They met in the queue for refugee status, married and made a new life in Australia. But Leila Alavi is dead at her husband’s hands. How did a young couple’s dream become this nightmare?
A nine-beat clap bursts in a cry of I-RAN. Now, a snare drum’s tat-tat-tat-tat impels fans to get feet moving, one last twirl around the concourse. A swell of bodies bobs in splashes of green, white, red. Iran’s tricolour is pasted on arms, foreheads, lips and cheeks.
On this Thursday evening in mid-January last year, Leila Alavi, 24, is making her way through the pop-up bazaar enclosing Sydney’s Olympic Stadium to watch Iran play Qatar in the Asian Cup football tournament. She’s with her best friend Paria Hashemi, who is a year younger. Both are refugees from Iran and work at a hairdressing salon in nearby Auburn. Leila is so excited she flits past people, light as a bird.
What a night to be alive.
Men in shorts and singlets are carrying little shahs sick of the forest view of legs from strollers. Back in Leila’s hometown of Urmia in West Azerbaijan province, the days are brief, the temperature drops below zero and snow covers the nearby forests.
Before scanning their tickets at the gate, young men take a knee to have shaved heads spray-painted in Iran’s colours. Leila and Paria are wearing white T-shirts with the slogan: Keep Calm and Love Iran.
The friends, who see each other every day, met at Granville TAFE and this year will aim to finish the Higher School Certificate, while working as apprentice hairdressers. One day, they scheme and dream, they’ll design buildings or run their own salon.
Mokhtar calls her a dozen times a day. He can’t help himself or function without her.
Leila has just updated her Facebook cover picture. It shows her and Paria at the 2013 Iran versus Socceroos World Cup qualifier at this venue, their lips painted in the tricolour, just like they are tonight.
There are almost 54,000 Iranian-born in Australia and it feels like they’re all here tonight to party. Leila and Paria find their seats with a score of family and friends; they’ll spend most of the night on their feet, Leila shooting snippets of video on her phone to share with family in Iran.
What a night to be alive.
Also in this joyous throng is Mokhtar Hosseiniamraei, 33, Leila’s estranged husband. The couple separated 12 weeks earlier after police took out a Apprehended Domestic Violence Order. The ADVO forbids him to assault, molest, harass, threaten, interfere, intimidate or stalk her. Still, Mokhtar calls her a dozen times a day. He can’t help himself or function without her; impulsive, a jittery jumble of modern substances and ancient choler.
Mokhtar could never master his urges, nor temper his taste for drugs – first hashish, then marijuana, now ice and heroin and OxyContin. At least he could control Leila. After all, Mokhtar was the man, in command. He thought that was the deal about marriage, although in this country Mokhtar believed the rules were too loose. When Leila wouldn’t obey him, he’d raise his voice and launch his fists in fury at her soft flesh.
You used me so you could come to Australia.
I’m going to kill you.
Iran’s Asiatic Cheetahs prevail 1-0 in a scrappy game, redeemed by two touches of brilliance just after half time. The nine-beat pulse of Sydney’s jubilant Iranians spills out to a cacophony of plastic horns, drums, and a surge of red-raw hands.
What a night to be alive, here in this warm city of pleasure and promise; the old country’s honour upheld, a moment of relief from Mokhtar’s outrage and Leila’s fear. It’s almost 10pm, so Leila and friends head to McDonalds, just beyond the concourse.
Mokhtar sends Leila a text. He is upset – he’s always wounded in some way – because his estranged wife has gone to the game with her friends, not him. Now, in a nearby park, he wants to see her. Leila is accustomed to saying yes to him, so she goes with a friend to meet him, otherwise he’ll keep texting her into the small hours. Mokhtar is grouchy, Leila will tell her friend Paria later.
“When I told our mother Leila and I had escaped to Turkey, she just screamed.”
A waning one-third crescent moon rises in the hours after game’s end. Paria drives Leila home, the car buzzing with the chatter of victory and singsong, tempered by the fact Friday is a workday.
Yet the tumble of events that followed was as swift as it was calamitous, opening an abyss of grief. By Saturday mid-morning, Leila has bled to death from 56 stab wounds. The trial judge will describe her dying moments as “utterly terrifying”.
