Victims and Witnesses
"They Swore and it was Over": The Story of one Qassameh Case
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center
January 9, 2020
My family and I are from a village in a historical region on the outskirts of Nahavand, Hamedan Province. Most of our relatives lived there, and life for the residents of our village, our family included, depended on agriculture.
My uncle on my dad’s side had nine children, four boys and five girls. His second son worked as a teacher and was a generous person, kind and warm. He was a hard worker. In addition to teaching, he used to drive in fruit and other things he’d bought in the city to sell in the village, and he helped his father out with expenses. One of his sisters, who had three daughters and whose husband had left, came to live with him, and he took a second wife. So all in all my cousin was providing for two or three families.
We were village kids, born and raised. We didn’t see very much of the city.
The 1990 conflict
In 1990 there was a problem of water shortages, like there was in most years. My uncle was among those elders who started his day early. One early morning when he went to water the crops he saw that the water was being wasted, so he redirected the water to his field. Meanwhile the son of a neighboring landowner, whose turn it had been to water his own crops, appeared and said “What are you blocking off the water for? To [save] water for your own fields?” My uncle replied “You didn’t come. I’ve said before not to waste water and if you’re not going to come [get it], I am going to irrigate my fields.” Their disagreement started over the water issue and the young man struck my uncle, an elderly man. My uncle kept this to himself until he got home, where my cousin saw his bruised body and asked him what had happened. At first my uncle said, “it’s nothing.” But his son insisted: “no it’s not, someone has beaten you up!” Then my uncle said, “Yes. I got into an argument with [the neighbor’s] son. If you had gotten up early like him and watered our crops, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”
My cousin said, “whenever you want to irrigate your crops, let me know and I’ll take off work to come with you.” Next, my cousin – with no intention of starting a fight – went to the [neighbor] who had hit my uncle and said, “If you wanted to fight with me, your equal, you could have. Why would you hit my father, an old man who can’t fight back?” The neighbor got angry and a scuffle ensued between my cousin, the neighbor, and the neighbor’s brother who was there at the time. My family and loved ones saw it – word gets around fast in the village – and a few more people showed up to help out my cousin. Then they (those siding with the neighbor) got scared and picked up some tools from the back of their tractor to fight with. People on both sides of the fight got their hands on these weapons, and in the tangle the neighbor who had hit my uncle was struck. They brought him to the doctor, but it was a brain injury and he passed away.
Since someone from their side had been killed, they came and set fire to our homes and after that, both to my father’s home and my uncle’s next door. They destroyed our property. They killed our livestock, hitting them hard enough to break the bones of one of them. It was growing season, but they destroyed so much that not one leaf was left on the trees. It wasn’t that we were defenseless; they were powerful people, one of theirs had been killed, and our men were trying to protect the women and children by not responding to these attacks. It got so bad that security forces showed up to protect us. Nevertheless, our homes and our property had all burned, and we lost everything. We had no place to live.
At that time some of the young women in our family were pregnant, including my sister, my cousin on my dad’s side, and one of my cousins by marriage. My dad kept them behind closed doors hidden away in a storeroom and stood in front of it out of fear that they would come to harm. He was afraid because young women got taken back then. It was only by the grace of God that they weren’t discovered. I was living in Borujerd back then [about one hour away] and went to join my family when I heard news of all this, but my relatives wouldn’t have it. They said that the victim’s family members might attack me if I showed up. They were so insistent that I stayed in the car and drove back home.
Arrest and investigation proceedings
My sister and cousin were affected by all of these incidents and had miscarriages. The elders of the village, as was customary at the time, said that one of these miscarried children vindicated the blood spilled by the neighboring family. My uncle didn’t abide that. He blamed himself, saying that he was the one who had caused the fight.
The victim’s father said that since my uncle had started the fight that the son that meant the most to him should step forward, and that’s how my cousin was chosen as the defendant on the case. The court approved. The victim was a father of two. My uncle offered to pay [damages to] the family, saying “don’t execute [my son], take our family’s land instead so that his wife and children can live off of it.” The victim’s wife was satisfied with this, saying that this would put her in a more secure position than an execution. She said she didn’t believe my cousin to be guilty, but the victim’s father insisted, saying, “No. He should get the death penalty.”
