TEHRAN, Iran – Iran's Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence against a hard-line Islamic vigilante for murdering a couple for immoral behavior in southeastern Iran, one of the victims' lawyers said Thursday.
Ali Maleki, with the help of several accomplices, drowned Reza Nejadmalayeri and his fiance, Shohreh Nikpour, in a small pool in 2002 on the belief they had violated rules against contact between unmarried men and women. The killings occurred near Kerman, a city some 620 miles southeast of the capital, Tehran.
"The Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence against the defendant (Maleki)," lawyer Nemat Ahmadi told The Associated Press Thursday.
The Supreme Court's ruling on Saturday was the fourth time it had overturned Maleki's death sentence, continuing a case that has caused widespread anger throughout Iran despite a news blackout by state media. After each previous ruling, the case has been returned to the local court to be retried.
A Kerman court issued death sentences against six hard-line Islamic vigilantes, including Maleki, in 2003 for murdering three men and two women who they believed were promoting "moral corruption."
The five other assailants have been identified as Mohammad Hamzeh Mostafavi, Soleiman Jahanshahi, Mohammad Ya'abbasi, Mohammad Soltani and Changiz Salari.
All six men were members of the Basij, a pro-government vigilante force that enforces Iran's strict version of Islamic law — including segregation of the sexes and the wearing of the veil by women.
The vigilantes, who pledge support to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stoned one of their victims to death and tied up four others before throwing them into a swimming pool where they drowned.
The Kerman court upheld the death sentences twice, but after the Supreme Court overturned the verdicts of the six assailants a third time, the local court gave five of them prison terms. The court kept Maleki's verdict unchanged, sending his case back to the country's highest legal body.
Independent Iranian newspapers have reported that the families of the victims, reportedly under pressure from hard-line groups, have taken money in exchange for accepting more lenient verdicts, but relatives of Nejadmalayeri and Nikpour have supposedly resisted and want Maleki hanged.
"This verdict causes the people to lose their trust in the judicial system," said Ahmadi.
Critics say the ruling demonstrates the free hand given to the Basij, which has no official legal authority in Iran, but is considered more powerful than the country's police. Enforcement of Islamic law has been reduced in Iran's largest cities like Tehran ever since reformists held power in the late 1990s, but the Basijis have continued to wage their campaign elsewhere in the country.
Under Iran's Islamic law, the vigilantes can escape punishment if they prove their victims were morally corrupt. The next step in the case will be a determination by the Supreme Court of whether the attackers were correct in their beliefs, Ahmadi reported.
"The existence of this law (has been and) will be misused by many ... it means any person can take the law into his or her own hands," Ahmadi said.
The brutal killings shocked Kerman residents, but Iran's media has largely been kept uninformed about the case. The state-run media has not reported any news of the killings or the subsequent cases.