Gohar Eshghi: a Mother in Search of Truth

Abstract

Gohar Eshghi is the mother of Sattar Beheshti. Sattar was a worker and blogger arrested for his online writing; in detention, he was killed under torture. The tragedy opened a new chapter in Gohar’s life. As a mother whose only hope and dream had been her child, she dedicated all her time to avenging her son’s death. Gohar, an elderly woman without formal education, took Sattar’s picture in her hand and set out on a path to defend her own rights and uncover the truth. Engaging various media both inside and outside the country, she has decried the injustice done to her son. Along the way, she has reached out to other mothers whose children were killed for their political activities, offering them empathy and solidarity. Her tiny house has hosted activists and dissidents who visit to express their sympathy. Iran’s legal system has, across a number of suits, determined Sattar’s death not to be willful homicide, and sentenced his interrogator to only three years for neglect – this at a time when journalists, students, human rights activists, and even an astrologer have received terms in excess of ten years for peaceful, civil activities. 

Background

Some people’s stories start early in life; others are late bloomers. Gohar Eshghi’s tale begins very late indeed: the day news of Sattar’s killing reached her. Sattar had been detained just a week earlier and had not yet returned home. The conclusion of Sattar’s story would soon become the introduction to Gohar’s. Combining motherly love with a demand for justice and a crusade against tyranny, her resistance would make her name famous throughout Iran.

Gohar Eshghhi was born in 1946 in the city of Nishapur. Those who know Gohar say she never learned to read or write. Years ago a man by the name of Sardar Beheshti became her second husband; they are now separated. Their union produced four children: Ali As’ar, Sattar, Rahim, and Sahar, Sattar being the second child. Like most women of her generation, Gohar spent most of her life as a homemaker, though difficult economic circumstances compelled her to domestic work in the homes of others (in one instance, she was employed by an undertaker.)[1] Perhaps it was precisely such hard times that taught Gohar to nurture a boy as free-spirited as Sattar and equipped her, despite her illiteracy and old age, to resist in her own life, becoming a symbol of the struggle against injustice. 

Sattar Beheshti’s Story Comes to an End

Sattar Beheshti was born in 1977.[2] He was employed as a construction worker. [3] Sattar also maintained a blog in which he occasionally expressed his political and social grievances in his own plain language.[4] He wrote under the name “Sattar the Free,” with the following words at the head of his page: “Lively and tireless criticism of Iran and Iranians. My heart is true to Iran. This blog deals with political and social maters and critiques; I criticize every group and faction with an open heart and mind. Thank you.”[5] 

A brief perusal of these blog posts demonstrates Sattar’s quick tongue and contempt for tyranny. Sattar was not especially well-educated, and his writing sometimes bears spelling errors; nonetheless he spoke the words of his heart plainly and dauntlessly.

On October 29, 2012, Sattar logged his final post, writing that he had been threatened: “Yesterday they warned me: tell your mother to get her mourning clothes ready since you won’t shut your fat mouth. I said: I’ve not done anything I’d need to shut it for. They said: we do whatever we want, so shut up and don’t go publicizing this. If not we’ll shut you up without a trace!”[6] One day later the threat was made good, and Sattar was detained by the cyber police. [7] The detention would be accompanied by relentless interrogation and torture,[8] eventually resulting in Sattar’s death. 

Gohar’s Story Begins

Gohar’s tale starts the morning of November 6, 2012, the moment security police informer told her son-in-law that the 35-year-old Sattar had lost his life in prison and that the family would need to come claim his lifeless body. Gohar’s sister would later tell Kaleme: “They requested my husband and told him: go ready your mother. Buy a grave. Come by tomorrow and make arrangements for the funeral. That’s all. I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t know why they killed him. I didn’t know what happened. My brother left the house hale and hearty, on his own two feet. Everyone saw he was in fine health. He didn’t even take headache medicine. He was the picture of health.”[9] Sometime after, 41 fellow political prisoners published a letter testifying that they had seen Sattar one night beside them in block 350 of Evin Prison bearing signs of torture: “When he was brought to our block, the effects of torture were plain across Sattar’s entire body and he was in a generally terrible and beat-up condition. His face was wounded, his head was swollen, his wrists were bruised – the signs he’d been hung from the ceiling were plain as day. You could see the whip lashes and bruises on many parts of his body, including his neck, belly, and waist.”[10]

