Vahid Muharrami stumbled upon the plans for his own execution while working on the prison computer system.
An inmate in northwestern Iran, he had been tapped by prison officials to help with computer work at the facility because of his technical expertise. That’s how, in August 2020, he came across the documents that meant he had two more days to live, at most.
“When I saw the special paperwork in the system, I realized that I was only 24 hours or 48 hours max away from the gallows,” said Muharrami, 37, who was sentenced to death for his part in a 2014 brawl that killed a man.
He had already watched as 130 other convicts in his prison, in the city of Ardebil, were sent to their deaths over the previous six and a half years. Muharrami asked for permission to call his mother to dictate his last will and testament over the phone — and to prepare her for seeing his broken, lifeless body in the prison yard, so that she wouldn’t pass out as many other mothers of executed men had.
But before the sentence could be carried out, Muharrami was suddenly spared the hangman’s rope. His savior was not a judge, nor was it a lawyer. It was one of Iran’s biggest pop stars, Mohsen Chavoshi.
The singer-songwriter intervened at the last minute to help raise the “blood money” that Iran’s judicial system allows to be paid to a homicide victim’s family in lieu of an execution, if the family agrees to accept it. Chavoshi has made it a personal campaign to save as many death row inmates as possible through such means, in an attempt to reduce the number of executions in a country that puts more people to death than almost any other.
Muharrami and his family were granted some more time to drum up the payment, which they finally achieved with a sizable contribution from Chavoshi.
“Every moment of every day, I was thinking of my lonely mom and brother who wouldn’t survive the tremendous grief after my execution,” Muharrami recalled of his ordeal on death row.
Last year, Iran executed 280 people, according to a report published in March by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the country. That’s a nearly 14% increase from the 246 tallied by Amnesty International in 2020, which accounted for more than half of all known executions worldwide that year. (China is believed to execute thousands of people annually but guards such information as a state secret.)
Under the theocratic regime in Tehran and its conservative interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic, law, capital punishment is meted out unsparingly to those found guilty of murder or manslaughter. But some convicts have been rescued by the practice of blood money, which their victims’ families choose to receive as restitution out of compassion, poverty, pressure or another motivation.
Chavoshi, 42, has managed to help save more than 50 people from the gallows. His success comes from mobilizing his legions of loyal fans — he has 4.3 million Instagram followers — who respond to his regular calls for donations to help fellow Iranians in dire circumstances, whether death row inmates desperate for their sentences to be lifted or poor patients in need of emergency surgery.
His popularity and activism have fed each other in a nation where, despite the hard-line rhetoric of its leadership, social discontent simmers below the surface, including opposition to the liberal application of capital punishment.
Bahman Babazadeh, a prominent music blogger and a close associate of Chavoshi, said the singer commands the respect of millions of Iranians for “addressing sensitive social phenomena few artists or even politicians have touched.”
Chavoshi, who declined to be interviewed, has spoken out on such issues as Iran’s water crisis and human-trafficking. In his song “Dubai,” he sounded the alarm over the growing numbers of Iranian women trafficked into prostitution in Persian Gulf nations.
“He has been uniquely recognized and trusted by Iranians as an outspoken critic of many social evils and problems which have been exacerbated during the country’s long years of isolation,” Babazadeh said.
In addition to saving prisoners from paying the ultimate price, Chavoshi has managed to help reduce the sentences of 320 people convicted of lesser crimes, such as bouncing checks or failing to repay loans.
His musical career began in 2003, when he was 24. Since then, he has become one of Iran’s biggest-selling artists, releasing 11 albums and more than 200 songs, many of which address social problems rather than just the usual pop themes of love and heartbreak and everyday life.
He began engaging seriously in charity work in 2009, including helping rescue people on death row. Babazadeh said that the singer, who grew up in the war-torn city of Khorramshahr on the Iran-Iraq border, found the experience gratifying.
“I remember when the first four or five convicts were saved from execution, Mohsen was really touched and felt so good about it,” Babazadeh said. “That special feeling has steadily strengthened since then.”
Chavoshi is not the only Iranian celebrity to come to the aid of people condemned to die. Soccer star Ali Daei has also offered support for death row inmates out of his own pocket, recently saving a woman from execution at the 11th hour by incessantly appealing to the relatives of the businessman she killed during a confrontation and paying them blood money.
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On Persian Twitter, the hashtag #No_to_Execution trends every so often. Two years ago, a social media campaign against executions generated an outpouring of support after an Iranian court upheld the death sentences of three young men who had joined anti-government protests.
Chavoshi has received pushback from some conservatives for his efforts. Commenting on one of his appeals on social media, a critic wrote: “Did Chavoshi help to release 52 convicts or 52 murderers?” He has also been criticized for not seeking clemency for political dissidents who have been sentenced to death.
And abolition of the death penalty isn’t likely anytime soon, despite some modest legal reforms instituted by Iran’s generally hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, when he was chief of the judiciary. Most of the country’s political and religious leaders, as well as a sizable segment of society, regard capital punishment as just retribution for major crimes.
The number of executions in Iran has grown in the last year, according to the Iranian human rights organization HRANA. Experts note that the country’s dire living conditions and economic free fall, accelerated by heavy U.S. sanctions, have been accompanied by an increase in homicide — killings in brawls, armed robberies and riots.
All of those are crimes punishable by death, as are rape, kidnapping and drug-trafficking. The majority of Iran’s death sentences are meted out to drug dealers and smugglers.
“Security issues and drug-trafficking are two major issues which make abolishing death penalty a distant image on the horizon,” said Fazel Hoomani, a legal expert in Tehran. “Not to mention the growing insecurity and murder cases caused by economic downfall.”
As in the U.S., where poor defendants and people of color have been disproportionately hit by capital punishment, convicts from marginalized communities in Iran can find themselves in greater peril, especially in a justice system where money can literally buy you your life.
After killing a fellow teenager in a brawl when he was 16, Seyed Mostafa spent nine years behind bars and faced having his own life cut short by hanging when Chavoshi stepped in with the funds needed to satisfy the victim’s family. A refugee from Afghanistan, Mostafa could not have cobbled together the money on his own.
Altruism like Chavoshi’s impresses 29-year-old Mahbod Jalali.
“He’s one in a million,” said Jalali, a chemical engineer and part-time English teacher. “I’m a great fan of his music and personality. I wish other celebrities would walk in his footsteps, too, because our society needs this type of personality.”
For Muharrami, the man who stumbled upon his own execution papers, life hasn’t been easy as an ex-con, but he knows he’s lucky to have a life at all.
It was redeemed for 1.5 billion Iranian rial, worth about $60,000 at the time. Chavoshi covered a quarter of that amount, with the rest coming from Muharrami’s family and other donors.
Muharrami was released from prison in March of last year. He’s been busy trying to get back on his feet, looking for investors in his patented bodybuilding device and searching for ways to help support his family, who spent almost every penny they had trying to rescue him from the gallows.
He dreams of meeting the man who finally did just that, and knows exactly what he would say.
“Mr. Chavoshi, you didn’t just save me,” Muharrami said. “You saved my mom and younger brother, too. I’ll prove I was worth it.”
Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and staff writer Chu from London.