Robbery and Double Intimidation: What’s Wrong With This Picture? By Hossein Ghazian
(Commentary) These days, the subject of violent robberies, usually carried out in public with knives and daggers, has become a hot topic in Iranian public opinion. Though armed robberies are not a new phenomenon, YouTube images captured by a surveillance camera of four men robbing a man on a not-so-secluded street in Tehran have made this a hot topic for discussion.
In similar cases, the Iranian media scene becomes flooded with different opinions, including the opinions of low- and high-level officials who are each trying to show that the situation is under control and that all this is unwarranted noise. Their efforts are focused on reducing the feeling of insecurity among the public. They are indirectly asking people not to get too emotional and not to worry about the feelings of insecurity they are experiencing, as the officials are in control of the security situation and the criminals and bad guys are not able to rest for the fear these officials invoke. But beyond this effort, an effort that frequently proves futile, these officials unwittingly expose the logic that is ruling the country’s political and administrative apparatus. A careful review of these statements demonstrates the structural problems plaguing Iran’s existing political system, including, in this particular case, the relationship between Iran’s political and judicial systems.
In fact it was following the release of these images that Iran’s judicial authorities stepped out as usual and started posturing to the outlaws, as if they are the “opponents” of the suspects. Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, Head of Iran’s Judiciary, was one such official. “Other than execution, there are other alternative punishments in this area, but the Judiciary, in view of the need to raise the cost of acts of thuggery, and for assertive action, chose the death penalty,” he said. In fact by saying these words, Ayatollah Larijani is not looking to “deal with the existing suspects,” as he said, but to intimidate potential future perpetrators and to make them sleepless, just as the bad guys on the other side of the field are thinking of ways to intimidate people in order to rob them. Both sides are working with the same weapon—intimidation.
But, besides putting fear into the hearts of potential future criminals, what matters from a legal point is that considering the Ayatollah’s position as the highest judicial official of the country, it is expected that his statements would not be so at odds with the most basic legal standards. The Head of the Judiciary’s statements indicate that the Judiciary would suddenly put courts and trials and the whole process of a fair trial aside, and “choose” the punishment, and the choice would be the harshest possible punishment, the death sentence. In other words, Iran’s top judicial authority has no qualms announcing that neither the judge in a specific trial, nor a judicial review—the most basic right of a suspect—but the organization under his management, and in fact he, himself, will be making the decision for these suspects.
The question that arises now is why would the Head of the Judiciary, who only fills an administrative position and not a judicial one, and therefore is not allowed by law to make any rulings, take it upon himself to step in place of a qualified court and demand the death sentence for the suspects before a fair trial?
The structural problem becomes apparent right here: top officials of the Judiciary, whether directly or indirectly, are appointed according to approval by the country’s center of political power, and more than any other entity, they have to be accountable to him. Therefore Iranian judicial authorities, whether they like it or not, must follow the interests and concerns of this center—which in the Iranian political structure is embodied in the person of the Supreme Leader—and be accountable to him. Any inadequate reaction by judicial officials to these interests and concerns could jeopardize the continuity of their position of power, even if the concerns are not at all related to the law, but are political and outside of their defined job descriptions. Therefore their accountability to the Supreme Leader could lack legal and technical dimensions and be only political, i.e., be related to the regime’s will to maintain power.
On the other hand, one of the most important concerns of the country’s political leadership through the years has been to show the country as “safe” and “advancing.” Therefore, to the extent that the subject is related to an issue of security, the judicial authorities must do their best to address
this concern. They have to demonstrate that the atmosphere is “safe,” and that if it has accidentally become “unsafe,” they are powerful enough to sacrifice a few criminals so that the rest would sober up. Ayatollah Larijani’s efforts to intimidate criminals and to prove the existence of security can only be interpreted from this viewpoint. In fact, even this high-ranking cleric, regardless of his credentials, has to deal with the situation by taking a bow to the concerns of the powerful. He is not just the highest administrative official of the judicial system, merely accountable for the organization under his oversight, which is responsible for ensuring justice. He must also give in to the political concerns of the powerful and compensate for the failure of the country’s overall management to provide security, usually through words and occasionally through action. Therefore, perhaps he thinks that by putting fear in the potential future criminals’ hearts, he can relieve his superior’s concerns and to reduce public pressure on the regime for security.
The Head of the Judiciary knows all too well that if he swiftly assures the public that he will “assertively” crack down on the recent robbery case perpetrators, even if he sacrifices the suspects and disregards their rights to a fair trial, a lot of people will accept it, thus alleviating some of the pressure put on the regime—the same group of people who by reading this article may think that defending the rights of the suspects is the same as defending them or their actions. These would be the same kinds of people who have frequently said at every security crisis, “If a few of them are hanged, the rest won’t dare to repeat their acts.”
The truth is that for years the Iranian judicial authorities who owe favors to the center of political power have been executing “a few of them” in public in order to reduce public pressure on themselves and the regime, and some people even push and shove to go see the public executions. The fact remains, however, that other criminals are doing the same as those “few of them” were doing and things aren’t changing much, and nobody ever asks: what is wrong with this picture?