one and two-month leaves, when, the last time he was out, instead of going back to prison, he crossed the border into Iraq illegally and joined the Komeleh forces.
As far as I know, during the time Habib was in Iran and in contact with the Komeleh Party, he would provide them with news on the town of Mahabad. He would also report on individuals they thought were persecuting the townspeople or were snitches or security agents. He was also the contact man for newcomers to the Party and would guide them in their entry into the organization. He would also turn new members over to trusted people for them to cross the border and go to the party’s camp outside Iran.
Habib left Iran and went to Iraq in the spring of 2010 to go through Komeleh’s training program and become a full-fledged member.
Pressure from security forces
A few days after Habib left Mahabad and took up residence in Iraq, I decided to vacate our home and go live with my parents. I was gathering my things with my mother one day, when one of Mohammad Amin’s (Habib’s brother) trusted friends who owned a car dealership in Mahabad’s Posht Tapeh neighborhood came to our home and said: “Habib called and asked me to take you and your daughter to Doleto, the border region in the town of Sardasht.”
I had not heard from Habib in a few days. In a complaining tone I said: “If he is now in a safe enough place that he can contact his friends, why hasn’t he contacted me?”
He was repeating what Habib had told him when my mother suddenly arrived and said: “As God as my witness, I will not let my daughter go. I’m very sick and my grandchild is a newborn and very small. She will either catch a cold or get a heat stroke if she goes. I’m not allowing them to go right now.”
That person left our house after he heard my mother.
A few days later, the wife of Jafar Afshari (another one of Habib’s brothers) introduced someone as a real estate agent and told me: “There are people who are going to come right now to look at the house and maybe buy it if they like it.” I was already living with my parents at that time.
A few minutes later, a short, bald man with a black mustache, wearing Kurdish clothes, came to my house with three other people who were all wearing black suits. The real estate agent stood before the entrance to the house and asked the other three people who had been introduced as potential buyers to look inside the house. Those three went separately into the rooms and the kitchen and inspected the entire house. Then they exited the house and started talking in Azeri with the real estate agent; I didn’t understand a word they said.
The real estate agent told me: “We will call you if these gentlemen decide to purchase the house.”
That same night Habib called after dinner and I complained: “Why did you send someone after me? Why didn’t you come get me yourself? My father could have brought me to the border.”
Then I told him about that man coming to the house and what had happened with the potential buyers. Habib, who had no sense of any of this, said: “I never said these things and I never sent that person after you.”
It was then that we realized that the person who had come to take me and my daughter to the border was either sent by the Information Ministry or the Revolutionary Guards. I truly thanked God that my mother had not let us go because of her own illness and because she thought Dilan might get sick on the way; otherwise, who knows, we might have been killed and no one would ever have known what had happened to me and my daughter. Habib thought that even the real estate agent was an Information agent, and that the people with him were Information agents. They wanted to search the house for weapons and see if they could find a trace of Habib or Ali there; otherwise, they had nothing to do at all with a real estate agency and house buying.
Exiting Iran, joining Komeleh
Six months after Habib left Iran, in September-October 2010, his older brother, Mohammad Amin Afshari and three other individuals by the names of Hossein, Ayaz, and a third man also named Mohammad Amin, came toward the Iranian border to conduct operations. Before getting to the border, Mohammad Amin contacted his nephew, Diako Afshari, and informed him that they were a short distance from the border. Diako stood in wait near the border “stop and search post” in Iraq.
When those four individuals got to Diako, he asked them to put their weapons in a sack and turn it over to him. He had said to them: “They have a small inspection here and I will take care of it with money and we’ll get the weapons across. I’ve already coordinated with them.”
And since Mohammad Amin trusted his nephew, he put the weapons inside the sack, tied a knot around it, and turned it over to Diako.
A little further down the road, their green Land Rover fell into the trap that had been set for them. The first bullet hit the front tire and the car was stopped. Diako ran from the car, and the agents started shooting Mohammad Amin and the three others, who had already been disarmed, with a flurry of shots, killing all four.
Habib called me immediately and said: “Get yourself to Iraq as soon as possible.”
Mohammad Amin had taken a lot of pictures and videos of Habib and me when Habib was still in Mahabad. Habib was afraid that these would fall into the hands of Information agents and that they would come looking for me.
My daughter and I crossed the border illegally into Diana (Suran) in Iraqi Kurdistan, and from there, we went with Habib to the Kak Omar Ehsanzadeh Camp which belonged to Komeleh. Ali, his family, and Habib’s parents were there too.
Diako Afshari’s mother contacted Ali and Habib a short while after Mohammad Amin was killed, and complained: “Because of you, my son is now in the hands of the Information people and I don’t know if he’s dead or alive.”
But based on the information Habib and Ali were getting from inside Iran, they didn’t believe that Diako had even been arrested or detained. About six months after Mohammad Amin was killed, they got news from Miandoab that Diako had been hiding at his sister’s home for six months. So Ali and Habib came to the conclusion that Diako had not only been arrested by the Information people but had cooperated with them and with the Revolutionary Guards and caused Mohammad Amin’s death. On one occasion when Habib and I were walking in the camp, he told me: “Usually, [the Iranian government] arrests whoever has even a picture of a political nature on their cell phone or carries a political pamphlet. If anyone has lent even the slightest bit of support to an opposition political group, they get a five-year or ten-year prison sentence. Diako, on the other hand, who was trying to bring four Komeleh Peshmerga fighters into Iran who intended to carry out operations and kill Information and government agents inside Iran, is somehow [miraculously] released!”