“Leila, stand here and don’t move,” Mitra Alavi is telling her 18-year-old sister. “Please, wait here for me and don’t speak to anyone.” The Alavi sisters have gone to the UNHCR office in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to secure refugee status.
It’s 2009 and the sisters, from a family of eight children – Mitra, 28, the eldest, Leila the fifth-born – fled Urmia, the “Paris of Iran” in some reckonings, two years earlier and are living in Aksaray.
The pair works long shifts in a restaurant, struggling to get the orders right, muddling through on their meagre Turkish and waitressing skills. They’ve developed a taste for Turkish cuisine. Although the sisters were brought up as Muslims, neither is observant; Mitra has slowly turned against religion and is comfortable with Turkey’s secularism.
The Alavis hope to go to America, where their sister Marjan, also known as “Jackie”, has settled in Seattle. Their second preference is Australia, where other Iranians have found asylum, then Europe, although they don’t have a specific place in mind.
“In Iran, the man is up here,” she says, stretching out her arm, palm down. “But a woman is always down here.”
Leila was only 16 when they fled. They told authorities her documents had gone missing (and bumped up Leila’s age by two years). “When I told our mother Leila and I had escaped to Turkey, she just screamed,” recalls Mitra. “But we wanted a new and better life. The Iranian government was not good, especially not good for women.”
The sisters were inseparable, more like a mother and daughter in Mitra’s mind. Their father ran a brick factory and their mother was an invalid for long stretches during a severe illness, so Mitra became the main carer for her sisters and brothers and later qualified as an accountant.
“In Iran, the man is up here,” she says, stretching out her right arm, palm down. “But a woman is always down here. She can never be the same as a man at work.”
Mitra complained to superiors about the discrimination against women in the workplace, wrote letters to then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about it. These actions earned her a reputation for being a troublemaker; she’d been detained by authorities several times, her parents having to pay a bond to get her released from custody.
“Straight away, I could feel a negative energy from this man.”
When Mitra decided to leave Iran, Leila insisted on going with her. The sisters crossed the border to Turkey, which was only 50km away from their home and stayed in Van, in the country’s east, which was crawling with Iranian police. They settled in Aksaray, in central Anatolia, where winters are achingly cold.
In the queue ahead of the Alavi sisters at the UNHCR office that day was another Iranian, a young man they’d soon come to know was from Sari, the one-time capital of Iran. Even with his back to them, Mitra sensed a bad vibe.
“Straight away, I could feel a negative energy from this man,” Mitra says. “While we waited to be called to see the lawyer I put myself between him and Leila. I said ‘Leila, please stand here’, behind me and to the side.”
When Mitra returned from her interview to the waiting area she found chatty Leila speaking to strongly built, dark-haired 27-year-old Mokhtar Hosseiniamraei. A recent arrival in Turkey, he had applied for asylum and was seeking resettlement in Australia, where he had a sister.
He was forced to attend the Mosque and mocked for his mispronunciations of the Koran.
The Hosseiniamraei family ran a chicken farm. The way Mokhtar tells it, local Muslims seized the family’s land, in the village of Amreh, before the 1979 Revolution. In his refugee claim, Mokhtar said he was an adherent to the repressed minority Baha’i faith.
In Iran, he claimed, he’d endured discrimination and harassment, even at school by other students and teachers because he was not a Muslim; he was forced to attend the Mosque and mocked for his mispronunciations of the Koran. Mokhtar told UNHCR staff that during a martial arts competition as a teenager, he was shunned as a non-Muslim, “considered dirty” by other competitors. Even though his opponent refused to fight him, Mokhtar lost a Kung Fu bout.
As a non-Muslim, Mokhtar said he was unable to further his education beyond 10th grade and had to work in menial jobs, where he was paid less, or not at all. He did his military service in his early 20s, specialising in cleaning and maintenance duties in the 84th infantry division.
But the episode that transformed his life in Iran, and imperilled it, he put to UNHCR officials, was falling in love with a Muslim girl called Athena, with whom he conducted a clandestine relationship. Mokhtar wanted to marry Athena but her father was a conservative Muslim, a member of Iran’s intelligence agency, who threatened him.
He wrote his telephone number on a piece of paper, scrunched it into a ball and threw it to her.
