Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh was a 16-year-old schoolgirl from the town of Neka, Iran who was executed in August 2004, a week after being sentenced to death by Haji Rezai, head of Neka's clerical court on charges of adultery and "crimes against chastity".
Rezai, who served as the prosecutor and judge in the case carried out the execution of the teenager himself by placing the noose round Atefeh's neck before she was hoisted on a crane to her death telling her “This will teach you to disobey!”
The execution is controversial because as a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran promised not to execute anyone under the age of 18. Atefah's father had passed her birth certificate to the civil authorities, lawyers involved, journalists and Judge Rezai himself but according to a witness
"The judge just looked at her body, because of the developed physique...and declared her as 22." Pursuant to continual complaints filed by Atefeh's family about her execution and the way the judge mishandled the case, the Supreme Court of Iran issued an order to free Atefeh, only to be three weeks too late.
Atefeh's mother died in a car accident when she was five. Her father became a drug addict and she was forced to care for her octogenarian grandparents. Despite her attending to their needs they are reported to have completely ignored her. She grew up in the town of Neka, Iran and was described as a "lively and intelligent girl", who everyone knew, and was often seen wandering free on streets. She was called "gypsy of Neka" by the locals, as she was not restrained in her behaviour, having no parental guidance.
She was arrested three times by the Moral Police and convicted for having sex with unmarried men. On each occasion she was jailed and given 100 lashes. The punishment for sex with married men is far more severe.
Fourth and final arrest
On the day she was due to attend a wedding, the Moral Police arrested her as she was preparing dinner for her grandparents. As she had not committed an offense, a petition was presented declaring her a "bad influence". It was not signed.
She was convicted for ‘crimes against chastity’, based on her admission, obtained through torture, that she had repeatedly had sex with a 51-year-old ex-revolutionary guard turned taxi-driver Ali Darabi, a married man with children, who raped her several times. She kept the relationship, which lasted over three years, a secret from both her family and the authorities. In the court the judge was Haji Rezai. As Atefah realised she was losing her case, she removed her hijab, an act seen as a severe contempt of the court, and argued that Ali Darabi should be punished, not her. She even removed her shoes and hit the judge with them. The judge later sentenced her to death.
Atefeh appealed her conviction. Her family could still not afford a lawyer, and none was provided, in contravention of Iranian law. Although such appeals are usually not resolved within a year, her death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. Haji Rezai, the religious judge, was reportedly so incensed with Atefeh’s "sharp tongue" during the trial that he travelled to Tehran personally to convince the mullahs of the Supreme Court to uphold the death sentence. According to the BBC, the documents presented to the Supreme Court of Appeal described her as a 22-year-old, but her birth certificate and death certificate stated that she was 16. The issue of her age was not brought to proper attention before it was too late. Amnesty International and a number of other organisations have reported that she suffered from psychological illness, both before and at the trial.
She was publicly hanged from a crane in Neka, Iran, on August 15, 2004. The judge in her case, Haji Rezai, also acted as executioner and applied the noose himself. She was left hanging for 45 minutes. He later boasted that she had been "taught a lesson" for her "sharp tongue". Her father was not notified of her execution. The next day her body was stolen from her grave. It has never been recovered.
After the execution of Atefeh, Iranian media reported that Judge Rezai and several militia members including Captain Zabihi and Captain Molai were arrested by the Intelligence Ministry. Inside sources informed the media that in addition to the confession of his rape of Atefeh, Judge Rezai who served as judge, jury and executioner, also confessed to torturing her during interrogations to extract names of others she had relations with. He also confessed that to covering up what he and the militia members had done to Atefeh, by speeding up the verdict of execution. Judge Rezai insisted that the verdict and the execution were fully in compliance with the laws of Islam, permitted and sanctioned by the religious authorities.
Amnesty International and many other human rights organizations from the international community declared her killing to be a crime against humanity and against children of the world.
On November 26 2005, I travelled to Iran to research and film undercover the documentary Execution of a Teenage Girl. The programme tells the story of Atefah Sahaaleh, 16, from northern Iran, hanged in public in August 2004 for having had sex outside marriage, a so-called "crime against chastity".
A number of Iranian journalists and lawyers had strong evidence that the judiciary had broken Iran's own law in executing Atefah. But because of the censorship of the Iranian press, it was extremely difficult for them to get the truth to a wider audience.
My executive producer, Paul Hamann, who is also the chairman of anti-death penalty charity Reprieve, was passionate about the project.
But if we asked the Iranian authorities openly for a visa to investigate such a story, we would have been laughed out of the embassy.
After very careful consideration, we decided we should travel to Iran undercover, posing as tourists.
I'd filmed in Iran this way once before, in 2003, but it's a horrible way of working. From the moment you arrive in the country, you are breaking the law.