Later, one of my relatives who used to cooperate with the Mahabad Information Administration told me that the day after Mohammad Amin Afshari and his friends were killed on the Iran-Iraq border, Diako had been happily handing out pastries at the Information Administration.
Habib’s arrest, no news from him, and the beginning of the persecution
After Mohammad Amin was killed, Habib’s father, Kakollah, who had returned to Iran with their mother a few months earlier due to illness, passed away. The information and security forces had not put much pressure on them because of their old age, and had simply asked them to report to them every time they contacted Iraq and inform them if and when their children returned to Iran.
A few months after Mohammad Amin’s death, Habib and Ali became certain that their brother’s murderer was their nephew, Diako. That was why they went into Iran, to hear the whole story from his own mouth.
When they got to Mahabad, they went to their sister’s house (Diako’s mother) but their brother-in-law started screaming at them: “Why have you come here? You’re going to ruin us. Now Information [agents] are going to come and arrest us too.”
Ali told his brother-in-law “We just want to have a word with your son”, and said nothing of killing. But Diako’s father said: “Do whatever you need to do but don’t kill him in the house and in front of me.”
Ali and Habib searched their sister’s house but couldn’t find Diako. His cell phone was turned off too. Ali and Habib pretended they were leaving and said good bye to their sister, but they laid in wait until dawn in a big parcel of land around the house. Diako didn’t come home that night.
Ali and Habib spent about eight days in their brothers’ and other close friends and relatives’ homes, including their second cousin’s, Shuresh, their cousin’s son-in-law, Mansur, and their other brother, Vali’s. Ultimately, Habib went to his mother’s who was ill, and Ali went to his other sister and niece’s home in the town of Bukan.
When Habib got home, his other brother Jafar’s spouse, who had left the home in anger six months earlier, returned unexpectedly. Everyone was surprised. No one had gone after her and she had come back of her own volition. Jafar’s spouse made an omelet for Habib and Habib ate it even though he wasn’t hungry.
When I first went to see Habib for visitation, Habib told me [what had happened]: “My head started spinning after I had the first bite, and my eyes became heavy. They gave me a pillow. I put my head on the pillow and lied down. When I opened my eyes, I saw the boots of soldiers over my head.”
Habib was unarmed but punched the few agents that were around him, knocking them to the ground. He then jumped on the wall to get to the roof, but they started shooting in the air and ordered him to stop; so he stopped. They took Habib to the Mahabad Revolutionary Guards Information detention center after his arrest. He didn’t tell me anything about his condition there, he just said that they beat him up a lot. He said that on the day they had come to pick him up, the same agent who had come to our house pretending to be a real estate agent was accompanying the other agents in plain clothes. They had handcuffed Habib but had not blindfolded him, taken him to Mahabad Revolutionary Guards Information detention, and had started beating him even before he got out of the car.
Two other brothers of Habib’s, Soltan and Jafar, who were home at the time of his arrest, were also arrested. Prior to that, Mansur, Shuresh, and Vali had been arrested on charges of sheltering Habib and Ali. Vali used to help Komeleh members who took shelter in the mountains and would get food, blankets, and clothes to them. Jafar confessed at the Information Administration that their other brother, Ali, had also entered Iran, but had not told them where he was because he did not know of his whereabouts.
When Ali arrived at Bukan, he first went to his sister’s home in Bukan’s Sheikh Lor district and asked them to keep the weapons, ammunitions, pamphlets, and money they had collected for Komeleh until that night, and that he would then take delivery of them to take to Iraq.
As soon as Ali left his sister’s home, his brother-in-law contacted the Information people and told them about Ali being in town and the materials and money being at his home.
When Ali arrived at his niece’s house, they were leaving to go to a wedding. Ali asked that they give him the key to the house and that they let him stay there until nightfall, and said he would leave as soon as it was dark. They agreed, and Ali stayed home with his nephew’s nine-year-old son. A short time after they had left the house, Ali’s niece’s husband called the Information people too, and told them that he was staying in his home. After shooting and wounding Ali, the Information agents broke the door down and entered the house. Ali was first taken to the hospital, and was subsequently taken to Bukan Revolutionary Guards Information Administration where he was detained for approximately two months.
We had no news of Ali and Habib for about four months after they had returned to Iran and been arrested. Habib called me in Iraq when he was transferred to Mahabad Prison and told me about his situation. In those four months, Habib’s mother had gone to Mahabad Information Administration and Mahabad Revolutionary Guards Information numerous times but had not gotten any results and they did not tell her where they were. And I did not call because the phones were tapped and I didn’t want to create problems for them.
In those four months, some of our neighbors would tell us conflicting stories about Ali and Habib. Some would say they were alive while others would say with certainty that they had died under torture. I was extremely worried and wanted to go back to Iran and find out what was going on. But they would certainly have arrested me if I returned because I was with Komeleh. And then Habib called and said: “Get a safe passage guarantee and come back to Iran with my daughter.”
