A Juvenile who Went to the Gallows Four Times but was Ultimately Released
Just before dawn, when crows were still napping on the thin branches of the trees in the prison yard they had chosen for themselves, they took Mohammad to the gallows on four separate Wednesdays, to hang him and bring his prison term to an end. Death came knocking four times on that small hatch that opened the cell to the sky above, and yelled: “Mohammad Fadayee! Gallows number four.”
According to a report by ISNA, Shahrvand newspaper further wrote: Death tried four times to take away the life of the boy who was to be hanged in those days, and relented all four times. In those 13 long years, Mohammad the 17-year-old high school student turned into “Mr.” Mohammad, a college student; and the juvenile who had committed murder turned into a buff young man, who became a hairstylist, a Koran instructor, and a first rate chef in prison, whose beautiful white cakes were loved by the murderers incarcerated at Rajaishahr Prison. What was the story of those 13 years and what happened afterward to the quiet life of “Mohammad the Buff Guy” who loved going to the gym in his adolescent days, to the person who is now a shy and quiet free man, to whom Article 91 of the Islamic Penal Code gave the ultimate present that is liberty?
It Might have been a Wednesday. April 20, 2004, the 28th of [the Islamic month] of Safar, and time for the votive Sholeh Zard (an Iranian sweet rice custard) that had arrived like every year. Those days, the Fadayee family still lived in Robatkarim and their votive Sholeh Zard was famous in the neighborhood, their old neighborhood where they had lived for 50 years. Mohammad had 20 friends; 20 friends that had split into two groups that Wednesday in April that brought about one of the most infamous incidents yet, where only one person suffered the consequences: Mohammad Fadayee, a 17-year-old boy who was about to get his high school diploma. And on that day, he was on his way to the gym and going about his usual schedule, regardless of whether he had distributed the plates of Sholeh Zard or not.
Now, Mohammad’s father is sitting in his mother’s home, right there across from me, and in the time it takes the photographer to take pictures of his son in Robatkarim’s tight and narrow alleys, he tells the story of an event that occurred without warning, the consequences of which lasted 13 years, the time for his hair to go gray one by one, and for his and his wife’s body to get smaller and smaller every day, as if they were in a contest.
“Mohammad was almost 17. The whole thing should be called an accident; you can’t predict accidents. That day, Mohammad went out; it was near dusk. As he was coming back home, one of his friends who had bought a knife that morning, saw him in the street and said ‘I just bought this knife; I’m going home to take a shower; if my father sees it, he will take it away; you take it, and I’ll come and get it at dusk’.”
Mohammad’s father is a good conversationalist, the type who will tell you everything from A to Z if you ask him what’s new. But now it’s different; now, if you ask him about that April day, of the Criminal Investigations Bureau and the day of the arrest, of those long 13 years and those four times when the sentence was to be carried out, blood rushes to his eyes, his lips shiver, and his hands constantly go to fix his gray hair as sweat runs down his hair to his forehead.
It is difficult to be the father of an adolescent sentenced to death: “Styled beards had become fashionable at the time, and [the victim] had also grown that kind of beard. The neighborhood kids started making fun of him, and then a fight broke out. Mohammad was still at the gym when they started fighting. They called Mohammad when he came out of the gym with his gym bag, telling him ‘for the love of God, Mohammad, come and help; Mohammad, come back, we beg of you’. So he went back and separated them, and then, several people attacked him. Mohammad says he doesn’t remember beating anyone but the fact is that this thing happened. The knife hit [the victim] in the diaphragm. They took him to the hospital and he died a few hours later because of the surgeon’s mistake. His file says that the knife had hit his heart, but the hospital nurse came to our house the following night and said that the knife had not hit his heart during the fight, and that [the puncture] had happened in surgery. The next day, they came and took me to the detention center. Mohammad went to the police precinct to file a complaint about the fight, but since [the victim’s] family had already filed one and his friends had said that it was Mohammad who had stabbed Sa’eed, they arrested him.” Then came the Qesas (“retribution”) sentence.
