Iran’s dead poets society: The execution of Hashem Shabaani shows the pen can be mightier than the sword

For writing poetry, a pacifist, father and carer, was accused of ‘spreading corruption’ and executed


In Iran, there should be a Dead Poets Society. Or perhaps a Martyred Poets Society, with its newest member a certain Arab-Iranian from Ahwaz, in the far south-west of the country, on the Iraqi border.

He has been hanged for “spreading corruption on earth”, one of hundreds put to death by the Islamic revolution since 1979. Everything about Hashem Shabaani cries out in shame against his executioners: his pacifist poetry, his academic learning, his care for his sick father – a disabled soldier seriously wounded in the 1980-88 war against the Iraqi invaders of his country – and his love for his wife and only child. Already, of course, he has become a political corpse. His killers, the Iranian interior ministry and a revolutionary tribunal judge called Mohamed-Bagher Moussavi, must be the first culprits.

Then come the Iraqi opposition groups which have spent almost as much time smearing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for Shabaani’s death as they have mourning his loss. And then, of course, history comes clanking into third place as the executioner.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and interior ministry mandarins have been cut down by bombs in the Arab-majority province of Ahwaz for more than two years. Their revenge is absolute. Shabaani, needless to say, was accused of helping the “resistance”, presumably writing poetry in Arabic – and even translating Farsi poetry into the Arabic language – qualifies a writer as a subversive in Iran these days. In a letter from prison, Shabaani said that he could not remain silent against the “hideous crimes against Ahwazis perpetrated by the Iranian authorities, especially arbitrary and unjust executions… I have tried to defend the legitimate right that every people in this world should have – which is the right to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen.”

Perhaps that was Shabaani’s undoing. In Iran, the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword, especially when the nation’s security services are growing increasingly paranoid about the danger of separatism, not only in Ahwaz, but in Baluchistan, Iranian Kurdistan and among the country’s other minority communities.

Hashem Shabaani during in a television interview in 2011 Hashem Shabaani during in a television interview in 2011
Ironically, the Shah’s pseudo-secular regime, overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, had placed a veneer of nationalism over the Persian tribal and religious leaders inside the new and “modern” state of “Iran”.

And although Iranian scholars might object to this, Islam itself “secularised” the people of the Middle East by helping to smother traditional tribalism. This was of no help to 32-year-old Hashem Shabaani. He and a friend – two of 14 human rights activists sentenced to death by Moussavi last July after two years in custody – had been tortured in prison.

In December 2011, he appeared on Press TV, the grim international Iranian satellite channel, where he “confessed” to “separatist terrorism” and supporting Baathism. Even more preposterously, the television station claimed Shabaani had been in contact with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – though presumably before the overthrow of the first and the murder of the second.

Iranian opposition groups, while condemning Shabaani’s murder, have blamed President Hassan Rouhani, the new Iranian President – and the West’s new best friend in the Islamic Republic since he offered assurances that Iran did not plan to develop nuclear weapons – for the execution.

Rouhani paid a swift visit to Ahwaz last month when, according to opposition figures, he confirmed the death sentences originally passed under the presidency of his unbalanced predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Blaming the President for state hangings is a common enough practice in the politics of Iran. Some opponents of the regime claim dozens of artists, academics and writers were murdered under the regime of the extremely moderate Ayatollah Mohamed Khatami, even though Khatami was outraged by the deaths of these men, almost all of whom – far from being sentenced to death – were assassinated.

In reality, far more intellectuals met their deaths under Khatami’s presidential predecessor, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whose cadres were slaughtered in a massive bus bombing in the Arabi Khuzestan province, were not going to have qualms about the “legal” murder of Iranian Arab human rights activists.

Iran several times claimed that the British intelligence services were behind the attacks on government authorities in Khuzestan.

Shabaani himself should have been feted in his native Iran. Born in Ahwaz, he published poetry in both Persian and Arabic, got an MA in politics and led marches in protest at the arrest of students and the expulsion of professors.

The prominent Iranian writer and journalist, Amir Taheri, has written of Shabaani’s poetry – much of it non-political – and quoted from Shabaani’s verse within days of his judicial killing.

“For seven days they shouted at me:/You are waging war on Allah,” Shabaani wrote of his trial in a poem he called “Seven Reasons Why I should Die”.

“Saturday: because you are an Arab!/Sunday, well you are from Ahwaz … Tuesday: You mock the sacred revolution … Friday: You’re a man, isn’t that enough to die?”

Although held for months in the Ahwaz prison called Karoun – after the river about which Shabaani wrote lovingly – he was moved to an unknown destination before his hanging.

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