It took my parents two months of hard work to obtain a safe passage guarantee for me from Mahabad Information Administration, but the Sardasht border crossing did not accept it. It took another month for Sardasht Information to issue another safe passage guarantee and my daughter and I were able to return to Iran.
About two months later, the trial took place in Mahabad Revolutionary Court. Every prisoner’s family was seated next to him: I was sitting next to my spouse Habib, and Mansur and Shuresh’s mother were sitting next to them.
The trial lasted approximately an hour. Habib and the others denied the charges that the prosecutor recited and the judge repeated. The judge insulted them and prevented them from speaking, however, and said: “This is what you said, you confessed! Why are you lying now?”
I remember one of the agents gave the judge a laptop on which there was a recording of a conversation between Habib and his mother. The recording was played in court. Habib had said: “Our brother’s blood will not have been spilled in vain. We’re not going to allow that. We will return to Iran and take our revenge.” The judge was saying: “You intended to start a revolt and cause disturbance in the town of Mahabad.” But Habib kept repeating: “I did not come back to Iran for any government agents. I only came for my nephew and I didn’t care if he was an Information agent, a police officer, or a detective.”
But the judge said: “You weren’t just interested in Diako, you threatened all Information and security forces.”
Habib’s ward mates had introduced another lawyer and he had only met with him one time before trial.
Ali was in Bukan at the time and was transferred to Mahabad Prison a short while later. His was an individual trial. Ali’s lawyer stopped answering Ali’s spouse’s calls after the trial and so they asked the lawyer to take on his case as well.
He did not charge us any fees for these cases. Prior to Habib and Ali’s execution, this other lawyer was representing another client in a separate case when he himself got arrested for having organizational relations with that client. In one of my visitations with Habib, he told me that the other lawyer was his ward mate. The other lawyer was released after Habib and Ali’s execution and subsequently left Iran.
Pursuing the execution case
Habib and his brothers spent the first few months of their incarceration at Mahabad Prison Ward Four. After a while, they were exiled to Darya Prison Ward 12 in the city of Orumieh because Habib and Ali had contacted Komeleh members with a cell phone they had in prison.
In both prisons, they and a number of other political prisoners were being kept in wards where regular prisoners convicted of or charged with drug crimes and murder, were also being kept.
After a few months, two other trial sessions were conducted inside prison. Ultimately, a five-year prison sentence was issued for those who had accompanied Habib and Ali, and Habib and Ali themselves were sentenced to death. Ali and Habib wrote letters to Supreme Court Branch 32 and appealed the decision but the sentence was upheld three times in the course of four and a half years.
It was the fourth year of their incarceration when I went to Tehran with my daughter to follow up on Habib and Ali’s case. I went to the Supreme Court with my daughter, to the branch you had to go to in order to follow up on the case. I gave them Habib and Ali’s case number; they said they had no case under their names. I went back a few days later and told them I had been sent from Mahabad and been told that their file was in Tehran. They said the file wasn’t there and that they had sent it to Orumieh. We went to see a well-known attorney when we left the Supreme Court, because Ali and Habib had said that he was an excellent lawyer. But he said: “There is nothing I can do because you have come to me way too late. I might have been able to do something had you come to me from the start, but now, their death sentence has been approved three times by the Supreme Court. There is nothing I can do anymore.”
After that meeting, I returned to Mahabad with my daughter.
Psychological pressure and persecution on the street
Mahabad Information Administration summoned and interrogated me after I had returned to Iran. They told me that Habib’s execution was certain; they wanted me to divorce him and start cooperating with them, go back to the Komeleh Party and report to them. In return, they would pay me a monthly salary, a house, and a car.
I didn’t accept any of it, so they took me to court. The judge was the same judge who had tried Habib and Ali. I was given a one-year prison term, suspended for four years, and a four-year prohibition from leaving the country. I had to report any and all contacts from Iraq. Even if a bird flew over our house, I had to report it. They were so eager for me to make even the slightest mistake so they could put me in jail to serve the one-year term.
I worked at a baby clothing store across from Be’sat Communications Building in Mahabad when Habib was in prison.