Afterwards security forces came to arrest the men in our family. They were interrogated for a while. They beat my younger cousin repeatedly to get him to testify against his brother, but he never did, he just repeated that he hadn't seen his brother or anybody else hit [the victim] and that he couldn't tell them about something he hadn't seen. My little cousin was beaten so badly during these interrogations that he still gets nosebleeds after all these years.
My older cousin was literate and had gone to school. They arrested him too. He said, "let me take care of this, there’s people I know who can help. I can get the elders together and plan a reconciliation. What happened was an accident, we can hand over our land and make peace. I'll find a lawyer and stay this execution. Everyone knows he's no murderer." But because of court favoritism, my innocent cousin was sentenced to die. I don’t know how it happened. [The other side] found favor with the court. We went to speak to some officials and he told us that someone from the plaintiff’s side had already come to plead their case on the inside, and that there was nothing he could do for us. It’s never been clear who, from which side, dealt the blow that led to the death of that neighbor, God rest his soul. Not only people from our family, but also acquaintances and strangers who were there that day say, “we didn’t see him actually hit the victim,” “him” being my cousin. But the father of the victim said, “It’s that boy’s father who started the fight, and he needs to be punished.” It wasn’t even proven in court that my cousin caused the neighbor’s death, which is why they resorted to qasameh . My cousin had a lawyer. His brother had sold off his own home and plots of their land to pay the fees, but unfortunately there was nothing the lawyer could do.
The court allowed the plaintiff's side to build their case using qasameh, and so they rallied together all of their loved ones and acquaintances and people who weren't even there when the accident happened. All of them swore to my cousin's guilt, and that was the end of the trial. My uncle protested, asking the judge, "but these people weren't even there, how can you accept their testimony?" The judge told my uncle to give the matter up to God, and that if these people had testified against an innocent man that they would have to answer to the Qor’an. And so it was. All those who had sworn against my cousin came into misfortune afterwards and ended up dying in one way or another.
After that no one in our family dared stay in the village. It wasn't safe anymore. They fled to other cities and laid low. No one had the right to harm us while we were waiting for the verdict and the government should have seen to that, but they didn't. No one dared to go back to living their normal life. We shut down our farm operations because it was too dangerous to walk out in the fields. No one dared. Because of the insecurity, my cousin went to buy a weapon to protect himself and his family and shot it into the air to dissuade the other side from coming near. It was so unsafe that when my brother travelled from Tehran to our village he had to be secretive about it. No one was there to ensure our safety, they didn’t send a single officer to protect us. Everything was taken from us. Every last carpet had been burned and whatever items remained had been stolen by the neighbor’s family. These acts should have been punished. The incident incapacitated our family and years went by before we could go on.
At that time things got really bad for my uncle’s family. Even in the city, people refused to rent them housing. Their lives came to a halt. When they eventually found a place to rent, it was a struggle for them to put food on the table. My uncle’s third son found a job as a medical assistant which allowed them to buy just enough bread and vegetables to get by. It was so bad that if anyone went to visit them they always came with food in hand. People even started to look down on my husband’s family, saying [with scorn], “their family has someone who got a death sentence.”
Final meeting and execution
Every time we went to see [my sentenced cousin], it was he who tried to make us feel better. On the final day we went to see him, which turned out to be his execution day, they summoned us to see him one last time. It was about 10 or 11 in the morning and almost all of us were there. His mother and father, his sister and brother and in-laws, uncles and cousins, so many people that he started to get suspicious. “Why are all of you here at the same time? What’s going on?”, he asked. We answered that we had wanted to come see him all together. Which wasn’t a lie; that was how we usually were, and all the family had been gathering in our home to discuss the matter. They had gathered in our home earlier that day, too. My cousin asked me, “was your husband’s cousin able to do anything for my case?”, and I said “everything’s okay, don’t worry.” I had always maintained respectful distance with my male family members, but that day I kissed him. When we left the meeting, we were all upset with ourselves that we had misled him. We didn’t want him to feel scared. No one in the prison told him he was scheduled to be executed, and neither did we. We didn’t have the heart so we let him go on believing like a child that everything was going to be okay. Everyone knew he was going to be killed except him. At the same time, we were still holding out hope that the father of the victim would come around in time and pardon him. We couldn’t believe that an innocent person could really be put to death. But then [prison officials] came forward and told us it was time. That was the execution day. I think it was sometime in the afternoon. After our meeting with him they ushered us out of the prison. The father and mother and wife of the victim were there with the village Khan [head of the village]. When it was time to put him to death they fenced off the yard of the prison so that we couldn’t come near. The judge said to the village Khan and the elders that my cousin was a good person and that he knew us well and asked them to go plead with the victim’s father that he might spare my cousin. The Khan said to the victim’s father, “you know that this poor boy you’re putting to death is innocent,” but it was no use, he wouldn’t have it. Even the judge said that the court didn’t stand by the decision to hang him, but that it was up to the victim’s father to choose between the rope and forgiveness.