Mokhtar broke contact and went to live in Saveh, about 400km from Sari. Athena went to Mokhtar and they began living together for a time; but the father found his daughter and beat her. Fearing for his life, Mokhtar fled to Tehran. In the capital he was helped by his brother-in-law, then took a train to Turkey in October 2007.
On that cold day in Ankara, having again outlined the sisters’ claim, Mitra admonished Leila for talking to the stranger. Years later, Leila would tell Paria how sorry she felt for the man from Sari and his prospects. “His poor wife,” was Leila’s first, eerily prophetic, impression.
Mokhtar was smitten by doe-eyed Leila. As the Alavis were leaving he wrote his telephone number on a piece of paper, scrunched it into a ball and threw it to the teenager. Leila kept that detail from her protective sister, and six months later began secret contact with Mokhtar.
Mitra often thinks about that chance encounter in Ankara. What if we’d gone another day to the UNHCR? Mokhtar would never have met Leila. The what ifs of fate, the turns of fortune, the sheer accidents of life and love.
Turkey’s bitterly cold winter took its toll on the Alavis. Not yet entitled to refugee services, the sisters’ earnings – Mitra was working around the clock in a restaurant, Leila had a job in a library – went towards rent and food. Unable to afford fuel for heating, Mitra says they got sick and were hospitalised. Mitra recovered, but frail Leila got pneumonia and was confined to hospital; the bill for a foreigner was exorbitant.
Mitra found a better job in Kayseri, a larger industrial city, where Mokhtar, too, was living; she left Leila in the care of friends, paid for her rent, food and medicine. While the sisters lived in different cities, the romance between Leila and Mokhtar blossomed.
Mokhtar said he stabbed himself in the neck with a knife.
“I told Leila to stay away from Mokhtar,” says Mitra. “But she didn’t listen to me. ‘I love him’ she’d say. ‘He has problems, he just needs help’.”
At 16, Mokhtar had started smoking hashish, then a few years later began using morphine about once a month or every couple of months. In Turkey, he continued to smoke cannabis and began to use ‘ice’.
A depressive, Mokhtar had been unable to get into the rhythm of ordinary life. Even as a teenager he’d had episodes of self-harm. He felt hopeless and years later he’d tell a psychiatrist how he’d survived two suicide attempts in his home country. The first time, at 17 or 18, he stabbed himself in the chest with a knife; a few years later he took an overdose of opiates. In Turkey, Mokhtar said he stabbed himself in the neck with a knife and in another episode went through a glass window, resulting in wounds and cuts.
“I always felt sad,” he’d tell doctors in Australia years later. “I sometimes cried at night. I sometimes drank alcohol to sleep… I couldn’t do anything.”
If he suspected strangers were ogling his beautiful wife in the street, he’d assault them, break car windows, and chastise her.
But he found his saviour and object of obsession in Leila. In January 2010, with Mokhtar’s case now being assessed by Australian immigration officials in Ankara, the couple married in a civil ceremony.
Mitra says Mokhtar could not hold jobs due to his drug use and volatile behaviour. If he suspected strangers were ogling his beautiful wife in the street, he’d assault them, break car windows, and chastise her. Not only was Mokhtar relying on the support from his family in Iran, he had come to depend on Leila as his emotional and financial rock.
Based on his work experience, health and living arrangements, Australian officials deemed there was “no local integration possible” for Mokhtar in Turkey. His visa application was changed from refugee (subclass 200) to global special humanitarian (subclass 202), meaning the Australian government would not pay the couple’s travel costs to Australia (borne by the proposer).
In June, the couple was granted permanent settlement on humanitarian grounds – two of the 400 approved in Ankara that year – and they were soon living in western Sydney, where Mokhtar had a sister Seyyedehmahnaz or “Hana”.
Granted refugee status in Turkey, Mitra’s application for resettlement would now have to start from scratch. If Mitra wanted to keep a protective eye on Leila – married to the dark stranger who radiated bad energy – she would have to apply to go to Australia.
Yellow was Leila’s favourite colour. From her Facebook posts, you can see she often wore yellow shorts to the beach, had her fingernails painted in that colour. On her wedding day in 2011, Leila had a bouquet of yellow flowers at the Baha’i House of Worship in Sydney’s northern suburbs and carried it throughout the day as she posed for photos with Mokhtar at landmarks around the harbour city. The bride and groom could not have wished for a better day, an azure sky above, a gentle breeze blowing the flowing curls below Leila’s dainty tiara.