They had given me a tapped cell phone after the interrogations, and the only people who had the number were the agents themselves, a few of my close relatives like my sister and my parents, and Habib, who could call me from prison. In the four and a half years Habib was in jail, Information agents called me numerous times making propositions: “Why don’t you become our friend? Our lives are well provided for; you’ll be safe with us. Do you see how these Peshmerga live? With them you’re always in danger and you will ultimately be killed.” I knew they were calling from the Information Administration because no one else had my number other than my own family. They would even introduce themselves as Information agents. But it wasn’t just harassing and persecuting me on the phone: they would harass me on the street too. For instance, they would follow me to the bazaar in their car and would throw their phone number written on a piece of paper in front of me. They wanted me to pick up the number so they could say “look at this woman: she is a political person, her husband is a political person, but she takes the number anyway”, and ruin my and my husband’s reputation and the reputation of the group we worked with. The worst instance happened one day when I was at the store, when one of them came over and threatened me. It was around 5 PM on a summer day and I was opening the store with my daughter. Suddenly, I noticed that a tall, very heavy-set man dressed entirely in black was standing behind me. I said: “Can I help you with anything?” “You’re Habib’s wife?” he asked. “Yes, why?” I responded. “Why are you working for Habib? Why are you making money for Habib? Don’t you know he’s going to be hanged?” he said. I was shocked. I was asking myself how this man knew Habib. From the way he looked and the things he was saying, I thought he was an Information agent for sure. He came closer and said: “You’re very beautiful,” and started talking nonsense. I said: “I’m going to scream and call the neighboring stores if you don’t leave.” No sooner had I said that, that he was running inside the garage where he had parked his car. I immediately called our house and my sister came by very quickly. She asked the garage owner for the man’s car tag number. He replied that the man had told him he was an Information agent and that the garage attendant was not allowed to write down his tag number. The garage had two entrances and the man had gone out the other door. My sister got in a taxi and followed him but the car went into an alleyway and she lost him in the hustle and bustle of Mahabad’s Municipality Square. She was able to write down his tag number, however, which was either from the town of Miandoab or Maragheh.
The next day, Ali called from prison. He could tell from my trembling voice that I wasn’t doing well. He asked if anything had happened and I started to cry and tell him the entire story. Habib was sleeping. Ali woke him up and I told him the whole story again. Whenever I told Habib about how they harassed me on the phone and in the street, he would tell me to not let it bother me. But this time, he said nothing and hung up the phone in silence. He called back about twenty minutes later but his voice was not clear at all. I got worried and asked him why he was talking that way. With a voice that could be heard with great difficulty he said: “I have sewn my lips shut and have gone on a hunger strike. I’m the one with the death sentence, I’m the one they’re dealing with; all you do is work and make ends meet for yourself and our daughter. Why do they harass you? I will not break my strike until I get an explanation about their harassment.”
They subsequently quarantined Habib. During the time he was on a hunger strike, Mr. Sa’edi from Mahabad’s State Information Office had gone to him and asked him why he had gone on a hunger strike. Habib had told him the story and said: “I’m your problem. You want to hang me? Do it now, I’m not afraid of dying. If I’m not executed today, I will be executed tomorrow, so it doesn’t make a difference. But why do you harass and threaten my wife who is just working at her job?”
He had also given Mr. Sa’edi the car tag number I had read to him; Mr Sa’edi had promised to follow up on the matter. But no one has followed up on anything until this very moment. Habib ended his hunger strike after four or five days but we never got a response about the harassment. And we did not follow up independently because the man was an Information agent.
Last contact and then no news
During the four and a half years Habib was in prison we had visitations almost every month. Habib would joke around with me and my daughter every time. He and our daughter played together and he would ask about his and my family. In the last visitation I had with him, however, twenty six days before they told us the news of his execution, Habib was not the same person anymore. He was wearing black that day; he even talked differently than before. After a simple greeting, he got his ring and a cigarette lighter I had bought for him out of his pocket and said: “Keep these as a souvenir. I don’t want my friends to forget to pick up all my things and not give them to you when I’m executed.”
The ring was a ring that he had asked me to buy for him while he was in jail. He said his ward mates had one and he wanted one too. I had bought the cigarette lighter myself because I knew he liked it. But he gave them back to me that day, and he said nothing after that. He just looked at me. He just looked at my daughter too; she was sitting next to him. He just looked at her, kissed her and smelled her, but didn’t say anything. None of his brothers were like that, though. When we were saying good bye, he said several times: “Watch out for yourselves and be careful; look out for Dilan.” And then he went back into the prison.
Our last contact took place on Wednesday, February 16, 2015. At 9 AM, Wednesday morning, Habib called me from prison and talked to me and my daughter. Every prisoner was allowed to make four calls to his family every day. When he called around noon, he wasn’t talking like other days. Before he hung up the phone he said two or three times: “Look out for yourselves and be careful. Watch out for Dilan. I’m entrusting you with Dilan.” We were very close; I joked with him a little and said: “What is this stuff you’re saying?” But he didn’t respond, and we said good bye. He was supposed to call back at 2:30 PM but didn’t. He didn’t call at the prescribed 4:30 PM time slot either. Although I had gotten a little worried, I said to myself that the conditions were rough for all the prisoners at that time and none of them had gotten in touch with their families (because I was in touch with other prisoners’ families). I thought that they had probably taken another political prisoner to the gallows and had therefore cut off all phone lines so no one could inform his family until the sentence had been implemented. But when I saw the Norooz Network news at night, it announced that Habib and Ali Afshari, Saman Nasseem, and several others had been transferred from Orumieh Prison to another place and it was possible that their death sentence could be carried out.
I frantically called the rest of Habib’s family. They had not been contacted by the prison; Ali’s wife had no news of him either. I tried to find Vali, their other brother who was their cellmate and had a five-year prison sentence. I finally found him on Thursday and he said: “They read Habib and Ali’s name on the loudspeakers; they read my name as well and I objected that I had only a five-year sentence and there was not much left of my time, and asked them why they were taking me. But they threw me in solitary anyway.” Vali told me that the prison warden had told him that they were transferring Ali and Habib to Tabriz Prison. I protested in anger: “We have heard nothing from them for a whole day. Since when does it take this long to get to Tabriz?”
