Lover loses appeal: Footballer's WAG Iranian style

This is no tale of shopping excess or wild drinking, but the saga of the mistress of one of Tehran's most famous players. She is facing execution for the murder of his wife. By Angus McDowall
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The Independent Online

A young woman in a black chador and dark lipstick answers brashly back at the judge, pouting, smirking and gesticulating as if she is dealing with a cheating taxi driver. The officials and photographers in court laugh at her boldness, but with a frisson of fear because Shahla, the former mistress of one of Iran's best known footballers, stands accused of murdering the man's wife and faces death by hanging.

It was the court case that transfixed a nation: the star centre forward, the mistress, the murdered wife and a seedy underworld of temporary marriage, drugs, jealousy and celebrity. Iran's tabloid press went wild, while the sober religious commentators of state television pronounced on the tragedy with sanctimonious brio.

Now Shahla - as Nasser Mohammed Khani's mistress and temporary wife is known - could face imminent execution after her appeal failed. And just as Amnesty International last week protested against the supreme court ruling that she must go to the scaffold, Iran's censors have banned a new documentary.

Shahla, whose full name is Khadijeh Jahed, stands convicted of the 2002 stabbing of Mr Khani's first and permanent wife Laleh Saharkhizan. The original 2004 trial captivated Iran with its cocktail of tearful confessions, spirited denials, anguished pledges of eternal love, admissions of betrayal and pleas for mercy. At the centre of it all stood Shahla, a sassy but tragic figure, one minute haranguing the judge, the next flirting with him and all the time playing to a riveted gallery. Documentary footage of her trial veers between the public vulgarity of The Jerry Springer Show and high opera of Carmen.

Mr Khani sat a few seats from Shahla with his murdered wife's mother, wearing a new and very pious beard. At times he buried his head in his hands, at others he stared impassively. He had chosen his role as a weak man but devoted husband of a wrongfully murdered woman. And as he followed his mother-in-law to the podium to request a sentence of death, Shahla smiled and sarcastically applauded.

"If you want to kill me go ahead," she told the judge, smiling innocently after a particularly bruising exchange. "It looks like you're sitting here with a sword as if we're in a duel. Excuse me for my boldness because I like you. I confess I really do." The judge stroked his chin with a bemused air of helplessness. She later told him: "In your sleep you don't want to see Shahla's wandering soul." The celebrity scandal sheets, sold by street children at traffic lights across Tehran, were entranced. Not quite pretty enough to be a cover girl, the case's notoriety, her lover's fame and Shahla's charisma propelled her to stardom. "Shahla: I am Laleh's murderer" screamed one headline. "Shahla: I'm no psycho" thundered another. "My mistress murdered my wife" was Mr Khani's plea.

But even in court, most of Shahla's comments seemed directed at her former lover, rather than the judge. "I'd get up in the middle of the night and miss Nasser," she said, explaining why she recorded thousands of calls, many as late as 2am to Mr Khani's marital home. "Even if he went to the toilet I missed him."

Mr Khani was initially suspected of complicity and held for several months. Eventually he was convicted only of smoking opium, which Shahla had bought for him, recording the purchases in her diary as "bags of rice". For this he received the lash.

Their affair began in 1998, with Shahla a besotted fan and Mr Khani the veteran star. The striker had risen to fame in the mid 1980s, wowing crowds with his lethal left foot while Iranian troops were locked in bitter conflict with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He played for the national side as well as Iran's biggest team, Persepolis Tehran, which he later coached. "He was Mr Goal," said Shahla when she described how she fell in love. "He wasn't very good looking, but he was attractive somehow."

He soon set her up in a secret love nest and they unofficially contracted a sigheh - a temporary marriage. Under Shia law, this allows a marriage with a time limit, sometimes as short as an hour or two. Critics, particularly Sunni Muslims, condemn the institution as legalised prostitution. In fact, sigheh was set up as a safety valve recognising human weakness within the confines of a strict religious society and making provision for children born out of marriage.

