“It’s an Insult:” Human Rights Attorney Condemns Iran’s New Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi
The appointment by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of a known human rights violator to head the country’s judiciary is a prelude to dark days ahead for human and civil rights defenders, Iranian attorney Abdolkarim Lahiji told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
In a wide-ranging interview, Lahiji, who for decades worked as a prominent attorney and human rights activist in Iran until going into exile in France, discussed the events leading up to Raisi’s appointment to chief justice in early March 2019.
Before his appointment, Raisi, 58, held top positions in the country’s judiciary, including Tehran prosecutor and chief prosecutor for the clergy, as well as membership in the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council.
In 1988, Raisi served on Iran’s so-called “death commissions,” which were set up shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) by order of then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wanted to crush opposition to the state.
Many of the prisoners executed after being interviewed by the inquisition-like commissions set up around the country were supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh (MEK), but communists, members of the Fadaian-e Khalgh and other opposition 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 before they were suddenly sent to the gallows.
Raisi now takes the reigns of the judiciary from Sadegh Larijani, who was chief justice of Iran from August 2009 until March 2019. At least 15 political prisoners died in state custody under Larijani’s watch. All of the cases were closed without fair and unbiased investigations and no one in the judiciary was ever held accountable for these deaths.
Lahiji, who defended political prisoners during Larijani’s rule, discussed what lies ahead for human rights defenders under Raisi. Excerpts of the interview follow.
CHRI: What are the implications of Raisi’s appointment two years after he was condemned during Iran’s 2017 presidential election—in which he ran and lost against President Rouhani—for his role in the extrajudicial mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s?
Lahiji: The handing over of the judiciary by [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei to one of the most oppressive figures of the Islamic Republic during the past three or four decades sends two possible messages to the Iranian people. One is that oppression will intensify and second it tells the millions who did not vote for Raisi in the presidential election that only one man has the last word in the Islamic Republic and that’s Khamenei. Khamenei is telling the people “you didn’t approve Raisi, but I approved of him for you as the most senior judicial figure in the country.” It’s an insult to the people of Iran.
Keep in mind that when Khamenei made the appointment, he said he liked Raisi’s plan to confront corruption and implement “Islamic justice.” We all know what Islamic justice means. It means the same kind of justice implemented in the past four decades that has left thousands of victims. Therefore, Raisi is going to follow the same path as his predecessors.
Just in the past few months, there have been unfair trials that have led to several quick executions and hundreds of other lengthy sentences. These trials are continuing and Raisi is going to implement the same kind of Islamic justice.
Raisi has always been a key player in this regime, as deputy judiciary chief or when he was a member of the “death commissions” [in the 1980s] and now as the head of the judicial branch. When he was appointed by [the leader of the 1979 revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini to the death commission, he was a young man of 26 or 27 with no theological or legal training. He was appointed because the plan was to kill and purge the prisoners. He has remained a major player during the past four decades.
CHRI: Given his role in the 1988 massacres, will Raisi be able to travel abroad?
Lahiji: Absolutely not. Mr. Raisi is on the European Union’s sanctions list. After the 2009 presidential election and the arrest of more than 10,000 people and the Kahrizak tragedy and many deaths, the EU published a blacklist of individuals whose accounts and properties in European countries were blocked and they were banned from traveling to the EU.
Raisi, who was deputy judiciary chief, is on that list, along with [former judiciary chiefs Sadegh Larijani and Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei] and many Revolutionary Guard commanders and others. Therefore, Raisi is a marked man in Europe and his predecessor didn’t dare travel to any EU country during the past eight or nine years. It’s very unlikely that Raisi would want to risk traveling. If he does, he could become the subject of international laws and regulations created in recent decades.
Individuals such as Raisi, Ejei and Larijani are suspected of extra-judicial crimes, torture and executions and if they travel to any EU country they could be arrested and tried for transnational crimes based on the European Convention [for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment]. Based on Article 1 of the convention, physical punishments other than torture are also considered crimes and as we know, floggings and amputations are legal in the Islamic Republic.
CHRI: The executions that took place in the 1980s do not belong to the past. They continue to be a source of pain for the country and the victims’ families. Will international institutions be able to hold Raisi accountable as one of the people in charge of the 1988 executions?
Lahiji: The UN Human Rights Council has appointed a special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran whose mandate has been extended every year because the Islamic Republic does not allow the official to come to Iran to carry out an investigation. One of the things the rapporteur has to investigate is the 1988 massacre. When Ahmed Shaheed was the special rapporteur, we wrote to him and insisted that he look into the 1988 crimes and he did mention in one of his reports that he intended to do so. It all depends on when the special rapporteur, currently Javaid Rehman, can go to Iran and investigate widespread human rights violations, including the 1988 massacre. The human rights organizations have an obligation to remind him that this crime is still an open case and it should remain on the special rapporteur’s agenda.