Vali said: “Wait a little longer.” I waited until late afternoon. Vali called again and I asked about Habib and Ali. He said: “They’ve arrived at Tabriz but they have not all had a turn to make phone calls since there is a large number of prisoners there. They might call tomorrow.” I insisted: “You guys were in the same ward together. If you know anything, if you know that their sentence is going to be carried out, tell me. I’ll come to Orumieh right away, I’ll go the Information Administration, I’ll go to the court, I’ll do something to keep the sentence from being implemented.”
Vali got angry and said: “No! Go home and stay there and don’t meddle in these things. When the warden tells me they haven’t carried out the sentence, then there is nothing left for you to do.”
I had no news until Friday afternoon. Vali called again at 4 PM. I asked him: “Why did you tell me Ali and Habib had arrived at Tabriz Prison? Even if the prison were in Europe, they would have gotten there already. Why didn’t you tell me the truth? What can I do on a Friday afternoon, when everything, the court, Information, everything is closed?” I was just sitting at home when the phone rang at 5:15 PM that same day, Friday, February 18, 2015. I picked up the phone; it was Diako, Habib and Ali’s nephew. He said: “Ali and Habib have been executed.”
I was confused. They had informed me in such a way that there was nothing I could do; my hands were tied and I felt as if I had been handcuffed and shackled. I went to their sister’s home; they were having services there. When I got there, their sister and everyone else was crying. But I was in shock and I couldn’t believe it. How come they had not told me, Habib’s wife, and Ali’s wife that the sentence had been carried out, but they had told their nephew and their cousin? The Information people had my number; they called for every other piece of nonsense.
Then I heard that Habib’s nephew and cousin had been summoned to Mahabad Information and had been told that Habib and Ali had been executed. They told them that we could hold services at home, without putting up any pictures, pamphlets, or writings on cloth.
Psychological torture, the nightmare of having no news
I knew they were going to give them a very heavy sentence at trial, but I was hoping that he would get life imprisonment, because from life, the sentence would surely be reduced to fifteen years, twelve years, or ten years. I just wanted to be able to take my daughter to see him for twenty minutes, so she would not be fatherless, so she wouldn’t one day say that she didn’t have a father. I was content with those twenty minutes of visitation. I couldn’t believe it when I heard the news of their execution. And they had not told me directly.
Three days later, on Monday, Habib and Ali’s three sisters, my sister, Vali’s wife, and I went to the prison to visit Vali and Jafar. I gave the prison guards Habib and Ali’s names, because I thought they were still alive. We waited with my daughter in the visitation hall. The prisoners were brought in after five minutes. I was standing right at the point where the prisoners came in. I waited and waited until the last prisoner came into the hall, but there was no Habib and no Ali. They had closed the door but my eyes were still fixed to the door. I was thinking that such a thing was impossible. I couldn’t control myself anymore; I started screaming, I yelled Habib’s name, and I yelled Ali’s name. Then I banged on the door. Even the prisoners had gathered around me. Finally, the person in charge of visitations came over. I asked him why they hadn’t brought Habib and Ali in; he told me to wait. So I kept waiting at the door. When the door opened, Vali, Habib’s brother, came out. He was wearing black clothes and looked disheveled. He was holding two big black plastic bags, one bearing the name Habib Afshari, the other one, Ali Afshari. I was silent for a moment. I could not believe they had been executed at all. Vali gave me the bags and said: “Don’t fool yourself. Their sentence was carried out and they’re gone. They’re not here anymore, the guards can’t bring them over for visitation anymore.” I was hoping to hear Vali say that they were alive, or that they were in another prison. I was in shock. When Vali left, their other brother, Jafar, was brought in. I went over to him and kissed his hands and said: “Jafar, say something, say it’s a lie, say Habib and Ali have not been executed.” “I swear to God, Serveh, I don’t know,” he replied, “that’s what they told me. But don’t you believe it. They’re in Tabriz Prison or Qazvin Prison.” That day, instead of seeing my loved ones, I got these two bags, but I didn’t find out whether they were dead or alive.
I went to the prison administration to see the prison warden (whose name I don’t remember) after visitation was over. I asked him whether Habib and Ali were there or whether they had been sent to another prison. He said he had no information about them. “But you are the warden here, Habib and Ali were your prisoners,” I said, “you would know if they’ve been executed or transferred to another town, or if anything else has happened to them. They told us their sentence had been carried out.” His reply was: “They took Habib and Ali and said they were taking them to Tabriz Prison and that they were supposed to stay there.” I believed what he said and thought to myself that the news of their execution might not be true.
A few days later, we held services for Habib and Ali at their sister’s home in one of Mahabad’s surrounding villages called Russukan. There was a man there whom no one knew. He said that one of his acquaintances who worked at Orumieh Prison had had told him that last Friday, he had taken the bodies of two young men on a green and blue bus reserved for prisoner transport to an abandoned village near the city of Qazvin. He had said he could tell they were Kurds from their clothes and that they were still handcuffed and shackled. When he, the driver, had wanted to get off the bus, the officer accompanying him had told him that he couldn’t and told him to move the bus forward a few yards. He said that all of this happened before dawn. That man had said he saw them bury the bodies next to a row of clay walls.