Leila settled quickly into Australia, holding a job, making friends beyond the tight Iranian émigré community. She started English language lessons, enrolled in TAFE to complete her schooling, and enjoyed the resort city’s possibilities.
After living with Hana’s family, the couple rented a unit in Liverpool, in Sydney’s southwestern suburbs. Leila got her driver’s licence and bought a car. And, like all new brides, she loved showing off her bright gold wedding band and engagement ring; but in her case they were trophies of perseverance and sacrifice, because she’d bought them herself on lay-by.
Leila worked at the Benjamin Salon and was popular with customers and the other business owners at the Auburn Village complex. “Leila and I would often talk,” recalled Zeynep Zabinoglu, who ran a café there. “She was a talkative, happy, outgoing person, who always had a smile on her face.”
They spoke in Turkish, and Leila called Zeynep Abla, or big sister. Kindness was another of Leila’s virtues; it was the first thing people said about her. Paria remembers how once at the salon, a client with cancer admired a wallet Leila had purchased the day before.
“Mokhtar didn’t want Leila to enjoy her life.”
“Leila took everything out of the wallet and gave it to the sick woman,” says Paria. “She was always kind and generous like that and the customers really liked her.”
Mokhtar struggled to hold jobs or to resist his addictions; he’d argue with supervisors, turn up at work on the nod. When Mitra arrived a few years later, she stayed with the couple for a few months but did not get on with her brother-in-law.
Mitra could not understand why Mokhtar didn’t work; she learned from Leila that he was a drug user. Mokhtar’s welfare payments would be spent on cannabis, heroin and ice, while Leila’s paltry wage barely covered the rent, food and living expenses.
At Granville TAFE Leila met Paria. They were both in their 20s by now, studying Year 9 in an accelerated form. At first, Leila didn’t reveal anything to Paria about her husband – his temper, jealousy, violent outbursts – but the friend heard from other Iranians that Mokhtar was not a good person. Paria says he was domineering and controlling, antagonistic and surly in social situations.
“Mokhtar didn’t want Leila to enjoy her life,” she says, recalling the fights he would start with his wife on nights out with friends or on holidays. On a camping trip, Paria remembers Leila shaking hands with another man, the boyfriend of another friend, upon meeting him.
“It’s normal right?” says Paria of the greeting. “But Mokhtar began fighting with Leila just because she shook hands with a man. He wasn’t a good husband.”
One night when the staff at the salon and their partners went to dinner with the boss, Mokhtar, high on substances, fell asleep on the table at the restaurant. Paria says Leila was mortified, and shuffled Mokhtar out to the car to sleep it off.
Friends begged Leila to leave Mokhtar and to divorce him, to make a fresh start. But Leila could not do it.
The drugs and the indolence were one thing, but Mokhtar often physically assaulted his tiny wife. Leila would turn up to work with bruises on her body. On a warm day when Mitra visited Mokhtar in hospital, Leila was there wearing a scarf; she saw bruising around Leila’s neck and throat.
“I wanted to kill Mokhtar right then,” says Mitra. “I was burning inside but for the sake of my sister I had to stay calm and smile.”
More than once, Leila told her sister and friends, Mokhtar tried to smother her with a pillow while she was sleeping in their unit at Toongabbie, in Sydney’s west; she’d struggle to breathe and would pass out. The couple often slept in separate bedrooms, the night owl Mokhtar, high on something, surfing the Internet, in constant contact with Iran; then, sleeping off the day while Leila was at work.
Mitra, Paria and other friends begged Leila to leave Mokhtar and to divorce him, to make a fresh start. But Leila could not do it. “She felt sorry for him,” says Paria. “Leila said Mokhtar was sick and that she had to help him. ‘He’ll get better’, she said.”
In late 2013, Leila and Paria took a three-month holiday to Iran. It was a great trip, the two friends staying with the Alavis, who hadn’t seen their daughter in six years. They visited Mokhtar’s extended family as well (almost all of whom had remained in Iran).
