Correction: Appended, April 18.
Balal was standing on a chair, blindfolded and with a noose around his neck, when the mother of the man he stabbed to death seven years ago approached him, the Guardian reports. According to some interpretations of Shari‘a, the victim’s family participates in the punishment by pushing the chair from under the condemned man. But this time, the mother of the victim slapped Balal across the face and then helped the victim’s father remove the noose.
Photographer Arash Khamooshi captured the unexpected moment on April 15 in the northern Iranian city of Nowshahr. Khamooshi was following the public execution from the beginning, when Balal was dragged to the gallows in front of a crowd of onlookers that included Balal’s mother. And Khamooshi captured the aftermath, when the mothers of the murderer and the victim embraced.
But while Balal’s fortune is the story of forgiveness, hundreds of other condemned Iranians are not as lucky. An Amnesty International report released earlier this year found that Iran put to death at least 369 people and likely several hundreds of others — more people than any country in the world except China. Last week U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rebuked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for failing to improve human rights, including its high level of executions.
The victim’s family had already received calls from across the country, including from the prominent sportscaster Adel Ferdosipour, to forgive Balal, and she said her son came to her in a dream days before the execution to tell her that he was in a good place and that she should not avenge his death. Her ultimate decision spares Balal the death penalty according to Iranian law but does not necessarily free him from prison.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly referred to the victim’s parents.