I returned home to my father’s in Mahabad after spending about five days at Habib’s sister’s house. That day, someone called me from an unidentified number several times. Since I did not believe that Habib and Ali were dead and no official had given me any accurate information either, I though it surely had to be them. But when I would pick up the phone, I would hear a sound like metal prison doors clanging or a door that was being slammed, and people speaking Azeri from afar that I couldn’t understand.
These calls kept occurring afterwards as well; sometimes they would call three or four times a day.
On one occasion, I was out with one of my sisters. When I came back home, my other sister said they had called the house four times and she was sure it was from the prison. The phone rang again and I picked up. A voice was just going “mm mm mm” and nothing else. I said: “Hello, Habib, Ali, is that you?” and they hung up.
The numbers that would appear on the screen were usually public phone booth numbers in Orumieh.
But after that, my cell phone would ring in the middle of the night or close to dawn. I would wake up, pick up the phone, and speak, but then they would hang up. I would immediately call back the number that had appeared on my phone and was a cell phone number, but the cell phone would be turned off.
One day I told Mr. Abdollahi, one of Habib’s former ward mates who was later executed, what was going on. He was in prison and I was in contact with him, hoping to get news of Habib. I gave him the phone numbers from which they had called me. Orumieh Communications Department had told him that the numbers were security numbers and that they couldn’t provide him with any information about them. But these phone calls continued. They would wake me up almost every night in the middle of the night or close to dawn, and they would call again during the day. I would cry on the phone many times and say: “Please say something; if you can’t talk, hand the phone over to someone who can so at least I can find out who you are and why you’re calling,” but not a word was uttered; they just kept mentally torturing me. I have this huge hole in my heart because they were doing this to me four or five days after my loved ones had been executed and I was still in shock.
My phone would ring at three thirty or four in the morning every day for about a month and the person on the other end would hang up every time without saying a word. I would sit for hours after every call and think whether there was something going on behind all of this, and whether Habib and Ali were alive and their execution had been a lie.
I went into severe depression after a month. I would not say a word even when we had guests; I wouldn’t say hello to them and I wouldn’t respond when they say good bye. I would just stare at a single point. I was so lost in thought that I didn’t even see the people around me. I was mostly thinking about how they could have been executed, how they walked to the gallows, who was with them when they hanged them. Had they written a last will and testament? No one had given me anything. Had Habib written something for me, had Ali written something for his wife?
One night the phone rang as usual; they woke me up and hung up without a word. I didn’t call back. I just sat there and wished I were dead.
My mother had died and I was living with my father at his home. That night, I woke my father up and told him: “I can’t take this anymore, I can’t go on.”
My father took me in his arms and kissed me and said: “My daughter, these are all games these people play. You must be strong.” “No, Papa! I have lost, I’ve lost everything,” I said, crying. I could not hold back the tears.
After that night, I wore black for about a year. I would cry uncontrollably, even at the dinner table, and just shed tears for very long periods. Upon my sister’s insistence, I went to see a doctor after a while, and she diagnosed me with severe depression.
When I told the doctor about my problem, she started crying too. He said: “Your depression is like cancer; you either have to fight it and get it out of your system, or it’s going to kill you.” She would even go out with me and talk to me.
She had talked to my sister and told her that my depression was extremely severe, and had asked her not to leave me alone in the house under any circumstances. I couldn’t even look at my daughter in those days. I couldn’t eat more than a couple of bites of food when it was time to eat and then I would get hungry again after a half hour. Sometimes I couldn’t remember what I had said a few minutes earlier. Some nights I would leave the house at 2 o’clock in the morning barefoot, crying uncontrollably.
During that year, my sister saw me attempting suicide once. She started screaming and crying, and yelled at me: “You have a daughter. Have you forgotten what Habib told you the last time he spoke to you, that he was entrusting you with her? What will happen to her if you’re gone too?” I came to my senses a little bit when my sister said these things to me. She said: “You have to be a strong woman, you’re the wife of a martyr, you’re not weak. The weak ones here are the people who oppressed a woman and want to make a basket case out of her.”
Contradictory information, efforts to discover the truth
Ever since I heard the news of Habib and Ali’s execution from their nephew, I had been going everywhere to obtain official news of what had transpired. The court would not respond to me, saying it had nothing to do with them. The Information Administration people would say that they had buried them in a village near the city of Qazvin, but I didn’t know whether they were really there or not. They bury most political prisoners they execute at Orumieh Prison in a village in the vicinity of Orumieh. There is a large cemetery there called “Lanatabad”. I still don’t understand why they would take a prisoner that has been executed in Orumieh to be buried in Qazvin. I kept hearing conflicting information from different people and I didn’t know what to believe. A lady came to me at the services we held for Habib and Ali and said that her son worked at Orumieh Prison and that he had seen Habib and Ali in the prison courtyard handcuffed and shackled, but it still wasn’t clear what had happened to them afterward and where they had taken them.