While Leila was away, Mokhtar lived in squalor; Leila begged Mitra to check on her husband’s welfare, provide food for him and make sure the Toongabbie unit was habitable and that the rent was being paid. But Mokhtar spiralled even further into drug abuse and destitution.
She hoped one day to have a daughter, with Mokhtar, of course.
Mitra and Paria saw the trip to Iran as the perfect opportunity for Leila to leave her husband; they urged her to simply cut off contact, to put space between them. Instead of returning to Sydney, they advised Leila to go to Melbourne to stay with friends; it would break the cycle of violence and control, speed the path to divorce. Although Leila went along with the scheme, to a point, Mitra and Paria say they sensed her heart wasn’t in it.
As Leila told Paria, she hoped one day to have a daughter, with Mokhtar, of course. Leila saw the vulnerability in him, the illness that stopped him being the man she believed he could be. Those closest to Leila believe her protectiveness toward Mokhtar was borne of character, pity and, mostly, love.
The way Leila told it, one day she’d run a salon with Paria; Mitra would do the books, nothing more, rest her weary feet and talk to clients. After all, Mitra had done so much for Leila, raised her in fact. The future would work itself out.
But Mokhtar was using a cap of heroin and a similar amount of ice each day, as well as smoking three or four cannabis joints. In January 2014, just after their fourth wedding anniversary, Leila went to the Department of Human Services in Blacktown to see a social worker. Distressed and in tears, Leila told the woman how Mokhtar had grabbed her by the throat, had tried to put a pillow over her face to choke her; she pointed to marks on the left side of her neck. According to police, the incident was recorded at the time.
Yet no matter how often Mokhtar blew the bank account on drugs or gambled it away at the RSL, abused her with words, spoilt a night out, knocked her down, grabbed her around the throat, put a pillow over her face, Leila simply kept calm and loved Mokhtar. Leila’s friends believe she thought one day he would change for her.
“Leila always made excuses for Mokhtar,” Paria says about his behaviour. “She’d say, ‘Mokhtar is sick’ or ‘He’s really not as bad as you think he is’.”
“Leila loved Mokhtar,” Mitra says, in a flat, direct way, as simple and tragic and unbending a fact in her telling as the climax: “Mokhtar killed Leila”.
Even a saint has a breaking point. Or there comes a moment of clarity, self-preservation, if not utter desperation. In late October 2014, over two incessant days, Mokhtar’s intimidations jumped the rails and Leila called police; to save him, she first had to save herself.
It was a Saturday and Mokhtar called Leila at work. “You are a slut,” Mokhtar shouted into the phone. “I’m going to kill you and I’m going to fix up your sister and friends who have been teaching you this.”
Leila reported it to Auburn Police, who applied for a ADVO. The order said Mokhtar “must not assault, molest, harass, threaten or otherwise interfere” with Leila; it forbid him to intimidate or stalk Leila or any person with whom she had a domestic relationship (although there was no other person involved).
Leila left the Toongabbie home and went to live with Mitra, who was residing in the inner city, a long distance from Leila’s work and Granville TAFE; she spent time at Paria’s home, which her friend shared with a brother, mother and step-father.
Mitra went from shelter to shelter in the inner city, from charity to charity, trying to find a safe place for Leila; Mitra says she went to over a dozen places but there was no vacancy for Leila. The only open place was in Wollongong, 80km south of Sydney.
In tears, he’d call Leila at all hours – 2am, 3am, 5am – threatening to hurt himself.
Leila floated between sleeping at Mitra’s small unit and bunking down in Paria’s bedroom, but continued to pay the rent on the Toongabbie home that Mokhtar occupied; Leila paid for his cigarettes, telephone and the internet service. She’d take her husband food and clean the unit.
Leila felt humiliated by the state of affairs. She confided in Paria that she had pleaded with her husband: just do one thing for me – one small thing, like get a job, stop taking drugs – so that I can tell my sister and friends that you have changed, are getting better, and so that I can go back to you.
But Mokhtar slipped into a deep funk, a pit of misery. In tears, he’d call Leila at all hours – 2am, 3am, 5am – threatening to hurt himself. She answered the phone without fail and tried to calm him. The calls would stop at 8am, when Mokhtar ran out of energy and an exhausted Leila stumbled out of bed to get to work or TAFE. Then, that afternoon, the calls from Mokhtar would begin again. Friends told Leila to turn off the phone so she could sleep, but she feared for Mokhtar’s wellbeing.