I don’t think there’s any other avenue. It might take many more years but discovering the truth is the important thing. In other countries, in South America and North Africa, the investigation of major crimes has been a long process. But we have always said that the discovery of the truth is an important part of seeking justice. The passage of time is not a factor. It might take one or more generations but these crimes will remain in the public consciousness and the process should continue until the truth is uncovered.
CHRI: Are there other avenues that could be pursued other than the special rapporteur?
Lahiji: The International Criminal Court was set up a few years ago but it cannot investigate crimes committed before its creation. The second obstacle is that Iran has not joined the court as a member state. Therefore, the case could only be investigated by the special rapporteur and we have to see if he will be able to go to Iran or not.
Unfortunately, I do not see any other avenue within the current UN system and international institutions. But that does mean that the victims’ families and human rights groups should lose hope in seeking justice or stop working for the truth. The day will come when those responsible for this massacre will be identified and held accountable.
CHRI: As the new judiciary chief, how would Raisi deal with independent lawyers and human rights advocates?
Lahiji: I am extremely pessimistic. I’m especially worried about the situation of my dear friend and colleague Nasrin Sotoudeh. I am worried about Narges Mohammadi and a number of others who are either in prison or being prosecuted, as well as the hundreds and thousands who are in the Islamic Republic’s prisons for political or religious reasons.
In the past two years, a very large number of human rights activists and lawyers have been arrested and faced restrictions. Political prisoners have not been allowed to choose their own lawyers. Also, the lawyers who have been freed from prison, such as Mr. [Abdolfattah] Soltani and Mr. [Mohammad] Seifzadeh are not allowed to resume their legal profession and defend activists.
Arash Keykhosravi and several other lawyers have also been detained. Unfortunately, I don’t think the situation for human rights advocates and lawyers, who are willing to accept danger and defend political and religious prisoners will improve.
CHRI: We have seen a reduction in the number of executions for drug-related crimes in Iran. Will Raisi continue this trend?
Lahiji: This matter has nothing to do with Raisi. For 20 years, we said executions would not help the fight against drugs or reduce drug trafficking. What we need to be doing is identifying and destroying the economic and social roots of crime. Well, for a long time, 500, 600, 700 people were executed every year and Iran became known as the champion of executions. Finally, the authorities realized that it is better to change their policies and Parliament passed a law that did not eliminate execution as a punishment but changed the requirements. So, the lower number of executions is because of the change in the law, not because of Mr. Larijani’s moderation. Other than for drug-related crimes, executions for political and other crimes have certainly not gone down.
CHRI: What is your opinion of the execution of people in Iran for alleged economic crimes?
Lahiji: The state’s policies have always been aimed at intimidating and scaring the people. So whenever there has been a rise in public protests against inflation, unemployment, unpaid wages or whatever else the policies have been the same.
In the past two years, the country has seen a high number of protests against low wages and unemployment but the government’s response has always been to intimidate and condemn the people. As this situation persisted, Larijani got a mandate from Khamenei to set up special courts to prosecute economic violations outside the normal judicial process. In the past couple of months, many have been condemned to long prison sentences or executed. Unfortunately, I think Raisi’s appointment means that this hardline policy will continue in the coming months and years.
CHRI: Given Mr. Raisi’s background and the fact that many current judicial officials such as Ejei and former prosecutor Mostafa Pourmohammadi are going to keep their top positions, do you have any hope that matters will improve?
Lahiji: Not at all. These individuals are enforcers. The supreme leader, first under Khomeini and now Khamenei, has always made the final decisions in the Islamic Republic. From day one, their plan has been to establish an Islamic state at any cost. To call this state a republic is an insult.
In the past six or seven years, 300,000 to 400,000 people have been killed in Syria—a terrible crime that will always rank among the darkest in the history of human rights. But just a few days ago, [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad went to Iran and Khamenei embraced him. This should tell us what kind of a criminal regime we are dealing with.
We cannot only blame the Ahmadinejads [former president of Iran], the Raisis and the Larijanis. I believe the primary suspect is the leader of the Islamic state. Khomeini and Khamenei gave the orders to commit crimes and the rest carried them out. People like Raisi and Ejei cannot do anything without being issued a mandate for oppression.
In 1988, Khomeini ordered the prisons to be purged and appointed four individuals to carry it out. It’s the same today. In political and judicial matters, we have to look to the top. We have to prosecute those who made the decisions and those who carried them out.
CHRI: Mr. Larijani leaves the judiciary at a time when the security establishment played a major role in the arrest and incarceration of many human rights activists, labor activists and students. What is your assessment of Larijani’s tenure?
Lahiji: His 10-year report card is littered with crimes. Most of the executions took place with his approval, including extra-judicial executions in illegal trials.
As you are aware, a “fair trial” in Iran is more like a joke. As the head of the judicial branch, he was responsible for many executions, torture and violations of due process such as in the case of Mr. Kavous Seyed-Emami [Iranian Canadian academic and conservationist] who was killed in prison or put in a situation to make him take his own life. Larijani should certainly be held accountable for all these crimes and maybe one day he will. He’s not as old as Khamenei so it is possible that he could one day be forced to face his crimes in a fair trial.