For six months, I kept going to governmental organs like Orumieh Information Administration, Mahabad Information Administration, and the Orumieh court. They did not treat me badly or in an offensive way at all, they just confused me. One would say they were alive, another would say they weren’t there. But none of them - the Information administrations, the court, or the Orumieh Prison warden - would tell me with certainty that they had been executed.
It’s a one-and-a-half hour bus ride from Mahabad to Orumieh, and I travelled that road many times so that someone could definitively tell me what had happened to them, but no one would give me an answer.
That they wouldn’t give me a straight answer was one thing; I myself had reason to believe that they could still be alive. Habib had a ring and a watch that the officials had not turned over to me. His clothes, 10 packs of gum he had bought for Dilan from the prison store, a pack of color pencils, and ten thousand Tumans he had saved for Dilan - all of which he had told me he was going to give to me - were in the bag they turned over to me. There was even a notebook in which he had written his memoirs for Dilan, in which he had said, for instance, what Dilan should do when she grew up, or that he was innocent and wrongly sentenced to death. But the ring he always wore and his watch were not there.
In those six months, I repeatedly asked Mr. Abdollahi to see if he could obtain any information. Once, the late Mohammad Abdollahi called Zanjan Prison and talked to an imprisoned teacher who had previously been at Orumieh’s Darya Prison and had been transferred to Zanjan Prison. He, in turn, had contacted a friend he had in Qazvin Prison. The friend in Qazvin had told him that Habib and Ali had been there with them but that they had been taken away that Friday, early in the morning, before the morning call to prayer. But that person was not sure whether they had been taken away to be executed or not. The person that provided this information from Qazvin Prison was transferred to another prison that same day, to Tabriz Prison I believe.
A few weeks later, that teacher told me through Mr. Abdollahi that he had seen Ali in the Zanjan Prison quarantine. Prisoners cannot have exact information about the prison quarantine but this person had said that he had obtained the information from the agent who worked with them. He had quoted the agent as saying that one of the brothers was at the Zanjan Prison quarantine, but had not said which one. The agent had said: “I asked the prisoner why they had brought him there. He said ‘I came from Orumieh Prison’ and had added ‘my brother was executed but I wasn’t’.” It wasn’t clear whether this person was Habib or Ali. And because of all of this, one day I would believe that they had been executed and the next, I wouldn’t.
Accepting death, unfinished mourning
I went to Mahabad Revolutionary Court after about six months and met with the Prosecutor. He told me to go to the National Organization for Civil Registration office. I said: “Why should I go to Civil Registration? I’ve come here for Habib and Ali’s case. What do I want with Civil Registration?” But the Prosecutor insisted: “Go there and everything will become clear to you.”
I went to the head of the Civil Registration office. When I told him that the Revolutionary Court had sent me, he said: “We have death certificates for three individuals who have been executed.” Then he handed me three envelopes bearing the names of Habib Afshari, Ali Afshari, and Mansur Arvand (who was from Mahabad and was in the same ward as Habib and Ali in Orumieh Prison but had been executed in Miandoab).
I took the envelopes and called Mr. Arvand’s family and Ali’s wife. They got there as soon as they could. I wasn’t expecting to be holding Habib and Ali’s death certificates in my hands but I could see that they had been hanged at 4:15 in the morning of that Friday, February 18. The death certificate stated the place of death as Orumieh, which meant that government agents had purposely tortured me for that entire six month-period.
They had stated the cause of death as unknown. Everywhere I went after that, any government office, my daughter’s school, etc., they would ask why the cause of death was unknown and I had to explain that the cause of death was execution but they write it down as unknown.
That day, when we wanted to void their birth certificates, the head of the Civil Registration office sent us to another room to get a bank account number to pay the fees. I went to the specified room and said: “They said I had to get a bank account number from you to void a deceased person’s identity card.” The person asked: “Was he executed?” to which I responded in the affirmative. He said: “You have to deposit seventy thousand tumans in this bank account with Melli Bank.” “Why?” I asked, surprised. “The cost of the rope,” he responded. Each of us deposited seventy thousand and obtained a receipt and voided their identity cards.
Later on, I remembered that on one occasion, Ali had called the Supreme Court before their death sentences were upheld by the Supreme Court for the last time, and had said that they had not received any information as to whether their sentence had been approved or not. That man had responded: “You have to be re-tried and it’s possible your sentence will be changed to life imprisonment, but your death sentence has been overturned.” When Ali heard this news, he had informed Habib and the others, and they had bought about two hundred thousand tumans worth of pastries with the help of the other prisoners, and distributed it among their ward mates. A few days later the news of the confirmation of their death sentence arrived; in effect they’d handed out pastries in celebration of their own hanging.
Even though I had been given their death certificate that day, I still wasn’t one hundred percent sure that they were dead. I had yet to get Habib’s ring and watch and I was hoping that his sentence had not been carried out yet. I thought to myself ‘they’ve issued the death certificate to force me to sit at home and think that they’ve been martyred and stop looking for them’.
