The 20-year-old Iranian had hoped to escape the country, where he felt stifled by the Iranian regime’s restrictions on homosexuality, and had dreams of modeling or becoming a make-up artist, his partner Aghil Abiat told CNN. In long phone calls and video messages with Abiat — who is a refugee in Turkey after being outed in Iran — Fazeli-Monfared would describe the experiences he longed to have and the life he wanted to build.
But on May 4, Fazeli-Monfared was killed, possibly after his extended family discovered that he was gay through a military service exemption card that arrived in the mail, according to Abiat and the Iranian LGBTQ organization 6Rang. Abiat said Fazeli-Monfared’s mother confirmed his death to him, but she did not respond to CNN’s calls or messages to a phone number provided by Abiat.
The couple met on a public social media channel for members of the Iranian LGBTQ community looking for support around six months ago, according to Abiat. They began chatting, and sending video messages back and forth. “Our communication was wonderful. We were honest with each other … Alireza had so much he wanted to experience and he was honest about that as well,” Abiat said.
Always seething in the background, however, was building family pressure and Iran’s draconian laws against homosexuality that make same-sex relations a potential capital offense. “He was always stressed. He bit his nails so there were never any left,” Abiat recalled.
Iran is one of 68 countries where same-sex relations between consenting adults is criminalized, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). “(The) LGBTQ community is one of the most marginalized in Iran, they face various levels of discrimination and hate. The most obvious one is by law but there is also a lot of homophobia in society depending on where you are and which demographic you belong to … the family can sometimes be the most dangerous place,” Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at HRW.
Just days before the alleged killing, Fazeli-Monfared told Abiat about the arrival of his military service card. Fazeli-Monfared also told his partner that he thought the envelope had been opened and resealed. The couple shrugged it off at the time — chalking it up to paranoia. “We talked about it but we didn’t do anything about it, we thought it was just in our heads,” Abiat said. But the document exempted Fazeli-Monfared from military service on the grounds of his sexuality, and it may have led to his wider family finding out his sexual identity.
Military exemption cards have become weaponized against the LGBTQ community, according to 6Rang. “These exemption cards are issued through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Alireza received one … indicating that he was gay, which is permissible under … the military exemption laws. Unfortunately, in Alireza’s case, this selection cost him his life,” the advocacy group said in a statement.
Iran allows exemptions for gay men from its mandatory military service under a medical category for mental health disorders. “The idea is that they are not fit for service because of their sexual orientation,” said Sepehri Far. The card showing either the exemption or completion of military service is vital to function in Iranian society and is required for even basic things such as getting passports. But the exemption is also “confirmation of your sexual orientation in a society where your sexual orientation is criminalized,” the HRW researcher added.
The last time the Fazeli-Monfared and Abiat spoke, on May 2, Fazeli-Monfared said he would go to a store to switch his phone, then buy a train ticket from Ahvaz, his hometown in southwest Iran, to the capital Tehran to get a Covid-19 test for travel to Turkey. Abiat, who is also Iranian and left the country three years ago after a former partner outed him to his family, is currently a refugee waiting for resettlement in Turkey.
By May 4, Abiat had begun to worry. Fazeli-Monfared’s phone was not online. When he called no one picked up. When he read reports of his partner’s murder, he didn’t believe them. A friend also called to tell him the news but Abiat still refused to believe it.
Finally, on May 6, he rang Fazeli-Monfared’s mother, who he calls Mama Ali. They had been previously acquainted through video calls when Fazeli-Monfared would put his mother on the phone. “She knew me as his friend, just friend,” he said. In text and voice messages with his partner’s mother, and then with his aunt, Abiat has pieced together his partner’s terrible fate.
CNN has called and messaged the number Abiat provided but was not able to speak to the person he identifies as Mama Ali, and cannot independently confirm the account below. He has provided CNN with screen shots of the conversations and audio messages.
“Mama Ali, this is Aghil, we talked couple of months back. What are people talking about? What are all these stupid things they are saying about Alireza … I can’t believe this … Please tell me that it’s a lie,” Abiat wrote in a message followed by crying emojis.
She replied with a short message: “No it’s true. They have killed Ali.”
Abiat and Mama Ali continued to text back and forth. When she got overwhelmed, Fazeli-Monfared’s aunt took over and explained the details in a voice message. “We found his body after two days. We found him … and now it is in the morgue dear,” she said.
The aunt went on to explain how when Fazeli-Monfared didn’t come home, his mother went to the phone store to ask about her son. The shopkeeper told her that while he was in the store someone came in, then told Fazeli-Monfared that his father was looking for him and told him to come with them.
When Fazeli-Monfared stepped out of the store he was forced into a car, the shopkeeper told Mama Ali. “There were three people in the car,” the aunt said in the messages to Abiat.
The aunt told Abiat that the alleged murderers also phoned her to say what they’d done. “They killed him … and the same night they called and said that they killed him,” she wrote in a text message.
“The killers” the aunt alleged were male members of the victim’s extended family. “They packed up the same night and fled to their relatives and left their house and wives behind,” the aunt alleged. CNN was unable to contact those individuals and it is unclear if a criminal case has been opened or charges have been filed. And while Fazeli-Monfared’s death has received considerable media attention, senior Iranian officials have not commented on the matter.
Speaking to CNN, Abiat said that all he wants now is justice for Fazeli-Monfared. “I want the killers to have a fair trial in which Alireza’s sexual orientation is not a consideration,” he added.
The man who Abiat had hoped to build a life with is gone. “He was beautiful, handsome. He was kind and determined … All our hopes and plans have vanished” Abiat said. “We were supposed to do it together but now I will have to do it alone.”