Overshadowed by Bin Laden
After the events of last Sunday, the day of 1st of May, 2011 will forever be known as the day the al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was killed by America. What is less known and will unlikely be recorded for posterity’s sake is that on that day another death was scheduled to take place—the execution of Sherko Moarefi, a Kurdish political activist by the Iranian government.
The day before Bin Laden’s death and Moarefi’s scheduled execution, I—as a Kurdish human rights activist— and many others had been trying to attract media attention to Moarefi’s cause and mobilize world-wide support for his release. Often this is the only way that an otherwise certain execution can be prevented. Any hope of widely publicizing Moarefi’s plight was soon eliminated when news of Bin Laden’s death hit the web the next day and news items about Moarefi, already few in numbers, were immediately squeezed out from the headlines.
I could not help but recognize the larger irony: by pushing Moarefi off the news pages, in life, and now in death, Bin Laden—a man who waged a ‘holy’ war in the name of Allah and took thousands of victims— had very likely claimed his last victim.
For it is on account of the kind of religious zeal that Bin Laden endorsed and promoted that Moarefi is on the chopping block to begin with. Moarefi—whose greatest crime was to be born as a Kurdish Sunni minority under an Iranian regime intolerant of religious and ethnic differences—has been sentenced to death for vague charges of moharebeh (literally “waging war against Allah”) for alleged ties to a Kurdish political opposition group.
The Iranian regime that allowed for the creation of the offense of moharebeh and the accordant punishment by death is a fundamentalist Shiite Islamic one. While there is no love lost between the Iranian proponents of this brand of Shiite Islam and the strict Sunni ideology of Bin Laden and his followers (indeed the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Bin Laden despise each other so intensely that they would “shoot each other’s shadow” according to a saying in the Persian language) they are nonetheless propelled to greater fundamentalist heights by the antagonism of the other, in the search of religious truths here on earth.
Like Bin Laden, Khamenei sees himself as the representative of Allah, albeit a Shiite one, on this planet and therefore believes that it is his duty to rid this world of those who oppose Allah. Bin Laden, who was resting in his fortified compound across the border from Iran in Abbottabad the night prior to Moarefi’s scheduled execution, also saw himself as the one who protects the realm of the prophet and Allah. Using a similar rationale as Khamenei, which is rooted in his perverse understanding of Islam, he waged a war against the far and near enemies of his God.
In executing their so called ‘holy’ wars, Khamenei and Bin Laden have been responsible for the death of thousands of innocent people since the 1979 when both figures came to the attention of the world. It is a fight of the cosmos, in which both sides must guard their interpretation of Islam as zealously as possible for fear of failing in their spiritual purpose here on earth to reach eventual paradise.
In practical terms, for Osama, as a non-state actor, this meant indiscriminately killing thousands of innocent people through suicide bombings and other horrific means. For Khamenei, as the head of a pariah state, this means a willingness to play fast and loose with internationally recognized standards of due process to secure a conviction at any cost. According to Moarefi’s lawyer there are fundamental legal errors in his case and he has been wrongly accused of moharebeh which carries the death penalty under article 186 and 190-191 of Iran’s Penal Code. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called his trial “unfair” and asked for his planned hanging to be stopped immediately.
Sadly, Moarefi’s case is not unique. The Iranian government has executed around 140 people this year alone and is planning to execute many more in the coming months. Out of those executed, ethnic Kurds are often specifically targeted by the Iranian government under the pretext of belonging to Kurdish separatist groups. Moarefi’s case is tragically similar to that of five activists including four ethnic Kurds who were executed on the 9th of May 2010 in Evin House of Detention in Tehran. The five were tried in hasty court procedures and sentenced to death for alleged terrorist activities without their families or their lawyers being informed of their executions on the 9th of May. The families of the five slain activists are still, a year later, waiting for the Iranian government to give them the bodies of their loved ones so that they can conduct a dignified burial.
Perversely, the American government’s killing of Bin Laden encourages the mullahs in Iran to become bolder in continuing with their arbitrary detention and summary executions of dissidents. By opting to kill Bin Laden in what appears to be an extrajudicial way, instead of capturing him and trying him in accordance with international legal norms—they give succor to fundamentalist regimes like that in Iran, who then claim double standards when western governments and human rights groups criticize Iran’s efforts to go after their own perceived enemies of the state, their own “Bin Ladens”—however ill-founded the assumption—like Moarefi.
In a turn of good fortune, the Iranian government decided to stay Moarefi’s execution, at least temporarily. However execution is imminent and can come on any given day. The fight to release Moarefi is not over yet. Unfortunately the shadow of Bin Laden, and the brand of religious fundamentalism he fed and fueled, will loom over our heads for many years to come.