Home videos from the four-year affair were used extensively alongside trial footage in Red Card, the banned documentary about the case made by Mahnaz Afzali. After Persepolis won the league in 2002, a beaming Mr Khani is welcomed into their expensive apartment by Shahla. "What does it feel like to be a champion?" she asks him. "I'm so happy dear," he replies. And Shahla answers: "I prayed for you - let me see you my love, my darling."

There is a dangerous edge to her passion, with furtive looks directed from the dock, which Mr Khani tried to ignore. Instead of giving her final defence, she chose to read a poem to the footballer, a few lines of sentimental doggerel about love, prison and death. Ms Afzali, who interviewed Shahla for her film and still speaks with her regularly from Evin prison, said she was obsessed with him. "It is the cliché of a poor girl who falls in love with a celebrity," she said.

For his part, Mr Khani seemed content to play the role of the spoilt celebrity, lapping up attention, boasting about ostentatious purchases and sloughing off responsibility for the disaster that followed. He seems resentful that the public think badly of him. "During a whole year I never got a yellow or a red card," he tells Ms Afzali in an interview. "Be in my place, be Nasser Mohammed Khani and then judge me."

His posthumous idolisation of his wife stands in bitter contrast to his treatment of her in life. "You cannot compare my wife to Shahla," he says. "She loved me with all her heart, but Shahla's love was just lust." He later says they had a "telepathic understanding" but in a tape recording, the dead woman complains about how little she sees of him.

The details of the murder are very sketchy, and Shahla was convicted on her own confession, which she later tried to retract. A police video shows her reconstructing the crime, explaining where Laleh lay reading a newspaper in bed, and using a wooden spoon to demonstrate how she stabbed her. She said she was not tortured, but was put under pressure to confess. "Even roosters lay eggs under police interrogation," she said. But she refused to explain how she told police where to find a blood stain that had previously eluded them. After the trial another judge said he believed there were genuine doubts over the conviction, with new evidence pointing to a sexual assault. But he said this was not enough to override a confession.

When the reconstruction and confession were shown in court, the victim's mother Sakineh Saharkhizan collapsed in hysterics. "Oh God, God damn you!" she screamed, rocking back and forth. "May God's rage fall upon you. She killed my girl." On the screen Shahla was crying and saying: "Forgive me, forgive me. I brought water and washed her hands. She kept asking me for mercy." On the final day of the trial, Shahla told another story. She said she had been lured to the house late at night and climbed the stairs to the bedroom. She saw Laleh's clothes lying scattered everywhere and then she saw the body. "I went there and saw the corpse," she said, wailing with emotion and addressing herself to Mr Khani. "I put a cover on it, I felt sick. My hands got bloody. I didn't kill her, I swear I didn't. What was my sin in loving you?"

Protection from harsh penalties or legalised prostitution?

The tradition of temporary marriage, or sigheh as it is known in Iran, dates back to the beginnings of Islam and essentially allows followers to engage in sexual relations outside of full marriage whilst ensuring any offspring are legally and financially provided for.

The majority Sunni strand of Islam outlawed the practice soon after Mohamed's death but the Shia community, whose clergy are allowed to interpret the words of the Prophet, unlike their Sunni counterparts, have continued to use sigheh.

In Iran a sigheh can last anything from a few minutes to 99 years but must be witnessed and signed by a member of the ulema (clergy).

Critics of the tradition, particularly in the West, tend to see temporary marriage as little more than legalised prostitution but supporters argue sigheh provides a safe way for lovers to carry out sexual relations without breaking Islamic law.

Although temporary marriage is far from common practice in Iran, young people under 25, who now make up 65 per cent of the population, are increasingly finding sigheh to be a useful way of avoiding the harsh punishments for sex outside of marriage which can result in arrest, fines and even flogging.

Jerome Taylor

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