Perhaps most would imagine that a woman of scarce education and modest means like Gohar would, in the face of the threats and lures of government agents, resign herself to silence and forsake Sattar’s memory. But this woman would surprise everyone. From that day, she bore witness to the injustice done to her son, going public with a picture of Sattar in hand. Cowed by no threat, the image of Gohar clutching her lost son’s photo became a symbol for all people who, helpless in the face of injustice, refuse to remain silent.

A short time after Sattar’s death under torture, authorities also threatened Gohar’s daughter with arrest, badgering Gohar into signing a letter of legal consent. She soon took the incident public, telling Deutsche Welle that “They had an order for the arrest of my daughter – they said either you’re going to sign this or we’re going to detain her. I was compelled. I couldn’t take a second heartbreak. They forced me and I signed. I didn’t want them to take away my daughter. I signed under threat. They threatened me unrelentingly; I was forced to sign.” [11]

My Child’s Blood is Not For Sale

Despite the forced signature, Gohar didn’t rest, resuming her son’s case. The persecution of the security police also continued. After the forty-day memorial of Sattar’s death, [12] agents cracked down on Gohar’s family, injuring Gohar’s feet, shoulder, and head badly enough to require a hospital stay.[13] A little while after Gohar broke the story, announcing in a conversation with Saham News, “My child’s blood is not for sale. If they don’t heed my demand, I’ll go in front of the courthouse and kill myself.”[14] At this time she also petitioned the United Nations and other human rights groups to get involved in her son’s case, lest another life be lost to the negligence of the officers involved.

In April of 2013, Gohar addressed an open letter to the country, emphasizing that her pursuit of Sattar’s case had brought her threats and defamation. She states that she was aware that many previously wronged families (including those affected by the Kahrizak incident) had yet to see justice, but that she would preserve till the end: “As a mother – more importantly than this, specifically as the mother of Sattar Beheshti – my resolve is uncompromising: I will show to those who pretend to be on the side of the people that I will not flee from anything. For the sake of everything that commits me to Hossein’s freedom and justice, I will not rest until my son’s case reached a just conclusion. They are hired goons who, at the slightest indication, go on to wear out an aggrieved mother. How sweet it is to have this connection to my dear child!”[15]

On May Day of 2013, Gohar extended her congratulations to all workers in the name of her son, himself an unknown laborer: “Sattar is no longer by my side, and this month stands as a reminder of the hard-working laborer who set his own youth at the feet of his country and his mother. Mother’s Day and May Day have a special meaning for me this year – yearning for Sattar’s voice. Yearning for his presence, yearning to attend to him. I’m proud that my son was a member of that class that forms the pillars of society, those virtuous souls who, despite all their toil, have only one asset: a single day of the year, International Worker’s Day. As the mother of Sattar, a toiling laborer, I extend my congratulations to all my country’s fellow workers. Also as a mother, I’m further hopeful that other Iranian mothers will, little by little, be made glad and content – especially those who have been wronged or await lost children.”[16]

I am Sattar’s Mother and I Fear Nothing

Authorities undertook to represent Sattar’s death as natural or otherwise incidental to the events that transpired in prison. A few months after Sattar’s passing Dr. Ahmad Shojaei, head of Iran’s Legal Medicine Organization, alleged that the beatings Sattar received could not have been fatal, and that his death was not in fact unnatural.[17] In response, Gohar maintained that she does not recognize the investigation as legitimate, citing her own visit with the interrogator. “I only asked him one question – what did Sattar do under torture? Under your torture, what did he say? The accused said: I beat him and he laughed – I got so mad I beat him to excess and he died. When an interrogator confesses like this right in front of the investigator, what remains unclear? Is the investigator looking for an excuse to exonerate, or is he buying time?”[18]

