No Man Is An Island

“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” – John Donne

EDDIE WOODS was sitting in his Amsterdam digs sipping strong black coffee and smoking his first cigarette of the day when he saw on the television text news that his Dutch-Iranian friend Zahra Bahrami had just been executed at Evin Prison in Tehran. It was 7:30 a.m., January 29th 2011. Eddie had been keeping abreast of Zahra’s dire situation on a daily basis ever since he (and the Dutch government!) learned of her arrest in April 2010, more than three months after it occurred. On January 5th the news broke that Zahra had been sentenced to death. Even at that stage both Zahra and her daughter, Banafsheh Najebpour, remained hopeful that the Dutch government would intervene and, at the very least, get the sentence commuted to imprisonment, if not outright repatriation to the Netherlands. But that didn’t happen, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal’s belated attempts to employ ‘silent diplomacy’ fell on deaf Iranian ears. And less than four weeks later Zahra was dead. Hers was the 66th execution to be carried out in Iran in the month of January alone. The regime there was clearly on a killing spree.

Later that day Eddie sent out an emailing to his international network that was subsequently forwarded by many of its recipients to their own substantial mailing lists, and then further forwarded. It was also posted on numerous websites and blogs and published in online magazines. Within days it had been read by thousands of people the world over. This is essentially what it said:

Evil Iran hangs my friend Zahra Bahrami

Dear Friends,

Early this morning the murderously barbaric Iranian regime hanged my friend Zahra Bahrami. Her crime? To be in the wrong place at the wrong time—even though the Islamic Republic of Iran (ugh!) would like for the world to believe otherwise. Zahra was 46 years old and a dual Dutch-Iranian national. Yet the Iranian government refused to recognize her Dutch citizenship and consistently denied Dutch consular officials in Tehran any access to her. And today they killed her.

Zahra, formerly a student of Indian classical music at the Rotterdam Conservatory and a professional belly dancer, had traveled to Iran more than a year ago to be with her daughter, who was undergoing chemotherapy. Foolishly perhaps, she (like thousands of others) participated in one of the Ashura demonstrations that were held on December 27th 2009 to protest the disputed presidential elections in June. Zahra, who had never belonged to any political organization (contrary to another false Iranian claim), was arrested and kept in solitary confinement until minutes before her death. During this time she was frequently beaten and tortured. And was once forced to make a public confession, which she later retracted.

A few months ago Zahra’s Iranian lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human-rights advocate, was herself imprisoned and eventually handed an 11-year jail sentence for “activities against national security.” While just the other day the Dutch foreign ministry appointed two attorneys from the Netherlands to ‘represent’ Zahra, a long overdue move that may well have sealed her fate. For Zahra was tried and sentenced not on the political charges (that trial was still pending) but for possessing, smuggling and selling narcotics. Drugs which had surely been planted (as though they would need to plant any: they could simply say she had them and that would be that). Zahra did not use drugs, at all, and in the West drank alcohol only moderately; and wouldn’t have dreamed of smuggling drugs to Iran, of all places. But by trying her for this, the Iranian regime hoped (successfully, it appears) to blindside European governments, and the Dutch in particular, as to their real motivations by insisting this was all part of a ‘war on drugs.’ Their foreign ministry issued a statement saying: “It is expected that Western countries will appreciate Iran’s efforts in combating drug trafficking and cooperate accordingly. Unfortunately, we are now witnessing their support for Zahra Bahrami and they have even called for her release. Countries pretending to be civilized defend cases related to crimes and drugs smuggling and turn them into human rights issues in order to put political pressure on Iran.”

I have lived in Iran. And twice worked there as a journalist. That was when the Shah was in charge. The same Shah who had a rather nasty secret police agency called SAVAK. (But hey, aren’t all secret police nasty, whatever they’re called? They damn well are!) Yet unless you were somehow engaged in trying to overthrow the Shah, SAVAK pretty much (okay, sort of…) left you alone. The miscreants running the show in Iran nowadays don’t leave anyone alone. They call themselves ‘men of God’ but they are evil through and through. Quite as the Ayatollah Khomeini was evil. They are also certifiably insane and they must go, be gotten rid of. As for how to accomplish that, I do not know. Except that it must come from within. As it came from within in Tunisia and is coming from within in Egypt. And hopefully will come from within in numerous other nations ruled by equally brutal and corrupt regimes. [NB This was of course written when the revolution in Egypt was still in its infancy and before other Middle East uprisings had begun.]

