By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
The convicted killer, identified only as Balal, is led to the gallows. He was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing another young man, Abdollah, in a fight seven years ago, when both were 17.
April 16 was supposed to be the last day of Balal's life. Seven years after stabbing another teen dead in a street fight, Balal was to be publicly executed in front of his victim's family, in a small town in Iran's northern province of Mazandaran.
Instead, Balal was given a new lease on life when, in the very last minute, he was spared by his victim's mother. The dramatic scenes of Balal, his neck in a noose, being pardoned have received extensive coverage in the media and on social-networking sites.
Since then the scene has been reenacted dozens of times in a wave of forgiveness that belies the authorities' efforts to push the death penalty.
Last week alone, according to the reformist "Shargh" daily, nine individuals sentenced to death were pardoned by victims' families.
Observers say a concerted publicity campaign is at play, but money is also a factor.
Artists, television celebrities, and rights activists have been publicly calling on citizens to spare the lives of those sentenced to death and the media have been sympathetic in their coverage.
In Balal's case, for example, popular TV presenter Adel Ferdowsipour spoke to an audience of millions in favor of him being pardoned.
But Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, a well-known Iranian lawyer who has represented several convicted killers, says that what media call a wave of mercy is in fact a "business."
Under Islamic laws applied in Iran, the families of convicted murderers are able to buy their kin's freedom from victims' families. The official rate for blood money is 150 million toumans -- or about $50,000 -- but often the sum requested is higher.
In Balal's case, his victim's family reportedly received blood money of about 300 million toumans.
"Based on the information I have about some of the cases, I have to say that a large part of the reconciliations in Qisas" -- a reference to the Islamic law of retribution -- "cases are happening in exchange of enormous sums of money from the families of those convicted," Khoramshahi said earlier this month in an interview with fararu.com.
The Tehran-based lawyer added that media should encourage people not to request huge sums of money for showing mercy.
Iranian Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said in April that during the past Iranian year -- from March 2013 to March 2014 -- the lives of 358 condemned Iranians were spared under the Islamic law of retribution.
Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, spokesman of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization, says it is not clear how many pardons were prompted by the lure of financial compensation.
But Moghaddam thinks that some Iranians are finding "value" in showing mercy.
"I think as much as the establishment is trying to promote executions," he says, "a culture that goes against it -- a culture of mercy -- is being promoted."
Moghaddam says Iran's civil society and anti-death-penalty groups should be given credit for the trend.
One of the groups active against executions is the "Step By Step To Stop The Death Penalty In Iran" campaign, founded by a number of prominent intellectuals and rights activists including former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.
Maleki tells RFE/RL there's a growing distaste for the death penalty in Iran and a tendency toward mercy.
He agrees that many families spare the lives of their relatives' killers for money. At the same time, he says he's come across a number of cases where the families pardoned convicted killers out of compassion.
"It will take time before it becomes ingrained in the society," he says in a telephone interview from Tehran. "People have to realize slowly that money cannot replace forgiveness and sacrifice."
Maleki notes that the trend comes as the Iranian establishment continues to hold public hangings.
"The establishment only knows violence and blood," he says.
One journalist in the Iranian capital says the establishment is already benefiting from the wave of forgiveness because "it shows a more human face of Iran."
But others fear that violence is so deeply rooted in Iranian society that it will take a long time before things change.
The country carried out 665 executions in 2013, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
And with Iranians under tremendous pressures that discourage communication and dialogue, the wave of mercy is not likely to last, according to prominent university professor and sociologist Mostafa Eghlima.
"It's not easy [for people] to forgive someone who has killed their children," he concludes.
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