In August 2013, Giti Porfasel, Sattar’s lawyer, was summoned to the office of intelligence and compelled to refrain from media interviews. Gohar responded to this turn of events thusly: “Mrs. Porfasel is a hero, a lion of a woman, with real courage to defend an innocent young man. They’ve required her not to speak with anyone! But even if they’ve silenced her, what do they expect to do with a wounded mother? I am Sattar’s mother and I fear nothing!” She further stated that Hossein Ronaghi, one of Sattar’s fellow political prisoners at Evin, was prepared to testify that Sattar had already been severely tortured upon being brought to Block 350 and that the interrogator has threatened to kill him.[19]

Letter’s from Sattar’s Mother

In pursuit of the case of her son’s murder, Gohar also wrote letters to the parties responsible. In a letter addressed to Nategh Nouri, special investigator to the Supreme Leader’s office, she related the following: “So innocent and aggrieved am I that permit myself to curse the ones who have caused my misery, remembering all those who have lost children to the so-called vanguard of the Islamic world and the fact that their cries of injustice gave gone unanswered.”[20] In another letter addressed to Hassan Rouhani, she called on the then recently elected President to remain faithful to his oath of office and consult with the leadership of the judicial branch in order to expedite the trial of Sattar’s killer.[21]

On the eve of Rouhani’s United Nations trip, Gohar even contacted General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, writing to him: “I vow to God Almighty that in this year since Sattar’s passing, I’ve communicated with various high officials of the Islamic Republic, spent many long hours, and talked with many media outlets in this quest for my rights. The result of all this efforts has only been deceit and obstruction in the accused’s favor, allowing him to escape justice. I know well that, following this correspondence, the pressure put on me by the legal and security apparatus in Iran will only increase; perhaps I shall even meet some bitter end. But by the blood of my slain child, for the rights of Sattar and my family I will not stray from any course until the Islamic Republic convenes a fair and just trial.”[22]

A Visit with Catherine Ashton

So much did Gohar’s perseverance in the course of justice for her son stand out in the public mind that Catherine Ashton, High Representative of Foreign Affairs for the European Union, decided in March of 2014 to travel to Tehran in order to visit Gohar and a number of other women.[23] Gohar said of the visit, “The meeting happened in an emotional and candid space. Mrs. Asthon was very kind and respectful with me, telling me that she’d speak with and question the relevant authorities. I also told her that Sattar had been killed under torture, that they took him away on October 31and killed him November 4. I told her about everything that happened, about the threats we’d received and what the interrogator had said, that Sattar laughed while being beaten. I told her they’d not determined his death willful homicide, but that my lawyer and I had had our own conversation with the interrogator and based on what he said we knew the death to be intentional.”[24]

This visit caused a stir in Tehran, occasioning a response from government authorities. The commander of Sepah and second in command of all Iran’s armed forces, Masoud Jazayeri, said that “Ashton’s visit with some known individuals is a pretext for violating diplomatic codes and preparing for a future intervention... No excuse will compel us to permit Western intervention with our internal prerogatives, and the involved parties ought to exercise caution to ensure that negotiators do not overstep established boundaries.”[25] Marzieh Afkham, spokesman for the ministry of external affairs, also called the visits a cause of increased suspicion of the Iranian people toward the west, claiming that it had not been consistent with his ministry’s work.[26]

Javan newspaper, close to the Pasdaran networks, published an account of the event entitled “A Visit with Traitors Bent on Intervention in Iran’s Internal Affairs,” and manipulated an accompanying photograph to remove Gohar’s image. In the original photograph, a chador-clad Gohar stands with Ashton, Sattar’s picture in her hand.[27] Such censorship in Iranian media is indicative of the government’s fear of Gohar’s potential as a public figure, a “martyr’s mother” in the mold of the archetype perpetuated by the government in years past.