Speaking of which, how were the days of the implementation of the death sentence? The Day of Execution? Wednesdays was when they carried out the hangings, and Wednesdays were some day: The door to the hallway would open and you could hear the deafening jingling of the shackles in the hall, which would wake up those who were sleeping in solitary confinement, waiting in silence, and it would wake up those who had “seen death time and time again, and had touched and lived death in a sad visit, with a sad, sad song”. Then the cell door would open and the inmate would be taken into solitude and into a little corner that was not to last more than 24 hours; a few meters by a few meters cell, with a small opening to the outside in its ceiling that separated it from the other walls; and the prison guards who liked the younger inmates and would give them an opportunity for some serenity, one day before their lives ended. Evin [Prison’s] yard awaited him twice, and Rajaishahr’s yard twice. He said good bye to his ward mates four times, he said good bye to adolescents who had committed crimes when they were under the age of 18 and were kept in a separate ward from the convicts with long rap sheets. He kissed them four times, went four times to “Zir Hasht” or the place we call the Guardroom, and kissed the guard good bye; experienced four times the shackles and handcuffs that tied his hands and feet to slow him down; four times he spent the entire night in anxiety and despair; four times he saw the hanging pole dancing in the air to the breeze in the prison yard; four times he put his right foot on the stand, said “Ya Ali” (appealing to Ali, the first Imam of Shiite Islam and the Prophet’s son-in-law), and went up, and four times … and four times he saw the rope removed from his neck, and the sky was closer than ever, and he left the stand right where it was, alone, but he kept waiting.
Mohammad almost said hello to death four times, and then said good bye four times. Even now, his strong and solid voice breaks when he wants to speak of “those damn nights until dawn”, and a sort of manly embarrassment can be seen in his shiny, inquisitive eyes. The first time he learned that it was over was a Tuesday; Tuesday, April 17, 2007, that is, three years after that incident. They called him one day and sent him to Zir Hasht. It took only a few hours between putting handcuffs and shackles on him and bringing him to Evin and putting him in solitary, the last place he was supposed to see before being put to death.
“First they took me to solitary at Rajaishahr [Prison]. The next day, they put me, another man, and a woman on a minibus and made us sit on the floor of the minibus in handcuffs and shackles, and took us to Evin. Death sentences were not carried out at Rajaishahr back then, only at Evin. The solitary cell at Evin was a small room with a sink and a shower and no curtain. I remember the water in the sink was very cold that day, and no water came out of the shower. I told the guard. A technician came and said the water would be warm at 12 midnight. This is while I had been in the cell since 9 o’clock in the morning. So I said to myself, ‘who cares, I’m going to die, whether I catch a cold or not’. So I turned the cold water on, washed the place, took a shower, put my clothes on and sat in a corner of the cell. I prayed a little bit and read from the Koran, until noon.”
Then the guards started being kind, one by one: “There was a guard there who noticed I was very young. He took my handcuffs and shackles off. He sat in a chair across the cell and started doing crossword puzzles and asking me questions. My mind was pretty occupied and he just kept asking me questions. He would say ‘imagine you’re free right now; what would you do?’ I didn’t know what to say: When you’re about to die, you don’t think that there may come a day when you might be alive again. Anyway, it was night; it was around 11 that my uncle had called and said that they were in front of the entrance [to the Prison] and had sent a message that ‘these guys are your plaintiffs; don’t be stubborn and try to ask for their forgiveness and consent [so that they will forego Qesas].’ That was when I knew for sure that everything was over and that no one had been able to do anything. Mr. Ahmadinejad had not changed the clock [for daylight savings time]: Normally the call to morning prayer would be at a minute or two past 5 AM, but that year, the call to prayer came at a minute past 4 AM.”
