By Angus McDowall in Tehran
An Iranian man known as the "vampire of the desert" was facing the death sentence yesterday following the gruesome murders of 17 children and three adults in the slums of Pakdasht, near the capital, Tehran.
Relatives of the victims greeted the verdict by throwing chairs at the defendants as the court heard that Mohammed Bijeh, 30, raped many of the children before strangling or bludgeoning them to death.
The accused was handed 16 life sentences and his accomplice, Ali Baghi, a 24-year-old heroin addict, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Four families accepted blood money for the crimes instead of demanding the death penalty but a further death sentence was added for rape.
The condemned pair had earlier explained how they slaughtered animals and left their carcasses near the shallow graves to disguise the smell of rotting flesh.
Many victims were the children of Afghans, whose families did not report them missing for fear of repatriation. Other residents of the small industrial community a few kilometres south east of Tehran are ethnic Kurds, who recently migrated to the capital from the villages in eastern Iran to where their ancestors were forcibly resettled 300 years ago.
Pakdasht inhabitants said they were not afforded the full protection of the law because of their poverty and ethnicity. The brickworks and slums are separated from working class southern Tehran by a low line of jagged hills. The tall chimneys of the kilns spout plumes of dark smoke into the air, which is so polluted that pine trees are turning brown.
The murders began more than two years ago, but local people said the police failed to investigate strenuously enough. The government and judiciary have now opened inquiries into the handling of the case. Bijeh was at one point held for several months. After his release he killed seven more times.
The case has also prompted a debate about the city slums and the subculture of poverty, drug addiction and crime that has flourished there.
There have been newspaper reports of a new plan to organise better the slums, but many local people have heard it all before.
"The police do not look after us," said an Afghan woman living a stone's throw from where some bodies were found. "Only God will help us." The killers grew up surrounded by the poverty of the area, where children sometimes start working as soon as they can press mud into brick moulds.
Bijeh's family moved to the capital city from Khorasan province, near the borders with Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, when he was 11. The oldest of seven children, he soon stopped attending school to work in the brickworks.
According to the media, he was often beaten by his mother and said the sight of blood made him "euphoric".
The three squalid rooms where his family lived are now deserted. The panes of glass in the doors have been broken by angry neighbours, revealing bare-plaster walls, brightened by plastic flowers and exuding a smell of damp. When the police caught him, Bijeh was said to be watching children swimming in a canal.
Bijeh used to sit in front of his house and look out over the brickworks, said a neighbour. Nearby, beyond the pink, football pitch-sized depression, were the slums where most of the murdered children lived. On the ground was a plastic doll's head. Mohammed confessed that he planned his crimes while looking out over this view.
"Mohammed Bijeh used to walk by here and drink water from our tap," said a woman from one of the Afghan families living in a small brick shack close to where some bodies were discovered. Small children were playing in the mud close by. "Sometimes we saw him carrying sacks but we never imagined there was anything bad happening."
Between his observation post and a lime pit, where some of the bodies were found, was a small brick bird coop to where Bijeh allegedly lured children with stories of performing doves. Iranian newspapers said that other youngsters were attracted by the promise of digging rabbits and foxes from their desert burrows.
The brickworks were shut down and the owner was sent to prison on vague charges connected to the case. Men, women and children worked all day here filling brick moulds with mud and drying them out before firing them in the kilns.
A family would earn only a few pounds a week, roughly £2 for every thousand bricks they made in exhausting and unhealthy conditions.
In the distance is the Ghiamshahr slum where Bijeh's accomplice, Baghi, lived. Newspapers said the younger man was sexually abused by his father and other men when he was a child.
He had been one of Iran's 1.2 million heroin addicts for several years and claimed that his feelings of guilt were buried beneath the constant pangs of addiction. Bijeh said in court that Baghi was reluctant to join him at first and only helped after being threatened.
Asked if he was sorry for the crimes, Bijeh reportedly shook his head with indifference.
In Iran, most death sentences are carried out shortly after they are passed. Typically, the condemned are hanged early in the morning. Particularly notorious criminals are sometimes executed in public and at the site of their crime.