By Shirin Ebadi
March 3, 2016
The story of how Iranian agents caught my husband with another woman, threatened to stone him to death and then forced him to denounce me.
IN August 2009, I was betrayed by both my husband and my country.
A few months earlier I had left Iran — for good, perhaps, though I did not know it then. The government had harassed me for years for my work as a lawyer and a human-rights activist, and the threats against me had increased in the run-up to the presidential election that June. I took a vacation and, along with my younger daughter, Nargess, went to visit my older daughter, Negar, in Atlanta.
I usually spoke to my husband, Javad, two or three times a week, on appointed days. He had a SIM card for my calls, bought under someone else’s name, to make it difficult for the authorities to trace.
One Monday, I wasn’t able to reach him during our usual time. I wasn’t unduly concerned. He often spent long weekends at our country house, where the reception was weak. But days passed, and there was no word from him. I finally called my sister in Tehran, Nooshin, and asked her to check on our apartment, but it was empty.
Then Nooshin called me to say that she had knocked again and found him at home. She said he had just returned from a trip, was unwell, and was going straight to bed.
The next day, Javad called.
“Shirin?” His voice shook.
“Where have you been? Nooshin has been looking for you!”
“Shirin, I don’t know if you can forgive me.” I could hear him breathing shallowly.
“Are you crying?” My fingers flew to my throat. “What’s happened?”
“Will you forgive me?”
“Javad, tell me first what’s happened!”
He began to explain, in a crushed, flattened voice, what had transpired in the nearly two weeks since we had last spoken. This is what my husband of 34 years relayed to me:
He had been feeling, in his words, “very lonely and empty.” One evening a friend of his, a Ms. Jafari, invited him over to her apartment.
“Very unexpectedly, a mutual friend, Mehri, also stopped by.” Javad’s voice dropped off.
“Between Mehri and me … a romantic relationship used to exist. But I had not seen her for a very long time. Years. We had stopped our relationship. But Ms. Jafari thought we should get back together. She kept pouring us more to drink and saying that we were both going through difficult times and could support each other. She kept stressing that now that my wife was gone, I was all alone and needed someone to show me some affection.”
Apparently, at that point, this Ms. Jafari said she had an appointment and left my husband and the other woman alone.
“Mehri started taking her clothes off, hugging me, saying how much she had missed me.”
I said nothing.
“Shirin, are you there? Are you listening?”
I was not a suspicious wife. He had never raised questions about my male colleagues, and I’d accorded him the same understanding. It had seemed to work for us, this mutual respect. Until now. I kept staring at the coffee table, with its magazines, a Rembrandt coaster; all of it looked the same as it had five minutes ago. How could it look the same?
“She kept touching me … and I … I succumbed … We were embracing in the bedroom when suddenly the door of the second bedroom of the apartment burst open.”
That was when an intelligence agent — a man I knew well, who had gone after my work for years — and two cameramen came in. They had recorded everything — the conversation, the whole event. They ordered Javad to dress, and in a few minutes the apartment was full of agents. Javad was handcuffed, blindfolded and pushed downstairs and into a car.
“What happened to … that woman? And your host?” I tried to keep the rage out of my voice, but I couldn’t bring myself to say her name.
“They only arrested me. I’m sure Jafari was cooperating with them. How else could they have set up all their equipment before I even got there? I can’t really be sure about Mehri. All I know is they didn’t arrest her.”
Javad was taken to Evin Prison, where I had visited so many clients and where, nine years earlier, I myself had once spent 25 days, on a charge of “disturbing public opinion.”
Because he had been caught drinking alcohol, his bare back was lashed. Did the lasher hold a Quran under his arm, to prevent him from using too much force? I forgot to ask this.
And then they led him to a solitary confinement cell, perhaps only slightly bigger than a bathtub, and left him there for two days.
On the third day, two prison guards came. They blindfolded him again and led him to a sort of courtroom, where a bearded cleric, the judge, sat behind a wooden desk.
Javad later told me what the judge had said:
“I’ve watched the entire film. There’s really no room for denial. You are a married man and have committed adultery. According to Article 225 of the Islamic Penal Code, you are sentenced to death by stoning. The sentence will be carried out two days from now.”
“I want a lawyer,” Javad said. “I’m not going to do anything without a lawyer.”
“A lawyer!” the judge said, amused. “What for? What is a lawyer going to say? We have a film of you, sir — your entire liaison is on camera! What kind of defense do you imagine you could mount? Just go. Go be ashamed of yourself, and spend your last two days repenting to God.”
The trial took about 20 minutes. Iranian judges scarcely ever handed down stoning verdicts, but the situation seemed to require an especially horrific punishment. The real purpose of the arrest became clear a few hours later, when the intelligence agent who had arrested Javad, along with his boss, came to Javad’s cell.
I can’t help imagining them standing over him, Javad unshaven, with dark circles under his eyes.
“Now Ebadi can see the result of her activities,” the agent told him grandly. “I warned her so many times. So many times I told her, ‘You need to shut up.’ But she never listened.”
Javad had never been involved in my cases; he was not political. “Why should I be responsible for what my wife does?” he asked them. “What kind of dirty games are you trying to play with me? Because of my wife, you harass me like this, in the name of Islam?”
The agent’s eyes darkened. He lunged toward Javad, punching him, kicking him savagely.
