First aired on The Current (21/5/12)
2003 was a big year for Nazanin Afshin-Jam. She was crowned Miss World Canada and went on to win runner-up in the Miss World competition. It was also the year her world of youth and beauty collided with a world of ugliness and death. She learned of another girl named Nazanin: a 17-year-old Iranian sentenced to hang for stabbing a man who tried to rape her. After learning about the Iranian teenager's plight, Afshin-Jam fought — successfully — to get her released. This experience inspired Afshin-Jam to found the organization called Stop Child Executions, and to write about the experience. The Tale of Two Nazanins: A Teenager on Death Row in Iran and the Canadian Who Vowed to Save Her, co-authored with Susan McClelland, chronicles this journey.
Afshin-Jam found out about Nazanin in Iran serendipitously. A translator in Paris became aware of Nazanin and wanted to find out more. She had stabbed a man who was trying to rape her, and he later died in the hospital. As a result, Nazanin was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, at a mere 17 years of age. An internet search led the translator to Afshin-Jam, and it snowballed from there. "He asked me outright if I knew this other Nazanin and if so, could I do anything to help her," Afshin-Jam explained to The Current guest host Rick MacInnes-Rae. Afshin-Jam had never heard of this other Nazanin, imprisoned halfway around the world, but immediately knew she wanted to help.
"I'd never heard of child executions. I didn't realize that juveniles were being hung in public squares, where they were being hoisted up by these cranes and being killed in front of the population." While in prison, Nazanin was beaten and given pills that caused her to convulse. She was also put into solitary confinement for months on end. "She went through hell," Afshin-Jam said. "It was a really scary notion and that's what prompted me to want to help."
Afshin-Jam started by collecting signatures through a petition, asking family and friends to sign. The cause quickly gained momentum, thanks to Afshin-Jam's public profile and through social media. She quickly amassed 350,000 signatures and took the petition to government officials in Canada and around the world. "Anybody who would listen, I would talk about her case."
The immense public pressure forced a retrial of Nazanin's case, where it was decided she would not be executed and would walk free — if her family paid $45,000. Afshin-Jam again sprang into action, raising the funds to help the family. Thanks to some generous donors, including Belinda Stronach, Nazanin walked free on January 31, 2007. "It was one of the happiest days of my life," Afshin-Jam recalled.
However, the story has yet to have a happy ending. In 2010, Nazanin disappeared. Afshin-Jam has no idea what happened or where she went, but suspects that she and her family were pressured to eliminate contact with Afshin-Jam. And that's not Afshin-Jam's only priority these days. Thanks to her work on Nazanin's case, Afshin-Jam became aware of 160 other child prisoners facing execution in Iran. She wanted to help them too, so she founded Stop Child Executions. Throughout her work, she's faced a lot of difficulties and dissenters, both within the human rights community and in Iran. However, Afshin-Jam wants to focus on the positive and the many campaigns around the world for prisoners like Nazanin that were inspired by her efforts. "It shouldn't have to take all this effort to save one life," Afshin-Jam said. "But, I think, in time, with all these little mini-successes, we'll be able to reverse the major laws."
That's not Afshin-Jam's only goal for Iran. "My great hope is for this regime to crumble," she said. "For people to finally be able to voice who they want in power and how they want their country to be run."