About a month and a half later, the Information Administration contacted me. They told me to go take delivery of Habib’s personal effects. I thought they meant the ring and the watch. I was so upset that I walked the distance between home and the Information Administration, which was about an hour. I had no hope anymore: They gave me the ring and the watch. They had given me the death certificate before, so at that point I was one hundred percent positive that they had been executed.
I had gone to the Information Administration with my two sisters and my daughter. My daughter and one of my sisters waited outside the building, and my other sister and I went into the building. I was sitting in a chair with a small table in front of me. Mr. S. was there, as well as an old man with gray hair. I had seen both of them before. There were two young men of about 28 or 29 that I had not seen before. One of them came forward, lifted the bag he was holding, and emptied the contents on the table; he shook the bag a few more times and left. I looked at the things on the table: several pens, things Ali used for his respiratory problems, and some other things. And suddenly I saw Habib’s ring and watch. I had tears in my eyes but I did not want to cry in front of them. I lifted my head slightly and noticed the two young men whispering to each other and laughing.
I gathered all the objects on the table and put them in a bag but I held Habib’s ring in my fist. My sister said good bye and those officers said good bye too in a sarcastic, mocking way. I did not say anything, not even good bye. After we got about sixty yards away from the building, I got on my knees. I was so upset and filled with so much grief and rage that I started to scream. I let out a scream that said so much, everything that I had kept inside all those years that Habib was in jail, and about him being innocent and executed; everything I had kept inside for eight months: that entire time, I had held out hope for the ring I was holding in my fist, that they were surely still alive. I cried a lot when I was kneeling on the street. People gathered around me. Women who were passing by would come forward and ask what had happened. There were several car dealerships on that street; the owners had come outside. But I was just screaming: “Why? Why were they killed? Why didn’t you give me their death certificates a month after their execution so I wouldn’t be mentally tortured? You should have given me the ring along with his clothes. Why did you wait eight months to give me this ring, the thing that was my only hope?” People were staring at me; cars that were going by would stop a little farther and the drivers would stick their heads out their windows and stare at me. And I would yell: “What are you looking at? I’m on my knees here for someone who was completely innocent. I’m on my knees here because they were the subject of injustice.” That day, I spilled everything that had been bottled up inside me, and said everything that I had wanted to say during those years and during the period after they had been martyred. I said everything I wanted to say about the Information Ministry and the regime. I finally felt some relief.
Long term effects on my daughter
When Habib was alive, I was content with the monthly visitations. They had become a habit for my daughter Dilan as well. She would ask if we were going to see Daddy at the beginning of every month. I just didn’t know how she would take it if I told her that her father had been executed, that he was no more; I didn’t know how to break it to her. I thought it best to hold off until she was older, thinking that she might realize it herself when she noticed that her father was not calling and we weren’t going for visitations anymore. So I didn’t tell her. But one of her classmates at school, whose mother knew me and used to come to the hair salon where I worked, had told the other children that ‘Dilan’s father had been executed’ and that was how she learned she no longer had a father. She was depressed for about three months. I would tell her to study and do her homework when she came home, and she would cry; I would tell her to get her book out of her bag, and she would cry. In short, she would cry for any reason and for no reason at all. She would get on the kitchen counter and say “I’m going to jump off of here and kill myself. Why didn’t you tell me they killed my father? Why did you lie to me when you told me they had transferred him to another prison and the guards don’t let him make phone calls? Why did you lie to me when you said Papa was alive? The kids at school told me I didn’t have a father and that he had been hanged.” I took her to the doctor numerous times and the doctor would say she didn’t have any issues. But she would vomit everything she ate or drank, even water. Finally a pediatrician said to me: “Madam, I saw a sort of sadness in your daughter’s face as soon as you walked in.” So I talked to him and told him that her father had been executed and that I cried a lot too in front of her and talked a lot about him. He said that she had a slight case of depression but that I shouldn’t let it advance and should stop it before she turned fifteen. After that, I was careful not to say whatever I wanted to in front of her. I would take her to the park a lot, to her friends. She gradually got better, thank God, but we didn’t talk about her father’s execution anymore.
Financially speaking, my family is middle class. I worked and after working in a baby clothing store, I rented a space and worked as a hairstylist. My income took care of the rent but it wasn’t enough for me to buy new clothes for my daughter and myself. My daughter never had new clothes to wear or the toys that she liked, like her friends that she played with in the alley or at school. We would sometimes go to the bazaar and she would stand by store window and say: “Mom, I’m not saying this for you to buy anything for me, but let’s just stay a minute and look at it.” It is a child’s wish to hold her father’s hand as well as her mother’s hand when, for instance, she goes to a park. But my daughter always had only one hand taken, her mother’s hand. All of the dreams I had for myself and all of my daughter’s dreams were shattered and gone, buried. My daughter wouldn’t even get out of the classroom at recess at school; she would just sit in a little corner, deep in thought. I have not felt happiness or joy all these years and my daughter has not had a childhood.
I now work at a hair salon. My co-worker once asked me: “Why does your daughter just sit there all quiet? Why doesn’t she play with the other kids?” If I go out, she follows me out. If I sit at home, she comes and sits next to me. She never leaves my side; she’s very quiet and she has a very innocent face, and there is still sadness in her face. She cries very easily, but she doesn’t talk.