The woman who tried to extinguish her despair with fire

CPT reports on a Mytilini public court proceeding against Parwaneh, a young Afghan mother accused of arson and property damage. The trial occurred on 9 February 2023, monitored by Aegean Migrant Solidarity, Legal Centre Lesvos, and other partners.
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A bannar hangs outside the Mytilini courthouse that reads in Farsi: Attempting suicide is not a crime, it is the result of rotten policies.
A banner hangs outside the courthouse in Mytilini in support of a woman on trial. The banner reads, "Attempting suicide is not a crime, it is the result of rotten policies."

Before the Fire

Parwaneh* was at the end of her pregnancy, due to give birth to her fourth child through cesarean in a Mytilini hospital. Living in Mavrovouni (Kara Tepe refugee camp) meant that there were no midwives, nurses, or therapists to offer care, only guards and other camp personnel. Many women have suffered through cesarean sections while living in the camp and she was panicking about the horror of going through another one herself.  

She had been living with her husband as an undocumented Afghan refugee in Iran. When they arrived to Lesvos after surviving the dangerous journey across the Aegean Sea, they were housed in the Moria camp. After Moria burned to the ground, they were transferred without consent to the newly built concentration camp of Mavrovouni (Kara Tepe Camp). They were given a tent on the bare ground, without any planks under it. Parwaneh and her family occupied one half, eight square metres, while another family lived in the other half. Authorities had accepted Parwaneh and her family for a relocation program to Germany, but suddenly, their transfer was canceled due to her late-stage pregnancy. Since they held refugee status, they had the right to find accommodation elsewhere; her husband had been trying to find accommodation in Mytilini for a long time without success. 

Parwaneh’s anxiety about another cesarean section and her sense of being stuck in this perpetual state of waiting compounded her previous thoughts about committing suicide. The camp is truly a prison. There is no way to leave without consent and permission from the police. One side is the sea, and the other side is the wall. There is no way out. 

The Kafkaesque response to self-immolation

21 February 2021 was a cold winter day in the new concentration camp of Mavrovouni (Kara Tepe) with temperatures ranging between 3-7 degrees Celcius, but the high humidity meant the cold creeps into your bones.

Parwaneh’s husband had gone to shower while she remained inside her family’s half of the tent. After sending her three kids to go outside, she gathered a pile of clothes and set them on fire. Shortly after, her neighbour noticed the smoke and rushed in to find Parwaneh caught on fire. He wrapped her with blankets and put out the flames. 

When Parwaneh’s husband returned, the tent had already burnt down and Parwaneh was badly burned. He accompanied his wife to the hospital and then returned to the camp to be with their kids. The fire brigade arrived and asked him some questions, and then left. 

But what happened in the hospital? Soon after arriving—while in the middle of receiving burn treatment from a traumatic attempted self-immolation to liberate herself from her anxieties and despair—the judicial machinery started its procedures. They interrogated her, asking her if the burns resulted from a cooking fire. “I set fire to myself because I wanted to kill myself,” answers Parwaneh repeatedly. The public prosecutor arrived and began his own investigation, scolding Parwaneh for endangering her unborn baby’s life. “You should be ashamed of yourself as a mother,” he told her. 

The public prosecutor charged her with ‘endangering life,’ ‘arson,’ and ‘property damage of the state and others.’ A few days later, Parwaneh gave birth to her baby through cesarean section and then transferred to the psychiatric ward without her newborn baby. Eventually, she was moved to a hospital in Athens. She was heavily medicated, and the Athens Psychiatric Hospital concluded that Parwaneh “had an element of despair,” but could not find any “suicidal ideation.” 

Meanwhile, Parwaneh was reunited with her newborn baby, her husband, and their other children, and they moved to Germany, where they now reside. 

The trial 

Two years later in the Mytilini courthouse on 8 February 2023, Parwaneh is on trial for charges of ‘arson,’ a felony with sentences of up to ten years in prison, and ‘property damage,’ a misdemeanor with sentences of less than three years in prison and the possibility of parole. 

Parwaneh’s husband was present for the trial but not Parwaneh herself. Parwaneh’s lawyers explained to the jury that she could not attend due to ongoing trauma recovery of her attempted suicide and its consequences. The public prosecutor responded by questioning Parwaneh’s mental health situation and demanding evidence to prove her state of distress. 

Parwaneh’s husband then gave an elaborate and detailed testimony of the events, but unfortunately, the interpretation was lacking since interpreters are paid very little money and require no formal authorization. Parwaneh’s husband spoke in his native Farsi, interpreted into English and then from English to Greek.  His testimony was very moving, addressing the systematic and violent factors that led to her attempting suicide, and that her intention was not to hurt anyone other than herself. He begged the jury to vindicate his wife and allow her and her family to heal from the trauma of what happened. He ended his testimony by saying that Parwaneh is a good woman, and a great wife and mother. All these beautiful and elaborate Farsi expressions and stories were lost in an unfinished English sentence. 

Other witnesses testified for the defence. Each time, the prosecutor asked them if they worked with an NGO and which one, indicating that anyone who works with NGOs is biased and that the jury should not take their testimony seriously. 

The prosecutor did not believe that Parwaneh’s suicide attempt was valid, citing other more effective ways to commit suicide but he did accept that her attempted suicide was perhaps a way to protest. After five hours, the court concluded that Parwaneh would be acquitted of the arson charge but would be sentenced to 15 months for property damage. 

When the lawyers asked the jury to consider the mitigating circumstances, including a lack of petty crimes and previous lawful life, the prosecutor protested, stating that “they arrived in Greece illegally,” meaning that the “previous lawful life” cannot be considered as mitigating circumstances. 

The jury accepted “no petty crimes” as a mitigating circumstance and, after some more arguing, Parwaneh was sentenced to 15 months on parole. The lawyers objected immediately and entered a private room with the judges to file an appeal. Because despair is not a crime.

Conclusion

The judicial harassment of Parwaneh began with the accusation of attempted murder of her unborn child. There is no such crime in the Hellenic Legal Code that pregnant women who attempt suicide are guilty of attempted murder of their unborn child. This stigmatization stems from a context of rape in the concentration camp, where medical practitioners deliberately delayed the termination of migrant women victims’ unwanted pregnancies until the legal abortion window had passed so the women were forced to keep the children of their rapists. The procedures also speak to a context in which the mere existence of migrants is criminalized and even their failed attempt to end their despair is forced through the Kafkaesque maze of psychiatric diagnosis, court proceedings, and the threat of losing your child. 

Parwaneh did not deserve two years of state-sponsored legal harassment. She needed care, a future for her children, a stable roof over her head, a stable floor under her feet, and a life where she could thrive. Now that she has left the concentration camp that caused her such despair, and now that she is in Germany with her family, the judicial harassment against her must end.  The court systems must leave her alone to build a life with her husband and four kids, after struggling so much, travelling so far, and suffering so many tragedies. 


*Name changed for privacy reasons

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