So said Reyhaneh Jabbari in her final message before she was hanged in Iran for killing a man whom she accused of attempting to rape her.
One woman’s letters from death row in Iran.
n early 2007, Reyhaneh Jabbari had dreams. “Once upon a time,” she wrote in one of the letters she penned while on death row at Shahr-e Ray prison outside Tehran, Iran, “I was living free from pain and suffering in a home built with love and compassion.” But all that changed when Jabbari was 19 and in her third semester at university, where she was studying computer software.
She tells her story through the letters. One day, while at an ice cream store, an older man, Morteza Sarbandi, overheard her talking on the phone about her part-time work as an interior designer. He approached her, introducing himself as a doctor, and explained that he wanted his office redecorated. Several weeks later, on July 7, 2007, Sarbandi and a male friend picked Jabbari up to visit his office, but the friend exited the car before they arrived.
When she got to the space, she was shocked. “It was not an office,” she wrote. “This was a rundown residential flat filled with dirt and dust.” As Jabbari nervously began to sketch and take notes, she said, Sarbandi locked the door, covered the sofa with a bedsheet and then showed her a condom and asked if she knew what it was for. “I knew. Fear seized my soul. I stood up. I seemed smaller and weaker sitting down. He came forward,” she wrote.
Then she saw a knife and grabbed it. “It was too small to even scare him. He was laughing,” she wrote. As they struggled, she continued, “I raised my hand and with all my hopes and dreams in my mind I stabbed him.” She said he sat on the floor and pulled the knife out of his back while she searched for the key to get out of the apartment. Then he came at her once more “and punched with his bloodied hand. I ran towards the door and tried opening it by stabbing the door.... Then I heard the sound of [a] key turning in the door.” Sarbandi’s friend entered the room and she ran out. Sarbandi later died in the hospital.
Jabbari was convicted of murder; she was sentenced to death in 2009 and hanged on October 25, 2014. She was 26. During the seven years she spent in prison, she said that her only salvation was writing long letters to her mother with whatever she could find: She picked pieces of scrap paper out of the garbage and sometimes even wrote with a pen that other prisoners used to tattoo themselves. Iranian prisoners are allowed to write letters, but writing about the judicial system and prison conditions is illegal, according to Mohammad Mostafaei, who is one of Iran’s most successful criminal-defence lawyers and who represented Jabbari. Some of her letters were taken by guards and likely destroyed, but more than 40,000 of her words survived after she gave them to fellow prisoners who were about to be released.
I came by some of these letters via Mostafaei, who’d had them translated from Farsi into English by various people in Iran who cannot be named for their protection. Some were posted on Facebook to raise awareness about her case. Mostafaei has been instrumental in launching international campaigns to reverse the sentences of some of the country’s highest-profile human-rights cases, including children facing the death penalty and Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman who, in 2006, was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. Last March, Ashtiani received a pardon, and she has since been released from prison.
“When Reyhaneh left Sarbandi after the attack, he was alive,” says Mostafaei, who was forced into exile in 2010 due to his human-rights work and defence of Ashtiani. While running the Universal Tolerance Organization, a non-profit group based in Norway, he continued to help on Jabbari’s case as an adviser. “There is no way the wounds she inflicted could have resulted in his death,” he further explains. “The third person who came into the room... no one ever looked into that because of connections to people high up in the Iranian intelligence. [Sarbandi was a former employee of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.] Then there is the issue of self-defence. Reyhaneh had no intention of killing another person. She stabbed him with a knife to protect herself.”
Under Iranian law, Sarbandi’s family could have granted Jabbari clemency from the death penalty, but they wouldn’t—allegedly, one of the family’s conditions was that she retract her claims of attempted rape against Sarbandi. She refused.