Capital punishment is abhorrent, period. And to say it is more abhorrent in Zahra’s case is missing the point. Zahra’s case is a tragedy because she never should have been arrested, shouldn’t have been imprisoned, ought not to have been tortured, and certainly not sentenced to death and hanged. But Zahra is not alone. Iran executes people day in and day out. As does China. As does the United States. And too many other countries. In the European Union it is banned. Even Russia abolished the death penalty. The rest must follow suit. Without any exceptions and in all circumstances. It is wrong. It would have been wrong for Hitler (how guilty can you get!), it was wrong for Eichmann (banality incarnate), and it sure as hell was wrong for Zahra Bahrami. Who also happened to be innocent. And thus becomes a kind of martyr. For Iran. For her people.

Oh yes, I have actually witnessed an execution. A public execution. By firing squad. In Thailand. It’s not a pretty sight.

To find out more about Zahra, you can google her name. Dozens and dozens of links will pop up. (On her Dutch passport the first name was spelt Sahra, which is what the BBC is using.) Her surname had been Mehrabi, until the Dutch government allowed her to change it. That when Zahra proved to their satisfaction that she was on an Iranian death list. Her brother was executed for having a photograph of the Shah in his possession! Her elder daughter committed suicide. She is survived by a younger daughter and a son in his twenties.

RIP Zahra Bahrami. What a terrible way to die. At the blood-stained hands of a horrible regime that is as close to pure evil as any regime can possibly get.

Thank you for reading this, EDDIE

Within days of my mailing going out and getting variously internet posted, both I and my friend Jane Harvey (an equally close friend of Zahra’s) were interviewed by Dutch radio and television, as well as for a long features article on Zahra in the national magazine HP/De Tijd. The lower house of the Dutch parliament held a three-hour debate on the matter, in order to determine if enough political and diplomatic effort had been exerted on Zahra’s behalf. After repeatedly asserting he’d done ‘everything possible,’ Foreign Minister Rosenthal reluctantly admitted that he had ‘learned lessons’ from the experience. Albeit learned them too late.

Shortly thereafter it was reported that Zahra had been secretly buried 250 miles from Tehran, and her family not notified in time to attend. Her daughter, Banafsheh, was then specifically forbidden by the secret service to hold any kind of memorial service for her mother. Plus there were persistent rumors that Zahra had not been hanged at all, but rather tortured to death, and it was for this reason that the authorities did not want her body to be seen. Nor were any of Zahra’s personal belongings, or even a copy of her will, ever given to Banafsheh.

In addition, much ado was latterly made, by both the Dutch press and the international media, when it later came to light that in 2003 Zahra had been convicted in Holland of trying to smuggle cocaine from the Netherlands Antilles to Amsterdam. I was aware of this incident. At her trial Zahra pleaded not guilty, maintaining that she had been set up (and describing in great detail how). The court determined otherwise; she was sentenced to three years (with one year suspended), and released after 10 months. Whether Zahra was guilty of this offense or not (I personally believe she wasn’t) has absolutely no bearing on what went down in Iran.

Zahra was arrested in Iran for her so-called political activities (participating in an anti-government demonstration), initially charged on that account and with ‘mohareb’ (enmity against God), and incarcerated throughout in Evin Prison’s Security Ward 209, which is reserved for political prisoners. It was not until a mere nine days prior to her execution that she was moved to the prison’s Methadone Ward, normally used for dangerous criminals and drug addicts. The Iranian authorities had done their homework. Upon learning of Zahra’s drugs conviction in Holland, they decided to further charge her with violating Iran’s narcotics laws, thereby guaranteeing a death sentence. They already knew she harbored anti-regime sentiments, and may or may not have known that she no longer considered herself a Muslim but instead a Hindu (and as such was also a practicing vegetarian).

Ultimately, however, this is about more than Zahra Bahrami. It is about despotism, human cruelty, and the sorry state much of the world is in. And which it behooves us all to remain acutely aware of, on many levels (including the personally spiritual). Directly affected or no, as human beings we are involved. What can happen somewhere can happen anywhere. And neither evil nor injustice are in any way respecters of race, gender, creed, or national boundaries.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
– John Donne

© 2011 by Eddie Woods

On Capital Punishment

Execution Poem

First published in Parisiana

Photo of Zahra Bahrami (2005) © by Eddie Woods