Vahid Muharrami stumbled upon the plans for his own execution while working on the prison’s computer system.
As an inmate in north-west Iran, he was tapped by prison officials to help with computer work at the facility because of his technical expertise. In August 2020, for example, he came across the documents that said he had at most two days to live.
“When I saw the special paperwork in the system, I realized I was only 24 or 48 hours at most from the gallows,” said Muharrami, 37, charged with involvement in a 2014 brawl in which a man was killed was sentenced to death.
He had already seen 130 other convicts sent to their deaths in his prison in the city of Ardebil over the previous six and a half years. Muharrami asked permission to call his mother to dictate his last will and testament over the phone – and to prepare her to see his broken, lifeless body in the prison yard so they wouldn’t have passed out like many other mothers of executed men would have .
But before the sentence could be carried out, Muharrami was suddenly spared the hangman’s rope. His savior was neither a judge nor a lawyer. It was one of Iran’s biggest pop stars, Mohsen Chavoshi.
The singer-songwriter intervened at the last minute to help secure the “blood money” that the Iranian judicial system will allow a murder victim’s family to pay in lieu of execution, if the family agrees. Chavoshi has made it a personal campaign to save as many death row inmates as possible through such means, in an attempt to reduce the number of executions in a country that kills more people than almost any other.
Muharrami and his family were given a little more time to round up the payment, which they eventually achieved with a sizeable donation from Chavoshi.
“Every moment of every day I thought of my lonely mother and brother who would not survive the immense heartache after my execution,” Muharrami recalled of his ordeal on death row.
Iran executed 280 people last year, according to a report released in March by the United Nations special rapporteur on the country. That’s an increase of nearly 14% from Amnesty International’s 2020 figure of 246, which accounted for more than half of all known executions worldwide that year. (China is believed to execute thousands of people annually, but guards such information as a state secret.)
Under the theocratic regime in Tehran and its conservative interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, the death penalty is ruthless on those convicted of murder or manslaughter. However, some convicts have been saved through the practice of blood money given to their victims’ families as compensation out of compassion, poverty, pressure, or some other motivation.
Chavoshi, 42, managed to save more than 50 people from the gallows. His success has come from mobilizing his legions of loyal fans – he has 4.3 million Instagram followers – to respond to his regular appeals for funds to help other Iranians in dire circumstances, whether they be death row inmates desperate for their sentences commuted or poor patients in need of emergency surgery.
His popularity and activism have fed each other in a nation where, despite the harsh rhetoric of their leadership, social discontent simmers beneath the surface, including opposition to the liberal use of the death penalty.
Bahman Babazadeh, a prominent music blogger and close collaborator of Chavoshi, said the singer deserves the respect of millions of Iranians because he “addresses sensitive social phenomena that few artists or even politicians have touched”.
Chavoshi, who declined to be interviewed, has spoken out on issues including Iran’s water crisis and human trafficking. In his song “Dubai,” he raised the alarm about the growing number of Iranian women being trafficked into prostitution in the Persian Gulf countries.
“He was recognized and trusted by Iranians as an outspoken critic of many social ills and problems that have been exacerbated during the country’s long years of isolation,” Babazadeh said.
Chavoshi not only managed to save inmates from paying the highest price, but also helped reduce the sentences of 320 people convicted of minor crimes, such as felonies. B. bad checks or non-repayment of loans.
His musical career began in 2003 when he was 24 years old. He has since become one of Iran’s best-selling artists, releasing 11 albums and more than 200 songs, many of which address social issues rather than just the usual pop themes of love and heartbreak and everyday life.
He began getting seriously involved in charitable causes in 2009, including helping save people on death row. Babazadeh said the singer, who grew up in the war-torn town of Khorramshahr on the Iran-Iraq border, found the experience satisfying.
“I remember Mohsen was really touched and felt so good when the first four or five convicts were saved from execution,” Babazadeh said. “This special feeling has steadily increased since then.”
Chavoshi isn’t the only Iranian celebrity coming to the rescue of those sentenced to death. Soccer star Ali Daei has also supported death row inmates out of his own pocket and recently saved a woman from a last-minute execution by relentlessly appealing and paying blood money to the families of the businessman she had killed during a confrontation.
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The hashtag #No_to_Execution pops up again and again on Persian Twitter. Two years ago, a social media campaign against executions drew widespread support after an Iranian court upheld the death sentences imposed on three young men who had joined anti-government protests.
Chavoshi was rebuffed by some conservatives for his efforts. Commenting on one of his social media appeals, one critic wrote, “Did Chavoshi help release 52 convicts or 52 murderers?” He was also criticized for not seeking pardons for political dissidents sentenced to death.
And the abolition of the death penalty is not likely any time soon, despite some modest legislative reforms initiated by Iran’s generally uncompromising President Ebrahim Raisi when he was chief of the judiciary. Most of the country’s political and religious leaders, as well as a significant section of society, regard the death penalty as just retribution for serious crimes.
According to the Iranian human rights organization HRANA, the number of executions in Iran has increased in the past year. Experts note that the country’s dire living conditions and economic decline, accelerated by heavy US sanctions, has been accompanied by an increase in homicides – killings in brawls, armed robberies and riots.
All of these are crimes punishable by death, as are rape, kidnapping and drug trafficking. Most death sentences in Iran are imposed on drug dealers and smugglers.
“Security issues and drug trafficking are two major issues that make abolition of the death penalty a distant sight on the horizon,” said Fazel Hoomani, a legal expert in Tehran. “Not to mention the growing insecurity and murder cases caused by the economic downturn.”
As in the US, where the death penalty has disproportionately hit poor defendants and people of color, convicts from marginalized communities in Iran may be at greater risk, especially in a justice system where money can literally buy life.
After killing another teenager in a fight at the age of 16, Seyed Mostafa spent nine years behind bars and faced his own life being cut short by hanging when Chavoshi stepped in with the means needed to gratify the Victim’s family were required. Mostafa, a refugee from Afghanistan, could not have cobbled together the money on his own.
Altruism like Chavoshi’s impresses 29-year-old Mahbod Jalali.
“He’s one in a million,” said Jalali, a chemical engineer and part-time English teacher. “I’m a huge fan of his music and personality. I wish other celebrities would follow in his footsteps because our society needs that kind of personality.”
For Muharrami, the man who stumbled upon his own execution papers, life as an ex-convict wasn’t easy, but he knows he’s lucky to have a life at all.
It was redeemed for 1.5 billion Iranian riyals, which was worth about $60,000 at the time. Chavoshi provided a quarter of that amount, with the rest coming from Muharrami’s family and other donors.
Muharrami was released from prison in March last year. He was busy getting back on his feet, looking for investors for his patented bodybuilding device and looking for ways to support his family, who spent almost every penny they had to save him from the gallows.
He dreams of meeting the man who finally did just that and knows exactly what he would say.
“Mr. Chavoshi, you not only saved me,” Muharrami said. “You also saved my mother and my younger brother. I will prove that I was worth it.”
Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and permanent author Chu from London.