A Mother Sympathetic to All

Little by little, Gohar began to identify with all the mothers who had lost children for political reasons over the years. During the Nowruz season of 2014, a video was distributed to the people of Iran in which she expressed her greetings: “The mother of Sattar Beheshti wishes you a happy Nowruz. This is the first holiday I’ve had to mourn my son and put on my black grieving clothes. Since the day he was killed, people have supported me – for this I am very grateful. And yet no one responsible for my loss has come before me. I’m a troubled and afflicted mother; Sattar was my caretaker and breadwinner and they killed him for no reason. What was my son’s crime that they drew out his murder for four days?   I spend my days at the side of his grave and my nights with his picture in my hand. My wish is for a fair, transparent courtroom genuinely on the side of the people. If my son’s a criminal, I as his mother must be criminal too – so put me to the firing squad! I gave my son to this country and am prepared to give another child – but I will not forsake Sattar’s blood! I hope that the young people we have in prison will be freed. This regime should be free; we shouldn’t have such prisoners. Young people shouldn’t be subjected to torture.”[28] The video shows Gohar’s small, meager house full of pictures of her slain son, as well as images of others killed for their political struggles, such as Sohrab Erabi and Behnud Ramezani.

In April 2014 Gohar addressed a letter to the militant group Jish Al-Adl,[29] who had recently taken hostage five Iranian border guards. Appealing to themes of motherhood and sympathy, she petitioned for their freedom: “My Baluch children, you who have taken these soldiers: don’t permit another mother to suffer the way I have. They took my innocent Sattar away, beat him, and killed him. My heart broke. This mother of Sattar now prostrates herself before you. A mother who offers you her bare heart and pleads with you. Come, show the world and I that there’s enough light in your hearts to hear a mother’s plea. Show that, for all that great men countenance, they heed a mother’s pain. Free our boys, who are your own innocent countrymen. I promise you I’ll be by your side in your struggle for regional development and that which has been denied to you. Show that you understand our pain. Show that, even if you smash everyone else’s faces into the dirt, you will not hurt mothers. Because all of you have mothers who you love.”[30] A few days after the letter, the group released all but one of the soldiers (who had previously been killed) with the mediation of a tribal council.[31]

Gohar Eshghi In the Public Eye

Because of Gohar’s insistence on the rights of her murdered child, her home and grieving ceremonies have become decidedly political spaces, often hosting well-known dissidents. Mohammed Nourizad, the dissident director and journalist himself jailed many times for his activities, told Gohar on the first anniversary of Sattar’s death that “if every artist in the world came together to paint the face of a person resilient to oppression, they’d have to choose yours. You are a living parable of grace under fire, the sort of person with whom the Iranian Revolution sided. We made a revolution and paid a heavy price to remain vigilant against situations like yours. And yet all the members of parliament, all the judges in our judicial system, and all in the Supreme Leader’s council have seen the blood of your child and denied it. We, however, are prepared to say today that we too have seen Sattar’s blood, and we will stand with you.”[32]

Morteza Kazemian, a journalist residing in France, reproduced a Maxim Gorky poem entitled “Mother” in his piece for Rooz Online, comparing Gohar to one of the Russian writer’s characters, Pelagy. Pelagy is a mother whose banned political activities led her son Paul to become political himself, eventually turning to his own awareness raising. Kazemian wrote: “Around 110 year after Gorky took up his pen to depict ‘Mother,’ we now have our own overlooked Iranian mother to remind us of Pelagy. Gohar Eshghi, mother of Sattar Beheshti whose photo she still clutches, raised such a noise that the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs has been drafted to her cause. Of course she’s not the only woman in recent Iranian history to defend her rights and her children’s rights; but for various reasons Gohar Eshghi has become one of the most renowned free-spirited mothers in the country… Gohar Eshghi has nothing to do with intellectuals and their politics. In pursuit of justice for her son’s spilled blood and her own abused rights, she has her own motives and rationale. The mother of Sattar Beheshti now stands in the place occupied by very many other victims of the religious dictatorship.”[33]

