Ahmad Nourzehi is on death row in an Iranian jail. He was 12 when he was sentenced to death for carrying and supplying heroin.
Soghra Najafpour spent 17 years on death row, having been convicted at 13 of murdering an eight-year-old boy – the son of the family who she had been working for as a maid since she was nine. Najafpour denied the charges, but was only released from prison a year ago after her family managed to raise $66,000 US to compensate the boy’s family for its loss. Five days after her release, she was ordered to return to jail and face execution. She disappeared and human rights activists are concerned for her safety.
These are only two of the 139 juvenile offenders scheduled for public execution in Iran. These are the children for whom Nazanin Afshin-Jam weeps, loses sleep over and has gone into debt as she tries to save them from stonings, hangings or being dropped from a crane often after coerced confessions, inconclusive or rigged trials or no trial at all. (In Iran, there’s something called the ‘divine knowledge of judges,’ which allows them to rule on a case without ever hearing the facts and arguments.)
Afshin-Jam is haunted by her conviction that there are many others, and the fact that last year Iran executed 17 juvenile offenders.
Afshin-Jam is their public face, defender and advocate. It’s a role she’s prepared for almost since the day her family moved to North Vancouver from Iran in the early days of the Islamic revolution.
Earlier this month, it appeared that the Iranian government might have buckled under the pressure from her and her organization, Stop Child Executions. As she and supporters of Stop Child Executions rallied noisily outside the United Nations building in New York City, inside Iran’s deputy state prosecutor announced a ban on children executions.
Afshin-Jam was pleased, but wary. Her cynicism was justified three days later when Hossein Zebhi “clarified” his statement. The ban on executions was only for children convicted as drug traffickers.
Afshin-Jam remains unconvinced that Iran will even honour that promise.
“The reason I’m so cynical is that we’ve seen cases where the government said they were going to put a moratorium on stoning but then we’ve seen they’ve continued to stone people to death,” she says.
Iran “bastardizes” the law, she says, executing juvenile offenders after they’ve turned 18. Or, it justifies the executions saying that the penal code is based on Islamic or sharia law, which says a girl is an adult at age nine and a boy at age 15 and, therefore, they are criminally responsible.
“Some days it feels like one step forward and other days it’s two steps back,” Afshin-Jam says with a sigh. “We never know.”
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Council of Guardians – all fundamentalist Islamic clerics – have veto power over everything including laws passed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and parliament.
“I know talking to people in Iran that they want an end to barbaric practices like child executions and stoning and chopping people’s hands off for stealing or throwing people from a height as a form of punishment,” says Afshin-Jam. “But people can’t change anything. Their hands are tied … and they’re afraid.”
Afshin-Jam was only a year old in 1979 when Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah. Her father, the manager of the Sheraton hotel in Tehran, was jailed and beaten for serving alcohol and playing music there. When he was freed, he fled to Spain. A few months later, his wife and two daughters met him there, leaving everything they had behind and together, they immigrated to Canada, settling in North Vancouver.
Afshin-Jam first saw the scars on her father’s back when she was eight. Soon after that, she determined that her life’s work would be to improve human rights.
She learned to speak four languages. She joined the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and got a pilot’s licence. She worked as a global youth advocate for the Red Cross and completed a bachelor’s degree in international relations and political science at the University of B.C., which she paid for by modelling and acting.
The success of Bono and others convinced her that celebrities – more than well-intentioned activists – galvanize people into action in the 21st century. So, in 2005 – drawn by the Miss World contest’s slogan of “Beauty with a purpose” – Afshin-Jam signed up. She won the Miss Canada pageant and finished second in the global contest, which is how she serendipitously found her cause.
A French human rights activist contacted her, asking her to help focus world attention on another Nazanin – Nazanin Fatehi, an Iranian girl sentenced to be stoned to death for murdering one of three men who tried to rape her.
The global protest that Afshin-Jam led resulted in Fatehi’s sentence being commuted. But Afshin-Jam says emphatically, “Our aim at Stop Child Executions is not to keep saving one life here and one life there, it’s trying to put a permanent end to it.”
Her relentless pursuit of trying to bring attention to child execution is the reason that last year, she recorded an album and music video.
Its Internet release made her an underground pop star in Iran. But it had little impact elsewhere and didn’t gain the kind of profile and money she’d hoped for to further her advocacy work.
Her unusual path to activism does have a downside. Afshin-Jam is weary of people simply assuming she’s just another air-head wishing for world peace.
“I always go back to what are the blessings God has given me and how can I best use them. Beauty is a blessing and it shouldn’t be something that’s looked down on… (But) I always have to prove myself because (my body) is just a shell. It’s not who I am.”
So who is she? She’s unpretentious, yet driven. Her activism is more than full time – albeit it unpaid – work that is mainly financed by friends, family and residuals from modelling and acting contracts.
She’s the target of death threats.
The first came from Islamic fundamentalists offended by her competing in a beauty contest even though she is Christian, not Muslim. Now, they’re angry about her advocacy work. It makes her cautious among strangers and it means sometimes hiring body guards, as she did for the recent rally in New York.
She’s a fierce Canadian, concerned that the Conservative government is wrong to propose trying 14-year-olds as adults for serious crimes; and, wrong not to insist that Omar Khadr, a Canadian-born child soldier in Afghanistan, be sent home from detention in Guantanamo Bay.
But she is also proud of her Iranian heritage. After all, she says, it was Iran’s founder, Cyrus the Great, who wrote the first known national charter of rights in 539 BC. Vancouver Sun