The sound of the morning call to prayer that resounds in the entire town and can be heard inside people’s homes, is a pleasant experience for many. For death row inmates who are to lose their lives to the hanging pole, however, the sound of the morning call to prayer is anxiety that eats their soul from within. “When I heard the morning call to prayer, I started sobbing. I hadn’t cried up until that moment and I had been able to somehow comfort myself. I started crying but then I washed my hands and face and said to myself ‘no worries’. Then they brought me a piece of paper and told me to write my last will and testament. I said ‘I don’t know how to write a will; what should I write?’ They said ‘write Shahadateyn (a Moslem testifying that he/she is indeed a Moslem) and give your property to whomever you want to, if you have any’. They gave me two A4 papers and a pen. I still have them, they’re at home. Now, can you imagine, in that instant, I was trying to concentrate not to make any spelling mistakes so people wouldn’t say I was illiterate afterward. I realized I couldn’t write Shahdateyn in Arabic, so I wrote in Persian ‘In the name of God. I testify that there is only one God, and He is righteous; I testify that the Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him) is His Messenger, and that Imam Ali and his 11 children are His righteous Imams’.”
He continued: “In any event, I wrote my will with great difficulty. At that point, I wanted to end it nicely: Back when I was in school, they had taught us to end letters with ‘I wish you well’ or ‘forgive my bad handwriting’. I couldn’t think of anything of that sort no matter how hard I tried, and so I ended up writing this to my father: ‘That’s all I had to say. I hope you live an honorable life in Merciful God’s protection’.”
At that point [of the interview], great laughter took hold of Grandmother’s home, the kind of laughter that does not reek of servitude, the kind of laughter that gives you wings to fly away and be free. “I started thinking about what I should do next when I was done with the will. Thinking about how they would take me to the gallows and hang me, then everybody would go to my funeral and burial, etc. And then, well, everyone would be gone and it is now the first night I’m in my grave … I swear I was thinking those thoughts. Then I thought to myself, the first night in the grave Nakir and Monker (the names of two angels who enter upon a dead one's grave at his/her burial night and look into the deceased’s beliefs and actions) will come and start asking me questions and I would have to answer. Then I thought, ‘oh my God, what if I can’t remember the names of the Imams?’ Can you imagine, as religious as I was, I could not remember the names of the Imams at that moment. There was a copy of the Tavassol Prayer (literally meaning “invocation”; invoking the Fourteen Infallibles when praying to God to have the prayer answered) in the cell. I wrote down the names of the Fourteen Infallibles (fourteen figures in Shiite Islam that are deemed to be infallible and incapable of committing sins and mistakes; they include the Prophet Mohammad and thirteen of his descendants, that is, his daughter, Fatemeh, and the twelve Shiite Imams) on paper and started learning them by heart.”
Having learned some of the names by heart and not others, Mohammad heard the steps of the soldiers who had come to take him away and finish him off. The sound of the soldiers’ boots marching is the worst sound in the world, he said: “May God never bring such a day upon me ever again. There was a servant/janitor there who, before they took me away, told me ‘I know a prayer, and whoever I’ve told to say that prayer to, they’ve said it and have gone to the gallows and have come back alive.’ It was the Abolfazl Prayer (named after fifth son of Imam Ali, he was the standard-bearer of the caravan of Imam Hossein, son of Imam Ali and the third Shiite Imam at the Battle of Ashura; he holds a very high position among Shiite Moslems). He said ‘you have to say the prayer 133 times’. I said the prayer twice 133 times just to be on the safe side. Then I looked up to the sky through the ceiling hatch and started talking to God. I have never said these things to anyone. What did I say to God? I said ‘God, I am a sinner and I am guilty. Please give me a chance to see the sun again. Give me one more chance to walk the earth; I will make up for what I’ve done. Give me another chance to breathe again.’ The servant came back just as I was about to walk out the cell and said: ‘You will go and you will come back. You want to bet? I’m telling you, you will come back.’”
And there was a new chapter in the story of the execution: “We went downstairs. They had brought another man and another woman to execute as well. I saw my father and my mother, my uncle (my father’s brother) and my aunt (his wife), and my grandmother, who were very upset. I started crying. I went toward the hanging poles. I remember that the ropes were hanging to our right as we went through the Guardroom. At that moment I thought ‘there is nothing under your feet when they hang you’.”