In a Kaleme Online article, Ali Bordbar wrote the following: “Today Sattar’s mother issued her cry, and Sadegh Larijani is the head of the court that should pursue it. But behold: instead of prosecuting the case of this pained and elderly mother, the very same judicial and security apparatus that shelters the murderers of an innocent boy decide to pressure Gohar and other families. Instead of bearing these cruelties with anger and malice at the gnawing pain of losing her son, Gohar has written to save the souls of four of her countrymen, hoping to use her sweet, kind, and motherly voice to spare them from the evil of a zealous and venomous violence. This mother who lost a son raises a call which was among the primary demands of the ’79 revolution, an uprising against the royal court, the elite families, and the Shah.”[34]

I Want Truth, Not Retaliation

In August 2014, an order was issued for Akbar Taghizade, the cyberpolice officer first accused in the case of Sattar’s murder. It indicated a punishment of three years in prison, 74 lashes, and a two-year term in Barazjan. It also made clear that the court had not found Sattar’s death willful homicide, assigning blame only for the negligence of the accused.[35]

Following the issuance of the order, reporters from Shargh Newspaper went to Gohar’s residence to discuss the punishment. Gohar insisted that she was confident that her son was killed in willful homicide, and that she did not accept the verdict as just. She emphasized that she was not in pursuit of revenge against her son’s murderer, and only wanted to expose the truth: “We wouldn’t even want to hurt an ant. If from the very first day they’d come and said they wanted an excuse, our officer made a mistake, here’s this for you and this for our officer - by God, even then we wouldn’t have wanted someone executed.”

From this perspective, Gohar has the same inclination as Porsetu Forouhar, the daughter of Parvane and Dariush Farouhar (who were among the front-line national leaders killed in 1998) and other families of victims of the Chain murders. They are all in pursuit of truth and critical of the political system’s attempts to seek vengeance against the murders of citizens. They are in pursuit of a country in which people are not murdered for being at odds with the government, and in which the law does not let murderers go unpunished. Despite the framework of the current regime they strive against all odds to uncover the truth. 

 

 


 

[1] Tavanaa’s conversation with one of Gohar’s acquaintances

[2] Link to Sattar Beheshti’s Wikipedia article

[3] Tavanaa’s conversation with one of Gohar’s acquaintances

[4] Link to Sattar Beheshti’s blog

[5] Link to Sattar Beheshti’s blog

[6] Link to Sattar Beheshti’s blog

[7] The abbreviated form of the name for Iran’s police force for industry and exchange, or cyber police

[8] Kaleme News Service

[9] Kaleme News Service

[10] BBC News Service

[11] Saham News

[12] Saham News: report on the forty-day funeral ceremony of Sattar Beheshti, accompanied by two short films

[13] Saham News

[14] Saham News

[15] Saham News

[16] Saham News

[17] Saham News

[18] Saham News

[19] Saham News

[20] Saham News

[21] Saham News

[22] Saham News

[23] BBC News Service

[24] Peyk of Iran

[25] Radio France R.F.E.

[26] Radio France R.F.E.

[27] BBC News Service

[28] Youtube, “Nowruz Message from a Mother Fighting for Freedom, in Memoriam of Sattar Beheshti.”

[29] Link to the Jish al-Adl group’s Wikipedia page

[30] Green Movement News Service (JARAS)

[31] BBC News Service

[32] Youtube, “Report from the First Anniversary Memorial of Sattar Beheshti.”

[33] Roozonline News Service

[34] Kaleme News Service

[35] Tavaana, Gohar Eshghi’s Interview with Sharq

 

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