In November, two weeks after Leila moved out, police were called to the Toongabbie unit because Mokhtar was threatening to stab himself. When they arrived, the disturbed man asked the officers to shoot him or to pass him a gun so that he could shoot himself.
He was taken to Cumberland Hospital, agitated and irritable, according to the doctors who assessed him. Mokhtar banged his head on the glass in the reception area, tried to assault the security staff, swore at those trying to help him. “Just let me go to die”, he cried, before being given an emergency sedative.
When a tearful Mokhtar saw a psychiatrist the next day, he was judged to be suffering from an adjustment disorder and prescribed an antidepressant. Leila visited him in the hospital and spoke to the doctors about Mokhtar’s jealousy and paranoia and the substance abuse he had hidden from them.
Reviewing his case, doctors believed the patient may well be suffering from a borderline personality disorder, “endorsing symptoms of identity disturbance, affective dysregulation, interpersonal sensitivity, impulsivity, idealisation/devaluation and a fear of abandonment.” He was detained as a mentally disordered person. On the tenth day, Mokhtar was discharged and returned to the Toongabbie unit.
He started living rough in a park in North Parramatta; “the jungle” he called it.
In mid-December, after Mokhtar was served with a termination notice from the rental managers, he stormed into the Housing NSW office in Parramatta. He demanded accommodation and storage for household items, yelled at the female staff and swore, threw a chair into a glass security screen, knocked over furniture.
Motherfucker. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.
Staff retreated for their own safety and called police, before Mokhtar left the scene. But the agitated man soon returned to the office to be met by police. He asked the police to provide housing or storage for his property, but they explained it wasn’t their role to do that.
As Mokhtar was ushered out, police told him he would be receiving a notice to appear in court for recklessly damaging property and behaving in an offensive manner in a public place.
Turfed out of home, Mokhtar went to live with his sister Hana and her extended family. His mood deteriorated and his behaviour became more desperate. Around Christmas, Mokhtar would later say, he started living rough in a park in North Parramatta; “the jungle” he called it when asked for his address. He resented Australia, which looked after his wife and everybody else, made it easy for her to dishonour him, turned its back on him.
They took everything from me and they help her… they send me to jungle.
But Leila never turned her back on him. She accompanied Mokhtar to medical appointments, lent him the two-door Holden Astra she’d bought when he needed the car, still believed in his ability to get better.
Leila was also considering a visit to the United States, to see her sister Jackie. In early January, the Alavi sisters were trying to find money for an air ticket to Seattle, which would bring respite from the constant chaos that came with Mokhtar.
On the day before the Iran football game, Leila went to the café run by Zeynep, her Turkish “Big Sister”, ordering a coffee and banana bread. A strange order, because Leila was a tea drinker.
“Who is this for?” asked Zeynep. “You don’t drink coffee.”
“Abla I’ve left him,” Leila replied. “But I’m still looking after him because I don’t want him to hurt himself.”
“He said he was going to kill me and all of us.”
On the day after the Iran football match, Leila and Paria were still excited about the result, the chants and joy of their friends and country folk buzzing in their heads. During the afternoon, Leila got a phone call from Mokhtar that rattled her, in a way his terrible words had never before.
“He said he was going to kill me and all of us,” Leila told one of the other workers in the salon. “Probably he is watching too many movies.”
Five minutes later Leila was speaking to the telephone company to change her mobile number. She began texting friends with a new number. Leila told Paria she changed the number so Mokhtar could no longer contact her. It was a decisive break, a glimpse of a new frontier.
Leila had a restless night, despite being free of Mokhtar’s relentless nocturnal electronic invasions. At 8am on Saturday morning Zeynep bumped into Leila in the car park at Auburn Village; they walked together up the ramp to their workplaces.
“She looked very down and wasn’t smiling, like she usually was,” Zeynep told police about the last time she saw Leila. “I thought that she may have just been tired.”
Just before 9.30am, Mokhtar appeared on the ramp leading to the car park. He called out, trying to get Leila’s attention. Although she was cutting a client’s hair, Leila told Paria and the other girls she was stepping out to talk to Mokhtar.
