Analysis: Falsehoods and Contradictions in the Rulings against the Afkari Brothers
Lawyer: The Ruling against Vahid Afkari had “24 Contradictions and 3 Lies”
Despite Inconsistencies and Torture, Supreme Court Refuses to Review 25-year Prison Sentence
Nearly a year after the unlawful execution of wrestling champion Navid Afkari, a request by his brother Vahid, who along with a third Afkari brother was prosecuted in connection with Navid’s alleged crime, for a judicial review of his 25-year prison sentence was turned down by Iran’s Supreme Court, despite evidence of an investigation marked by holes, inconsistencies and torture, the family’s lawyer Saeid Dehghan announced on August 23, 2021.
Vahid and his brother Habib Afkari have been held under inhumane conditions in solitary confinement in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz, Fars Province, for almost a year, charged in connection with the murder of a local official and participation in anti-state protests in the summer of 2018, despite credible evidence that they were tortured to force them to make false confessions.
Torture, unbearable prison conditions, and a hopeless judicial process led Vahid Afkari to attempt suicide on at least two occasions and yet the authorities have refused repeated requests by the family to transfer the brothers to a public ward.
There are many unanswered questions and inconsistencies in the prosecution of the Afkari brothers, according to sources with knowledge about the case who spoke to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, according to Saeid Dehghan, the lawyer representing the Afkari family, the ruling against Vahid Afkari alone had “24 contradictions and 3 lies” which should have prompted the Supreme Court to accept the request to review his sentence.
Dehghan tweeted on August 22, 2021: “… there were many legal reasons to dismiss the case if (the judges) had even read it once. The 25-year prison sentence was issued only on the basis of ‘the judge’s knowledge and in violation of Article 211 (of the Islamic Penal Code).”
Investigation Riddled with Holes and Inconsistencies
On August 28, 2020, it was reported that Navid Afkari, a 27-year-old wrestler with national titles, had been sentenced to death for the murder of a man working for the regional water department, and Navid’s brothers, Vahid and Habib, were slapped with long prison sentences in connection with the alleged crime. Saeid Arjmand Dashtaki is the fourth defendant in the case.
Shortly after, on September 5, 2020, the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and media outlets with ties to the security agencies and the judiciary, published a video to justify Navid’s death sentence. The film claimed to be a reconstruction of the murder along with “confessions” from the defendants.
The judiciary’s official news agency, Mizan, also made the claim on September 17, 2020, that Navid “had planned to assassinate a member of the Basij (militia) as well.” In addition, it accused Vahid Afkari of assaulting and injuring a policeman.
In addition to “initiating intentional murder” and “waging war against the state by forming an opposition group,” the three Afkari brothers collectively were charged with committing more than 20 crimes, including “participation in illegal gatherings,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” “insulting the supreme leader,” and “propaganda against the state.”
Based on the narrative provided by the authorities and accepted, unquestioned, by the courts, Navid committed murder by striking the victim and Vahid was an accomplice to the murder because he was the driver of the getaway motorcycle with Navid sitting in the back.
When they appeared in court, Navid and Vahid consistently rejected all accusations and insisted they had committed no crime.
The Afkari brothers had only joined rallies in the streets of Shiraz to protest against rising living costs. However, the authorities imposed their narrative on the case, assigning Navid as the killer for which he was given two death sentences: one for murder under qisas or retribution laws, and one for “waging war” against the state.
However, a review of the evidence points to the fact that the investigation was faulty and incomplete, and left many questions unanswered.
Conflicting Statements by Witnesses, Eyewitnesses and Evidence Ignored
According to what the authorities claim happened on August 2, 2018, the day of the crime, Hassan Torkman, an employee of the regional water department in Shiraz, was struck by a knife in front of the door to his house in the Shah Daeiallah neighborhood and later died in a hospital.
After initial investigations and review of security camera footage, Navid Afkari “confessed” and gave the following statement, “I chased the victim with my brother and while I was sitting in the back of the motorcycle, I killed him with a knife.”
The ambiguities in the case start there. Hassan Torkman’s father gave a statement to the authorities that he was told about the murder by a truck driver named “Ali,” who was at the scene at the time. However, there is no sign of “Ali” anywhere in the investigation, even though he was the only eyewitness.
Instead the authorities relied on statements from Moslem Rahimi, who owns a shop a mile and half away from the crime scene. Rahimi said he became suspicious of a man “looking like Navid Afkari below the nose.” He also failed to identify Navid’s brother, Vahid.
In addition, Rahimi told the authorities that he thought “the suspicious man was following Mohammad Hadi Ghaznavian, not Hassan Torkman.” This raises two questions: Who is Ghaznavian? What is his connection to Torkman’s death?
The Last Person with the Victim: Unanswered Questions
The case file states that Ghaznavian was the last person with the victim before the murder. His statements to investigators contain numerous contradictions. He stated that he had been with Torkman on assignment until 11:25 pm on the night of the crime. However, Torkman’s son and sister stated that he had returned home between 11:10 and 11:20 pm.
