February 18, 2019—The appointment of Ebrahim Raeesi, who participated in “death commissions” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of prisoners in Iran in 1988, as Iran’s next head of the judiciary, will represent a complete repudiation of the rule of law and a reward for those involved in crimes against humanity, the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said in a statement today. If Raeesi is chosen as judiciary head, which appears increasingly likely, CHRI forcefully condemns his appointment.
“Raeesi should be prosecuted, not head of Iran’s judiciary,” said Hadi Ghaemi, CHRI’s executive director.
“The selection of Raeesi to serve as head of the judiciary will send a clear message: the rule of law has no meaning in Iran, and those who participated in mass murder will be rewarded,” Ghaemi said.
Raeesi is expected to be appointed by the supreme leader, Seyed Ali Khamanei, to take the helm of the Judiciary in July. For months, the media in Iran has been abuzz with reports that Raeesi was the choice of the supreme leader to head the Judiciary.
On February 16, 2019, Hasan Nowruzi, the spokesperson for the Judicial and Legal Committee of the Iranian Parliament, told Iranian media that “Raeesi’s appointment to head the judiciary is “all but certain.”
The appointment of Raeesi as judiciary head, given his record of participating in mass executions to suffocate dissent, would be extraordinarily troubling given the powers the judiciary head holds in Iran. Raeesi will answer to no one but the supreme leader. He will be able to choose and dismiss lawyers, select the defense lawyers in all national security-related cases (which are used in Iran to prosecute critics of the state), and review any legislation with judicial content. He can also request the revision of any final judgment he believes violates Shari’a.
“Peaceful dissent will land you in prison in Iran, but mass extrajudicial murder by the state is acceptable,” said Ghaemi. “The international community should voice its outrage at this appointment and serve notice that Raeesi will not be welcome in the capitals of the world.”
Inquisition-Like “Death Commissions” Sent Thousands to their Deaths
The “death commissions” were set up shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) by order of Islamic Republic founder and then supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wanted to crush opposition to the state.
Many of the prisoners targeted by the inquisition-like commissions set up around the country were supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK) opposition group, but communists, members of Fadaian-e Khalgh and other groups were targeted as well. The estimated 4,000-5,000 prisoners—actual numbers could be higher—who were secretly killed in prisons throughout the country and dumped in mass graves, had already been issued prison sentences and, as they were behind bars, had not participated in any further activity.
No One Held Accountable, Perpetrators Rewarded
The Islamic Republic has never acknowledged the executions, instead ignoring or denying their existence. No official that participated in them has been prosecuted. Indeed, in a reflection of the deep culture of impunity that surrounds the perpetrators of these crimes, those who participated in the 1988 mass murders have not only gone free, they have been rewarded with high-level posts throughout the Islamic Republic in the ensuing 30 years.
After Raeesi served as a member of Tehran’s “death commission” in 1988 in his then capacity as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, he went on to serve as the prosecutor general of Tehran between 1989 and 1994, the first deputy head of the judiciary from 2004 to 2014 and the country’s prosecutor general from 2014 to 2016.
In 2017, Raeesi ran for president. The people of Iran gave their judgment on his record, rejecting his bid and re-electing by a large margin President Hassan Rouhani.
One leading figure who did try to raise awareness of these crimes paid for it with a prison sentence. In August 2016, Ahmad Montazeri published a 40-minute 1988 audio file in which Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, who was his father and one-time heir to the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini, condemned the 1988 executions.
In the audio recording, Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri can be heard warning the members of the commission, which consisted of Raeesi, then Judge Hosseinali Nayeri, then Tehran Prosecutor Morteza Eshraghi, and then Intelligence Ministry’s representative in Evin Prison Mostafa Pourmohammadi, that they would be remembered as “cruel criminals.” He said, “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic…and history will condemn us for it.”
The Court sentenced Montazeri to 21 years in prison for charges related to the publication of the audio file and then commuted the sentence to six years. In May 2018, referring to media reports about his role in the 1988 killings, Raeesi did not dispute his presence in the meeting with Hossein Ali Montazeri.
Families of Those Killed Forbidden to Mourn or Seek Information and Justice
The 1988 executions are not a closed chapter, reflecting events of decades ago. These crimes are in fact ongoing, as detailed in a recent report by Amnesty International. The thousands of families of those killed are not allowed to conduct mourning rituals or commemorations and continue to be harassed, threatened and attacked whenever they have tried to seek justice or even information about their loved ones’ fate, remains and burial sites.
In its report, Amnesty International calls for “the establishment of an independent, impartial and effective international mechanism(s) by the UN” to investigate and address the 1988 executions and the ongoing state actions aimed at covering up these events and harassing the victims’ families. Yet any possibility of cooperation from Iran is more likely than ever to be rebuffed, if the Iranian judiciary itself is headed by one of the individuals implicated in the crimes. Indeed, Raeesi and others who participated in the mass executions will only be shielded more effectively by his appointment as judiciary head.
The timing of this appointment is not insignificant. Human rights in Iran are at a crisis point: over the past year increasing numbers of lawyers, workers, activists and students have been unlawfully imprisoned for peaceful dissent. The appointment of Raeesi will not only strengthen the culture of impunity around the perpetrators of the 1988 crimes against humanity, it will also signal that repression in Iran is likely to intensify and will be aggressively protected by the state.
“Given the magnitude of the crimes in which Raeesi was a key participant, his appointment will be a catastrophe for justice in Iran,” said Ghaemi.
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