Mokhtar had been due to work with his brother-in-law at a painting job that day, but was nowhere to be found. He’d left Hana’s house early that morning and made his way from Merrylands to Auburn by bus. At Big W he stole a pair of scissors.
And then Leila got into the blue two-door Astra with her agitated, angry, estranged husband.
Keep Calm and Love Mokhtar.
For veterans of law enforcement, this is a simple story about power and submission. Some might see here the confluence of several insistent forces in Australian life: refugee displacement, misogyny, addiction and funding cuts to vital social services. True. But they amount to a swirling uproar and are beside the point.
The fact is Leila Alavi, 24, is in the morgue. An autopsy, two days later, will show the 60kg, 1.68m woman, wearing a grey top and black leggings, died of “multiple sharp injuries” caused by scissors. There is almost 1 litre of blood in her chest due to internal injuries of both lungs. The pathologist found 22 stab wounds to the head and neck area; 27 stab wounds in the torso; and, 7 stab wounds over the left shoulder and upper arm, as well as defensive injuries on her hands. 56 stab wounds, at close range, a frenzy.
Leila’s been dead for 12 hours. But it’s Mokhtar who is cold. Wearing a papery, disposable forensic suit, he is in an interview room at Auburn Police station, speaking through an interpreter. He’s tired, hasn’t eaten or taken his medications, just wants to sleep. Mokhtar asks for a blanket, and the interview is stopped for five minutes.
When it resumes, the trial judge will later say, Mokhtar is clear and assertive.
We have commitment, moral commitment towards one another.
She did not obey the rule of marriage.
We were married and before divorce, she broke the contract. I could not tolerate it… I could not forget it.
I was angry.
It’s like, that I’m not her husband. She didn’t care for me. She answered back to me. How a man, if he is a man, would feel when a woman… answer him back like that.
In one of his calmer periods, a long time after Leila’s body is taken back to Iran to be buried, Mokhtar likened the critical moment in the car to an exploding bomb. Leila, he’d say right till the last, had lit the fuse by her words, her betrayal.
Suddenly, everything changed.
Crown Prosecutor Craig Everson summed up the dynamics of the relationship between Mokhtar and Leila: “A man who was quite happy when she did as he expected her to do, but who resorted to violence when she failed to meet those unrealistic and quite improper expectations.”
“Leila was everything to me, everything, just like my daughter.”
The forensic psychiatrist assigned to Mokhtar’s case believed the depression and unstable personality disorder probably contributed to his anger and offending behaviour, but the non-psychotic motivations – anger, jealousy, feeling dishonoured and revenge – were more likely to be behind the killing and relevant to his moral culpability. He said Mokhtar would require specific treatment for his attitudes towards women, impulsivity, anger issues and his general emotional instability.
At the sentencing, Justice Robert Hulme said that in blaming Leila for her disobedience, the offender “discloses a breathtakingly arrogant and misogynistic attitude towards the right of his wife to choose her own destiny.”
He went on: “Those who feel that they are entitled to take advantage of a position of power and dominance in an intimate relationship must know that violence fuelled by anger, jealousy, feelings of being dishonoured, revenge or the like will be severely punished.”
Mercifully, if there is an ounce of compassion in any of this, Mokhtar confessed to the murder. The system in NSW is such that his guilty plea reduced his sentence from 28 years to 21; with good behaviour, he could be out on parole in 2030, when he’ll be 49. Perhaps that is why Mokhtar, so stern and sombre in the presence of the judge, gave his people a thumbs-up on the way from the dock.
“Leila was everything to me, everything, just like my daughter,” says Mitra Alavi, her teeny voice fading over the last few words. In her sleep, Mitra sees Leila; she is calling for help but Mitra can’t do anything to stop the tempest.
In good dreams, she talks to her darling Leila, always so beautiful and kind. Mitra wishes she’d eaten more of the Turkish delicacies she’d made for her; that Leila wasn’t forever tired and stressed.
Every now and then, a touch of colour seeps back into her life, a little ghost of hope and love. It’s then that Mitra thinks ‘Leila is still here’, and not in the cold Persian ground.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your area, download the DAISY app in the App Store or Google Play.
If you’re suffering from mental health issues and need immediate support, contact: Lifeline 13 11 14 - Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 - MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.