The memory of those that are to be executed along with you is engrained in your mind in such a way that even if you forget their names, the memory itself will always be there: “The woman they had brought to be hanged along with me had killed her husband’s son. The name of the man who was supposed to be hanged was Agha Ne’mat. So they had brought these two individuals. I noticed that their people were constantly going around talking to the plaintiffs [in their respective cases]. A soldier came to me and said ‘you do the same and go talk to your plaintiffs and get them to forgive you’. I didn’t know them at all. ‘What do I say?’ I asked, ‘I’ve said what I needed to say to God last night. If I’m supposed to die, I’ll die.’ Then the officer in charge of implementing the sentence came and said ‘why are you sitting here?’ and instructed the soldiers to send me upstairs ‘maybe the plaintiffs will forgive him when they see him’. A short time later, a soldier was running toward me screaming ‘come down, your plaintiff has given you one month’. I stepped down from the stand and quickly looked to the sky. I remember the first sentence I uttered: ‘Hello life.’ Dawn was just breaking. I stood right there and performed my morning prayer. Then I heard a loud chant of Salavat (meaning “peace upon him” a phrase often used after the name of the prophet Mohammad) and I thought they had hanged those other two. I turned around and saw that Agha Ne’mat and that lady had also obtained their [respective plaintiffs’’ consent and forgiveness. When everyone chanted Salavat, all the crows in the trees started cawing together. It was some scene: It was dawn, the crows were cawing, just like in the movies. They didn’t hang anyone that day. That same story happened three more times and I got time from then plaintiffs in my case.”
How were you able to cope with coming back from the throes of death four times?
“It was God’s will. My parents’ and my family and relatives’ prayers helped me, and I’m embarrassed [and indebted to them]. Everyone in prison who saw me the night after I was supposed to be executed was saying ‘how come you haven’t gotten old?’ Because every time one of our fellow inmates would go to the gallows and come back, they would either lose their hair or it would go gray, and they looked a few years older when they came back. Many of my ward mates were executed. We would go to sleep at night and we would realize that they weren’t there when we woke up in the morning. We would ask ourselves ‘dear God, what happened?’ Then we would hold a wake for them. The new guys who came to prison would ask those of us who had been there longer about the days of execution, about how you could live so many years with the shadow of death hanging over your head. I would give them an example: ‘Have you noticed when a Haji comes back from [pilgrimage to] Mecca? They tie the lamb to a tree and the little kids help the animal in its the last night. The next morning everybody’s waiting for the law [of sacrifice] to be implemented. The lamb is baaing and no one understands what it is saying. [And then,] everyone forgets after you die.”
Mohammad was taken to the gallows and returned four times, and Behnud Shoja’i, an adolescent murderer whose story was similar to Mohammad’s, nine times: Nine times, and the ninth time was the last time: Behnud, a boy who had made a name for himself outside prison in those years, was executed. Two of those four times, Mohammad went to the gallows with Behnud, and how hard it is to talk about two friends, one of whom is still around and the other is not and will never be: “The third time I went to the gallows, there were 11 of us who were supposed to be hanged. I remember praying to God saying ‘Dear God, you want to test me again, please help me to [pass and] hold my head high.’ I was standing on the heater and was looking into the courtyard. The adjacent yard was the women’s courtyard; there were children running and making noise. I read the Koran twice those two nights. I went to the hanging pole again and I got additional time once again. I was with Behnud Shoja’i that day. We went to the gallows twice together and came back. He went four times more than I did and was ultimately hanged. He was a good kid, God rest his soul.”
And then he is reminded again of the first time the rope was supposed to take his life and never give it back: “The first time that we were going to Evin Prison on a minibus, I told the soldier ‘at least let me see the sun one last time’ and I looked out the window. I remember saying to myself ‘look outside’: Someone was going to school, another going to work in his car, and another one had gone grocery shopping for his home. Everybody was living their lives, nobody was thinking about us. When I came back from the gallows, I realized that everyone was still living their lives. So I would say to myself ‘I’m supposed to be dead for two days, I’ve been buried three days, but see, it makes no difference to anybody’.”
Where are we supposed to find Mohammad now? Where, out there, where there is freedom, and whatever it is, it has no prison bars and no prisoners?