One of our distant relatives who served in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and was one of the guards overseeing the prisoners that day said to us afterward how pained he felt for us when the execution was carried out. To think that they can just carry people off to the gallows like that, he said. He said that when they ordered my cousin to walk up the scaffolding that he was in shock and asked them, "Why? Why do I have to go?". He said my cousin looked innocent, and that [guilty defendants] are usually fearful and beg for their lives before they are hanged. But our relative who was the guard said that in my cousin’s final moments as he made his way up the stairs that he heard him call out to the victim’s father clearly with his own ears. He said, "You, you are putting me to death, but I swear I didn't kill your son. I'm not a murderer." But the victim's father kicked at the legs of the stool [that was holding him up].
After the execution
After his sentence was carried out, he couldn't be brought back to the village for burial. The officials told us we didn't have the right to take his remains and inter him there. They told us, you can take him to Nahavand for a burial. We who had no family connections to Nahavand. Now all we have to remember him by in our village is a small stone that we placed between the tombs of his father and brother, where we pay our respects every time we visit.
After the execution none of us had the heart to go to see him. We rushed back to the village and told the others that he'd been put to death. They'd burned down our house, destroyed our belongings, and now they'd executed him, too. We talked about going to destroy their homes, but when we went there we saw there was nothing to destroy, their homes had been left empty. They'd vacated their houses quickly after the execution and gone someplace else. Even [non-family members] who had taken the neighbor's side in the conflict had left, locked up their homes and gone to other villages. We went back to the courts and they asked my father and uncle why they hadn't come to collect my cousin's remains.
My uncle and father didn't have the heart to go, but it had to be done. My father went with a few relatives to transport the body. He washed and prepared the burial shroud himself, interring my cousin in Baghe Behesht cemetary in Nahavand. They had been told not to bring him back to our home village to avoid causing trouble. But later they regretted going along with it. He ought to have been brought home and buried in our cemetery.
My father was an empathetic man, and my cousin was like a son to him. He cried so much [over his death] that it was wrenching for others to see. My father said, "I bathed him myself, I covered him in the shroud myself. It was like the kid had just fallen asleep. Like he hadn't just died." He said, "His neck was just a little red, that's all. Not even bruised-like. Like he'd had a heart attack in a panic right before being executed." He went on saying, "I don't think he died from the rope." The whole thing really shook my father up and his behavior was nervous and agitated for a long time after.
After the execution, family members came to help rebuild my uncle's house and with their help, to the extent that he could, he went on living there. His daughters stayed close by (it was the grieving period). His mother cried and cried. She whimpered and kept saying her son's name over and over. With the pretty voice she had she just cried non-stop. The whole family slipped into a depression.
The current state of the family
Once we had buried my cousin and the grieving period had passed, the family of the victim slowly trickled back to their homes. Once they did, someone from the courts came to ask us to come forward to put the conflict to rest so that things could finally be settled. They said to come to the mosque and hold a meeting with a few elders from each side to formally reconcile. My uncle and dad said that no such meeting was necessary. Us and them, we all want to live here in this village, they said. The other side felt the same and said that they had no grievances and wanted to make peace. My uncle and father were devout Muslims. They weren't the type to look for trouble. They said, our son was killed, fighting now would be in vain and do nothing to soothe the pain. It's all over now. A short time after the execution, the father of the victim got sick. He was consumed with remorse. Their whole family was consumed with remorse. People gave them the cold shoulder and rebuffed them. Not just our family, but even strangers, even people who had taken their side in the fight, even some of their own relatives began to distance themselves. They said, “that poor thing, he wasn’t a murderer. They shouldn’t have executed him.” They should have sentenced him to prison, should have seized his land, they said. Because my father and uncle had told their family, “take all the farmland we have, we’ll give it all to the victim’s children, just don’t execute him.” All for stubbornness… all because [the victim’s] father had to be stubborn and say, “no way, he has to get the death penalty.” After a time, the victim’s father had a heart attack. Both his father and mother got sick and died.
