Woman convicted as juvenile faces death in Iran

Zeinab Sekaanvand may be heading to the gallows as you read this story.

Story highlights

  • Zeinab Sekaanvand was a teen bride who says her husband beat her
  • When she was 17, she was arrested and charged in her husband's death

(CNN)Zeinab Sekaanvand is 22 years old. She has lost her unborn child. She has lost her family, who disowned her. She has lost her freedom to prison. And she is soon expected to lose the last thing she has left: her life.

The story of how a poor Iranian Kurdish teenager and child bride became a prisoner on death row is coming to light as human rights organizations fight to save her life. Activists must battle the clock if they are to stop her execution, which is scheduled for any time after October 13.
    She may even be heading to the gallows as you read this story.
    But how did she get here?

    Unfair trial

    Sekaanvand's husband was killed when she was 17. She was accused of stabbing him to death and sentenced to die.
    But human rights groups say Sekaanvand's imminent execution is the result of an unfair trial and that she shouldn't face execution because she was a minor at the time of the killing.
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    At 15 years old, Sekaanvand ran away from home, a small village in northern Iran, for love and opportunity. She married Hossein Sarmadi, a man four years older than she, believing he would give her a better life. Instead, Sarmadi made everything worse for his teenage wife, regularly beating and swearing at her, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
    Sekaanvand tried to protect herself and asked him several times for a divorce, which he refused to grant her. She went to the police and filed complaints, but human rights groups say police failed to even investigate the allegations.
    "Because she came from a very poor and conservative family, Zeinab was using her marriage as a way to escape from her reality," says Mansoureh Mills, the Iran campaigner at Amnesty International. "I can only imagine how extremely difficult her life must have been. That is why this case is extremely shocking and disturbing, She was relying on adults to protect her and unfortunately no adults were able to do that. Not the authorities and not her family."

    Sentenced to death by hanging

    In February 2012, after four years of marriage, Sarmadi was found stabbed to death. Police arrested Sekaanvand, and she allegedly confessed to killing her spouse. She says she was held in a police station in Iran's West Azerbaijan province for 20 days and was repeatedly tortured and beaten by male police officers, according to Amnesty International.
    "She tried the police, they wouldn't help. She tried her family and they wouldn't take her back. And she is just a teenager so she had nowhere to turn and so she was forced back to this allegedly abusive marriage until the day her husband was killed," Mills says.
    At her final trial, Sekaanvand retracted her confession, telling the judge she did not kill her husband and was coerced into a confession. On October 2014, a criminal judge sentenced the once child bride to death by hanging, Amnesty International says.
    Amnesty International obtained details on the trial from a confidential source close to the case. The source could not be named for security reasons. CNN reached out to Iranian authorities for comment on the allegations but received no response.
    During her time in prison, Sekaanvand married a fellow inmate and became pregnant with their child. Authorities then informed her that her execution would be delayed until after she delivered, but tragedy followed the young woman again. Last month she gave birth to a stillborn baby. She is now back in Oroumieh Central Prison and set to soon face the death penalty.
    "This case is really emblematic of the wider rights violation against juvenile offenders in Iran," Mills says. "This is a shocking and disturbing case in the sense that she hasn't been protected during her short life by authorities at any point."

    Justice for juvenile offenders

    Boys as young as 15 and girls as young as 9 can be tried as adults in Iran and therefore may receive the death penalty. Sudan, Saudi Arabia, China and the United States are also accused of executing juvenile offenders in recent years.
    Legal reforms in Iran give judges the authority to spare children of capital punishment if they do not appear to understand the gravity of the crime for which they are accused. The revised law passed in 2013 was meant to prevent the wrongful conviction of children, but Amnesty International has reported that at least 74 executions of juvenile offenders took place between 2005 and 2016 in Iran.
    Sekaanvand is one of about 160 prisoners in Iran on death row for crimes they committed when they were under age 18, according to the United Nations. Human rights groups hope that by shedding light on this particular case, justice can be achieved for the dozens of other juvenile offenders still languishing in Iranian prisons.
    "We are hopeful that with enough international pressure that we can stop her execution, but we need the support of everyone involved to raise awareness about Zeinab's case," Mills says.