“Don’t you dare ever mention Islam again, do you hear me? The word ‘Islam’ is dirty in your mouth.”
The intelligence agent said I had been proud; now I would see my weakness.
When Javad saw that pleading or protesting would only provoke more beating, he asked what it was they wanted.
For the first time, the agent’s boss spoke. He explained the problem:
“If you’re still defending your wife, it means you’re her ally and collaborator. And you should be punished as such. If the truth is otherwise, you need to prove that to us.”
All he had to do in order to gain his freedom was to read a short statement in front of a camera:
“Shirin Ebadi did not deserve to receive the Nobel Prize. She was awarded the prize so that she could help topple the Islamic Republic. She is a supporter of the West, particularly America. Her work is not in the service of Iranians, but serves the interests of foreign imperialists who seek to weaken Iran.”
He knew immediately he would do it. Surely, everyone would know that he had been pressured into saying those things.
And so the next day he shaved, showered and sat in a staged living room, with comfortable armchairs and a side table with a vase of plastic pink roses, and denounced me.
He told me all this, and it was bad enough. But what I heard next was worse. In order to overturn the stoning sentence for adultery, he and the woman he had slept with would have to go to a cleric for a certificate of temporary marriage, backdated by five years.
Javad was waiting for me to say something, but I was, for perhaps the first time in my life, unable to come up with a single thing. As a woman, a wife, I was sick with anger. He had betrayed me. But I was even more furious with the intelligence agents. They were prepared to do anything — crush people’s families, their marriages — to achieve their ends.
What did they want from me? I didn’t permit myself that thought very often. But it came careening into my head, and I wanted to run out onto the balcony and scream it. How much could they take away from one person? I had been the first female judge in Iran. After the Islamic Revolution, they took that from me. When I resurrected myself and built a human-rights center, they took that, too. With their violence and electoral fraud, I had lost my homeland. And now they had tried to take away my husband. I closed my eyes, wanting nothing but to go to sleep. But Javad was talking again, asking me — me! — for advice about his pending stoning sentence.
“What do you think I should do?”
“I don’t see any option but to do as they’ve asked,” I said. “But, of course, only if … that woman … agrees.”
Javad said he would try to contact her and would let me know what happened.
I waited to hear back. Moving around the apartment in Atlanta, I thanked God for small graces. That my daughters had been out when Javad called, and that they would — at least for a time — be spared knowing what had been done to their parents.
I swung between rage and guilt. It was my work that had caused this to happen to my husband. And yet was it not Javad who had betrayed me? But I was not in his shoes, isolated, away from my wife and daughters, vulnerable. I thought of telling him that he was not alone. That I knew of many cases where the Intelligence Ministry had done the same sorts of things to others, used sexual blackmail in order to force dissident politicians out of public life or simply to wound and silence critics. But knowing this didn’t lessen my anger, and I doubted that it would lessen his pain.
A week later, Javad called and told me how things had gone. He had telephoned Mehri — he said her name, I did not — and she had agreed to go with him to see the cleric. As promised, the cleric had issued a backdated marriage certificate that showed them, at the date of filming, to have been “Sigheh,” or temporarily married. Under Sigheh, the duration of the marriage is determined in advance; it could be as short as an hour or as long as a decade. If a child is born, he or she is a rightful child, with all legal entitlements from both parents. When the Sigheh expires, the couple should separate, unless the arrangement is mutually extended. The practice has existed for centuries but is shunned by younger and less traditional Iranians, who see it as an archaic religious loophole that effectively legalizes prostitution.
Javad had taken the certificate back to the court at Evin and paid a small fine. The punishment they had dangled over him, execution by stoning, the punishment they had used to force him to denounce me before the cameras, was null. But he had been required to turn over his passport and was barred from leaving the country.
In the days that followed, we talked several times. But I felt as though I was speaking to a stranger. Javad was broken, pleading during each conversation for me not to leave him. He sounded so unwell that regardless of my own feelings, I was worried for him. His denunciation of me had not yet been released, and the threat of it hung over our heads. He kept saying he wanted to see me and the girls, but it was impossible.
I tried to keep it from our daughters, but Nargess finally confronted me. She had overheard something I’d said on the phone; she wanted to know what was happening.
After I told her, she just kept demanding: “Why would he do such a thing and speak against you? Why would he go with that woman?”
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I decided to be frank. Nargess worked in The Hague, researching and documenting terrible atrocities. She needed to see how that work connected to what she was experiencing in her family. The field of human rights is not about pretty words; it involves the abuse of the vulnerable by those who wield power. That was the line that connected massacres in Sarajevo to atrocities in Sierra Leone to the systematic persecution of dissidents in places like Iran and Russia.
I told her that if she wanted to be a human-rights lawyer, she had to understand what that world involved.
“Human beings are free, Nargess. But each individual has only a certain threshold for suffering. Your father couldn’t take that kind of torture. This could have happened to any man,” I said. “This is something between him and me. But you have to look at it differently. You should be wondering why an intelligence agent was hiding with a camera in the second bedroom. Were the country’s problems resolved by determining who was cheating on whom? This was a trap they used against me, and that is how you must think about it.”
It was a bitter lesson to impart to my daughter. More than six years later — after Javad’s denunciation of me was aired on television; after countless agonized phone calls; after we finally agreed to divorce — it is a lesson I am still learning myself.
Shirin Ebadi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran,” from which this essay was adapted.