Life after that was a struggle. Our family went through a lot of pain, and 30 years later, we still haven’t recovered from the blow. It was like we were torn from our roots, our lives torn apart. We had been a proud family once, but we were plagued with shame after the execution. We were disgraced.
That incident and the sentencing of my cousin affected my whole family. It was like all of us had been disgraced. Once it happened, people from my family were forced to move out of the village, but no one would rent to them in the city either. They didn't have enough money, which made it even harder for them to find a place.
My cousin was only thirty years old when he was put to death. He was the father of a little girl and his wife was pregnant with their second; they executed him so quickly after the accident that when his daughter was born he was already gone. His poor wife never remarried. No one offered his family anything, not even damages for the fires. She stayed at my uncle's house and raised their daughters. She still has depression. His poor daughters hardly set foot outside the house even after all these years. They live with a sense of fear and shame. They always look hunched over, they hang their heads when they walk, and they're that way all of the time. His oldest daughter stopped going to school around age 11 and got married after that. His younger daughter who was born after his death got married after graduating high school. Out of necessity, because they were so poor, we had to find them husbands very young so that they would have more support and protection. Both of them are so timid and quiet.
My older cousin got addicted to drugs a while after his brother was executed, had a heart attack and died not long after. Naturally it was hard to say if he had died from the heart attack or if he had died by suicide. He was under so much pressure. He was survived by his children and my uncle now has the wives and children of both of his sons to care for. Life has been hard for them and it's still hard today. My cousin's third brother had a heart attack too, and his sister and youngest brother were overwhelmed with caring for their aging parents and never had families of their own. They suffered a lot after the execution. They hated to go or be seen anywhere.
All of my girl cousins who had gotten married were depressed too. Like one of them who had a son and a daughter and was actually kicked out of the house by her own husband. She lived in Tehran. He put her on the street and said, “get out!” [Because] it was looked down upon to be related to someone on death row. Some of our family then went to talk with the husband, asking "What harm has she done? Why would you kick her out and put your own children on the street?" The relatives then went to plead with the husband's sister to try and get her to reason with him. What had she done to deserve that? Two years later her husband agreed to let her come back home to live with him. After her son grew up he came to build a house in the village and help support his mother, which has put her in a slightly better situation.
Before the deaths of my uncle and aunt, who died just a few months apart, I went to pay them a visit and saw my younger cousin, who before her brother's execution had been a very beautiful and desirable girl. Now she was around forty years old and had missing front teeth. I was upset to see her like that. Still young, and already she had missing teeth. Because they didn't have the money to have them replaced. If someone had come to ask for her hand in those intervening years, she would have said no. She said, “I’ve got neither the money nor the mindset for marriage.” My uncle and aunt were bedridden and if they had come into any money they’d have taken a rental car to Nahavand to visit my cousin’s grave and find some semblance of peace. They never found closure. The family is despondent. The little brother of the cousin who was executed is 35 now with a master’s degree, but he’s unemployed. He’s depressed and doesn’t have it in him to seek out work.
But my second cousin, the one whose brother passed away soon after the execution, had it much worse. His daughter got married off at a young age to someone in a faraway village and her son got addicted to drugs. Even my immediate family has felt the impact of it. My children were little when all of this happened. My oldest son said, "every time we would come home from school everyone was gone, either going to see my cousin in prison or grieving. We'd come home from school and there was nothing to eat." We used to make trips to the village to check on the family, and if there wasn't a way to find a ride back we'd stay the night in the village while our kids were alone back at home. Our grieving period for my cousin went on for forty days and continued for years. He was my cousin. He was young. Our culture was to be there for each other, we weren't going to head home and leave our relatives to deal with that alone. So I left my young children alone. Everyone's lives have been affected by this. My husband worked as a civil servant; he was soft-spoken but persuasive, and because he knew my cousin was innocent he tried to help get him released. And [it even affected] him, after my cousin got executed, every time something upsetting would happen, like when his sister came over and said "her cousin was executed, why do you care so much about this? It's not worth it. They had someone in their family on death row." I don't know how to explain it, but it felt like my husband would throw the incident back in my face and use it against me. They knew my cousin was innocent and there was proof of that, but back then it was stigmatizing to have a family member get capital punishment.