And now, it’s been four months since he was released, since the day the court ruled that Mohammad should be freed, and made him “an Article Ninety-Oner”, the same Article 91 that was passed a few years ago and incorporated into the new Islamic Penal Code, and came to the assistance of many criminals under the legal age of 18 who were to be put to death based on the law of Qesas (“retribution”): ““In crimes requiring Hadd or Qesas, if the individuals under the age of 18 who have attained puberty cannot comprehend the nature of the crime or the prohibition thereof, or if there is doubt as to their mental development [and capacity] and maturity, they will be sentenced to the punishments prescribed in this chapter on a case by case basis. Note: In order to ascertain mental development and maturity, the court may obtain the medical examiner’s opinion, or utilize any other method it deems appropriate.”
Four months later, the door to Mohammad’s Grandmother’s small house opens; the sun is already setting in Robatkarim. The kids in Grandmother’s narrow alley, where a small and old water ditch divides it into two, are chanting with joy because the June exams are finished early, and they are now playing a serious game of soccer with their plastic ball. The kids in the alley don’t know who Mohammad is: The boy who, back in the day, in that year that came easily and went very hard, used to sometimes play soccer with his buddies in this same alley and would flaunt his buff body, is now sitting under the old framed tapestry at his Grandmother’s home, with that same buff body, black hair, and eyeglasses that are a souvenir from his prison days, and talks about the current days, about being a last semester student of business at the city of Karaj’s Scientific and Practical University, and about his days going by better and with more energy.
Mohammad obtained his high school diploma in prison and started college right there, taking his courses within the four walls of prison. Recently, he purchased 100 copies of the book “Ezdeham-e Zendan-ha” (“Overcrowding in Prisons”) and donated them to several universities. No one can guess that he has spent the last 13 years in jail on the charge of murder if he doesn’t tell them: He speaks eloquently and leads a life that is more normal than that of normal people. Mohammad’s father knows this very well: He has had a lump in his throat the entire two hours he has been talking about those days, simultaneously paying attention to his elderly mother who quietly wipes away her tears with the corner of her colorful Chador (Islamic veil). “We tried very hard to obtain their consent [to forego Qesas],” he says; “they were saying ‘whatever the law says’. They kept telling us to follow up through legal means. [The victim’s] parents could not bring themselves to have Mohammad executed but they constantly kept changing their mind. Ultimately, it was God’s will; it was a miracle, because there was nothing we could do. It was Islamic kindness. We kept following up but it took a long time for this law to pass. It went on until 2014 when I heard that the new law had passed and that there was a way now.”
But the story of those 13 years is not just the story of those four times going to the gallows; it’s the story of thousands of days and experiences, and it is so interesting that Mohammad enjoys talking about it after all this time: “You know, my life had a routine there: I would attend college in the morning until 1. Then it was lunch and prayer. Then I would train. I would go to the barbershop from 3 to 5. The days were very long. I had to recite Tavassol and Komeil prayers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Most guys would become tired of the routine and the repetition, but me, a lot less. I actually didn’t have enough time in prison. I would tell the guys ‘I wish the days were 48 hours long instead of 24, I don’t even have time to sleep here’ and the guys would tell me ‘are you joking, get out of here man’. I had decided that the world was the life inside prison and I made do with it.”
That was prison; and what did the day of freedom feel like?
And freedom came on a Wednesday, and what a day it is when you’re released. His ward mates were chanting “long live freedom” and “hope you never come back”. Then [prison authorities] handed Mohammad his clothes and everything he had gathered in those 13 years; the huge iron gates opened, and prison was finished forever.
What time were you released exactly?
“11/11/1394 (January 31, 2016), that is, four months ago. The night I was released from Rajaishahr Prison was a night to remember. My family was standing across the street and I had to cross the road. I hadn’t seen a road in 13 years and I didn’t know how I was supposed to cross. I just saw my parents on the other side of the street and I was saying to myself ‘why the heck did they go on the other side of the street? I mean I didn’t die, but I don’t want to die in a car accident either right in front of the prison in the middle of the road.’ You can’t imagine what it took for me to cross the road. Before I was released I was always thinking ‘now I’m going to go out and see so much greenery, so many trees and so much grass.’ Inside prison, when a single strand of grass would grow out from between stones, I kept watering it so it wouldn’t wither away.”
