Suspect Commemoration

The Iranian regime is preventing the well-known artist Parastou Forouhar from leaving the country. She had flown to Tehran to take part in a commemorative event for her parents, who were murdered in 1998. Katajun Amirpur has the details

Portrait of the artist Parastou Forouhar (photo: Parastou Forouhar)
"If I didn't pursue the murder case I'd feel I'd lost my parents all over again," says the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, whose parents were murdered in Iran

​​ "If I didn't pursue the murder case I'd feel I'd lost my parents all over again." Now based near Frankfurt, the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar has spent years campaigning to have her parents' murderers punished.

The couple were killed by the Iranian secret service in Tehran on 21 November 1998. Now Forouhar has been prevented from boarding her flight out of Tehran. The authorities confiscated her passport and told her the Ministry of Information had brought charges against her. The bone of contention is presumably the interviews Forouhar gave over the past few weeks.

Parastou Forouhar has flown to Iran once a year since 1998, to organise memorial events for her parents. The couple, both activists for the Party of the Iranian Nation, were the first victims in a series of politically motivated murders.

Others killed in the autumn of 1998 included the writers Mohammad Mokhtari and Jafar Pouyandeh. The latter two men, who had campaigned for the authors' association to be legalised, were found strangled in a roadside ditch, prompting the killings to going down in Iranian history as "the chain murders".

Forouhar's parents murdered

Dariush Forouhar and his wife Parvaneh had been pro-democracy activists under the shah and then in the Islamic Republic. They called for a division of state and religion and were part of the secular national opposition spectrum.

Parvaneh Eskandari Forouhar (photo: wikipedia)
Parvaneh Eskandari Forouhar and her husband Dariush Forouhar were murdered because of their pro-democracy activities. Parvaneh Forouhar was found with more than twenty stab wounds to her chest

​​ Their murder resembled an execution; Parvaneh Forouhar was found with more than twenty stab wounds to her chest. The killings were followed by weeks of fear in Tehran. Every opposition activist feared he or she might be the next victim. There were rumours of death lists with names of dissidents, including reform theologians, student leaders and women's rights activists.

The murders were intended to undermine public trust in the reform-oriented president Mohammed Khatami, who had promised legal reforms, and as a warning to overly rebellious reformers.

Yet it was these very reformers who forced the secret service, which was working against the president, to admit to contracting the murders. The reformist government pushed through the resignation of the minister for the secret service and the arrest of a number of agents. All too soon, however, the agents were out of prison again and the people who had played the key roles in uncovering the chain murders found themselves behind bars in their place.

For example Akbar Ganji, who was imprisoned from 2000 to 2006 and only released after a seventy-day hunger strike. The men who pulled the strings for the chain murders, on the other hand, have never been brought to justice. And that is why Parastou Forouhar has been fighting to this day – every year before an Iranian court and above all to stop the murders from being forgotten.

She tries to organise a memorial event on the anniversary of the killings every year, which thousands of people would presumably attend if the authorities did not prevent them from doing so. Not only were the Forouhars very popular; the Iranians also have great sympathy and solidarity with the relatives of innocent victims for religious reasons.

Suspect commemoration

Sadly, Forouhar is not allowed to rent space and the streets around her parents' former home are blocked off. This year, a form of commemoration typical of the "Green Movement" that formed in the wake of the summer's electoral fraud was spread via the Internet: people stood still for ten minutes in remembrance of the victims of political murders, no matter where they were – at home, at work or on the streets.

​​ The murders are also present throughout Parastou Forouhar's art. "Take off your shoes" is the title of one series, for instance, moving pictures that translate a sense of helplessness into art. The images are of Forouhar and her lawyer, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, two women humiliated but steadfast in the face of an almighty justice system.

This is a battle that takes more than just tenacity. Forouhar has explained in the past how the cycle came about: she wanted to view the files, which she was finally granted after months of struggle. She was given ten days to read them – sitting in the same room as the murderers.

The court officers did not consider it necessary to put the killers and the daughter of the victims in different rooms. In the end the killers handed the files they had just read on to Forouhar.

At one point the judge came to Forouhar with a proposal: "If you don't insist on the death penalty for the murderers you can demand blood money from them." According to Islamic law a killer is spared the death sentence if the closest relatives accept financial compensation, referred to as blood money. "You'd get this sum of money for your father and half of that for your mother," the judge said.

Conservative interpretations of Islamic law put blood money for a man twice as high as that for a woman. "Half of that for your mother" – Forouhar can still hear these words to this day. She was overwhelmed by the memory of her strong mother, a woman who spent her life fighting for democracy and freedom and a better life for her children one day, in a better Iran. "Apart from the fact that you can't put a price on people's lives," Parastou Forouhar commented, "the whole idea was simply awful: half of that for your mother."

Fighting her parents' fight by artistic means

And that is why Forouhar flew to Iran again this year – so that both her parents would be commemorated. She knew it was particularly dangerous this year. But Parastou Forouhar is not the type of woman to hold back.

And she is fighting her parents' fight in her own way – by artistic means. This year she had organised an exhibition. A video available on Youtube shows balloons floating beneath a ceiling.

​​ Forouhar explains in the interview that she wants to show the two poles of security and insecurity, certainty and uncertainty. The balloons stand for the safety and lightness that she felt with her parents as a child. Yet they are printed with typified ornamental scenes of torture.

Astoundingly, the exhibition was allowed to take place, unlike a previous one six years ago, when the gallery received a call just before the opening and was advised against staging the show. "Anyone familiar with Iran's political culture knows what it means when you're advised not to do something."

So Forouhar opened the exhibition, but with empty picture frames. In her interview she says: "You can say a lot in Iran. Especially with frames that don't contain pictures."

Previously, it seemed that Iranians living abroad, who also made political statements mainly outside the country, were safer. But this protection would appear not to exist any more. The show trials taking place in Iran over the past few months are therefore a cause for great concern.

Katajun Amirpur

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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