It is also unclear how Torkman got home. Ghaznavian stated that he drove Torkman to his address in his car but in the case file it is frequently mentioned that the vehicle was a motorcycle.
The morning after the crime, Ghaznavian went to the hospital where Torkman had died and told the authorities he had separated from Torkman an hour before the incident. Yet how did Ghaznavian know the time of the crime?
Ghaznavian also gave Torkman’s father the license plate number of a “suspicious” motorcyclist he had seen nearby. In his statement to the authorities, Torkman’s father wrote down the plate number which was registered to a certain Sajjad Karimi, a man who was absent from his job on the night of the incident.
How did Ghaznavian record and remember a motorcycle license plate number in the darkness of the night? Most importantly, why was Karimi, the owner of the motorcycle, never questioned by investigators?
In his statements, Ghaznavian also made references to security camera footage from a poultry store near the murder scene but there is no mention of it in the official investigation’s report. Where is this footage?
Evidence of Torture Ignored by Court
Audio recordings from Navid Afkari during detention and his trial leave no doubt that he and his brothers were subjected to sustained physical and psychological torture from the very beginning of their detention.
“Vahid has been under so much physical and psychological torture … to force him to implicate Navid,” said Behieh Namjoo, the mother of the Afkari brothers, in a video message on August 30, 2020.
To escape the intense pressure of falsely implicating his brother, Vahid tried to take his own life at least two times.
Despite evidence of torture against all three brothers, including a detailed report by Amnesty International, the authorities have refused to investigate or prosecute those responsible.
Marking Vahid and Habib’s 230 days in solitary confinement, their younger brother Saeed Afkari tweeted that the authorities were trying to keep them away from the public and harassing family and friends to prevent the real truth about the case from being revealed.
State Pressured Witnesses to Make False Statements
Iran’s state media played a crucial role in painting the Afkari brothers as violent criminals and paving the way for their prosecution. In IRIB’s so-called expose in September 2020, it was even claimed that Navid wanted to kill one of his own brothers, without any evidence to substantiate the claim. The intention seemed to be to portray the brothers as dangerous, even though they did not have a criminal record.
In rejecting the request, the judges presiding over Branch 39 of the Supreme Court wrote in part: “After reviewing the closed-circuit camera footage from the location, it is certain that the suspects were present and the viewing of the film by the friends of the wrestler, defendant number one (Navid Afkari), is proof of his presence at the location and also according to the viewing of the closed-circuit camera footage from the scene of the incident, the friends of the wrestler… identified Navid Afkari.”
The main issue with this ruling is that the film in question was recorded more than a mile from the murder scene. Other footage taken closer to the scene at a poultry shop, as mentioned by the victim’s colleague Mohammad Hadi Ghaznavian, has never been investigated or included as evidence.
In their ruling, the judges also referred to “the phone antenna location of the suspects in the area where the murder took place.” Yet their decision was based on where they assumed the Afkari brothers were at the time, even though police investigators made it clear in their report that “a technical review of the victim’s phone line at the time of the murder came up blank, as did the other phone lines.”
This demonstrates that instead of seeking advice from technical experts in order to assess the evidence and reach the truth, the judicial authorities resorted to a falsehood to condemn innocent individuals.
Another issue is the manner in which the victim was killed. The medical examiner’s office in Fars province stated in its report that Torkman’s cause of death were two knife stabs, one below his left ear and the other on his left arm. However, when the interrogators were forcing the suspects to write “confessions,” they said the victim had been stabbed in the shoulder area.
Saeid Arjmand Dashtaki is another key figure in the investigation. He has been identified as Navid Afkari’s friend whose statements to investigators became an important basis for the convictions. But after being questioned and released, he issued two notarized statements that he was forced to put the blame on the Afkari brothers.
In one statement Dashtaki said, “I am not aware of any criminal act having been committed by Navid Afkari and I stated this many times after I was detained by the authorities but with pressure and intimidation they forced me to write falsehoods that have no basis in truth.”
Ruling Based on the State’s Narrative and “Judge’s Knowledge”
In addition, Vahid Afkari was sentenced in part on the basis of the “judge’s knowledge” in accordance with Article 211 of the Islamic Penal Code, which states:
“Knowledge of the judge is defined as a certainty resulting from manifest evidence in a matter brought before him. In cases where a judgment is based on the knowledge of the judge [as the proof of the offense], he is obliged to stipulate in the judgment the manifest circumstantial and hearsay evidence that has been the source of his knowledge. Note: Means such as an expert opinion, examining the place, local inquiries, statements of people aware [of an issue], reports of law enforcement officers, and other circumstantial and hearsay evidence that typically results in knowledge [about a matter] can be referred to as sources of the knowledge of the judge. In any event, a mere perceptive knowledge that typically does not result in the knowledge of the judge cannot be regarded as a deciding factor in delivering a judgment.”
However, in this case, persons with knowledge about the crime did not make their statements in front of the judge, which was in violation of the law.