Iranian child bride faces execution after 'unfair trial'

Married at 15, arrested at 17, child bride Zeineb Sekaanvand was tortured by the police for 20 days to coerce a confession.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Iranian-Kurdish woman Zeinab Sekaanvand was convicted of killing her abusive husband.

As human rights organisations fight to save her life, 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Zeinab Sekaanvand may have already headed to the gallows on Thursday.

She is scheduled to be executed any time after October 13.

Sekaanvand is accused of stabbing her husband to death when she was 17 years old. But human rights groups say she was the victim of an unfair trial, and only a minor at the time of the killing.

She is from a small village in northern Iran, and at 15 years of age she ran away from home for love. Just a child, she married 19-year-old Hossein Sarmadi in hopes of a better life. But Sarmadi regularly beat his teenage wife and emotionally battered her, according to Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch.

Human rights groups say she asked for a divorce several times and filed complaints with the police, but police did not investigate the allegations. Her husband rejected her requests for a divorce, and when she tried to return home, her parents disowned her.

"Because she came from a very poor and conservative family, Zeinab was using her marriage as a way to escape from her reality," says Mansoureh Mills, the Iran campaigner at Amnesty International.

"She was relying on adults to protect her and unfortunately no adults were able to do that. Not the authorities and not her family."

In February 2012, Sarmadi was found stabbed to death. Police quickly arrested Sekaanvand. She says she was taken to a police station in Iran's West Azerbaijan province, held there for 20 days and repeatedly tortured and beaten by male police officers. She allegedly confessed to killing her husband.

"She tried the police; they wouldn't help. She tried her family, and they wouldn't take her back. And she is just a teenager so she had nowhere to turn and so she was forced back to this allegedly abusive marriage until the day her husband was killed," Mills says.

Amnesty International says at her final trial she told the judge she did not murder her husband and was coerced into a confession. She also told the judge her brother-in-law, who she said had repeatedly raped her, had committed the murder.

But on October of 2014, a criminal judge sentenced her to death by hanging, which was described by London-based Amnesty International as a "grossly unfair trial."

"This is an extremely disturbing case," said Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

Not only was Zeinab Sekaanvand under 18 years of age at the time of the crime, she was also denied access to a lawyer and says she was tortured after her arrest by male police officers through beatings all over her body.

While in prison, Sekaanvand married another inmate and became pregnant. Iranian officials informed her that the execution would be delayed until she delivered. But tragically she gave birth to a stillborn baby. Doctors said the baby died in her womb a couple of days before she gave birth due to the shock she suffered after her cellmate was executed. She is now back in Oroumieh Central Prison where she could be executed any given time.

"This case is emblematic of the wider rights violation against juvenile offenders in Iran," Mills says. "This is a shocking and disturbing case in the sense that she hasn't been protected during her short life by authorities at any point."

Iranian law allows boys aged 15 and girls young as 9 to be tried as adults. Although a revised law was passed in 2013 giving judges the authority to spare children of capital punishment if they do not seem to understand the seriousness of the crime for which they are accused, Amnesty reports that at least 74 juvenile executions took place in Iran between 2005 and 2016.

Nearly 160 prisoners are on death row in Iran for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18, according to the United Nations. 

Iran is said to have 49 children among its death row prisoners.

"We are hopeful that with enough international pressure that we can stop her execution, but we need the support of everyone involved to raise awareness about Zeinab's case," Mills says.

Last year, a similar case drew condemnation from rights groups, when Iran executed Fatemeh Salbehi, who had suffocated her husband after drugging him when she was only 17. Like Sekaanvand, Salbehi said her husband had abused her.

TRTWorld and agencies