After talking happily for two hours, Mohammad gets a lump in his throat when he remembers a certain individual whose memory and murder has not left him alone for 13 years: “Before my release, the judge advised me not to live in our old neighborhood in Robatkarim. So now we live in [the city of] Karaj. But when I was released from prison I went to his grave, the first week; [and I went] last week, and yesterday. I promised myself from the first day that I would pray for him every day. To this day, I recite two Rak’ats (unit of prayer consisting of three postures) of prayer for him every morning. I would like to see his parents but, well, it’s difficult. They have lost their son after all. I do believe though, that the people who were at the fight that day are to blame for this whole thing, even those who stood by and did nothing.”
Before long, the lump in the throat gives way to tears when Mohammad wants to talk about how these days feel and about the changes in those 13 years in which he [was not allowed to] go on leave for even a single day. “Things are very different now. When I came back here and asked about my friends, I was told that some of them had died, and the others hadn’t really worked or progressed much [in life] more than I had. I have a great deal of experience now. I went to jail when Mr. Khatami was president, then 8 years of Mr. Ahmadinejad, and now that I’m out, Mr. Rohani has been President for two years. That’s a lifetime in and of itself, and much has changed in that time. When I went to register at the University, the person in charge of enrollment told me to go to the Pishkhan Office and do this and that; I didn’t even know what the Pishkhan Office was, and I said to him ‘I swear to God, I don’t know where the Pishkhan Office is’.”
And the Fada’ee family’s laughter becomes louder when Mohammad talks about his current experiences: “Even now that I’m out, there are still a number of difficulties in getting used to things. The most important is that I have to accept what’s out there, the new conditions. For example, I see how much the style and fashion of men and women have changed compared to the year I went to prison, and I feel so far away from them. And also as an example, there was a time when women were walking toward me and I didn’t want to look at them, I would look down in front of me. But I can’t even lower my head anymore: All their manteaux are open in the front. Lifestyles have changed, there are more opportunities. Back then, when I sat in a Samand [car] (Iranian manufactured automobile) I thought of how big it was. But now, every time I sit in a Samand I realize how small and tight it is. It’s as if I’ve just been born, I’m experiencing everything anew. There is no room in Tehran anymore; there are so many people there [and it’s so overcrowded]. And I have grown up too; for years I was like a “sixth finger”: It’s ugly, and at the same time, you can’t cut it off.”
Mohammad’s life these past four months consists of the university and the gym. This past week, he took an exam to get his hairdresser diploma so he can start his own hair salon. None of Mohammad’s college mates know his story, and that is an experience in and of itself: “It’s very interesting that one of my professors was also my professor when I was in jail. Of course he doesn’t remember me but I certainly do. It was funny that one day, during his laws and regulations class he was talking about how he had taught inmates in prison two years earlier. Interestingly enough he was describing the same exact class I was in. It was really funny. He was saying ‘I usually close the door out of habit, and I closed the door in jail as well. But then when the inmates introduced themselves, I realized I was standing in the middle of a prison surrounded by 15 killers, so I slowly opened the door.’ I laughed so hard that day, and no one ever realized that I was one of those 15 people.”
These days, Mohammad is also thinking about getting married, getting married to someone who, according to him, is different than others and can accept his circumstances, accept to marry someone who “went from school benches to 13 years in Rajaishahr Prison among people of all sorts”.
It is now midnight and Mohammad’s story continues. Now it’s time to show prison photos, pictures of people who have been executed and are no longer. There is also Agha Moharram who was a murderer and paid one billion Tumans in Dieh (blood money) and was forgiven. There is a picture of his barbershop that was always full of customers and was well-equipped; pictures of rooms that look more like a house than the dark and notorious Prison that is Rajaishahr. He also shows the video of the day of his release, the video of his ward mates who were standing around on that cold day saying good bye, and you can see both happiness and sadness in their faces. They were losing the Mohammad who was their Koran teacher, their barber, and their Maddah (a person who sings the praises of the Ahle Beyt, or the Prophet Mohammad’s descendants); the 17-year-old boy who turned 30 in prison, who was leaving never to return, never to return ever again.