Last month Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the new Judiciary Chief amid international condemnation. Raisi served on Iran’s so-called “death commissions” that were a part of the Iranian Revolution set up at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980 to 1988, to crush any dissent towards the state. An estimated 5,000 prisoners were secretly executed in prisons during the “death commissions” of the 1980s.
Raisi is also seen to be a serious contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei said in a statement that he appointed Raisi to bring about a “transformation [in the judiciary] in line with [its] needs, advancements and challenges” on the 40th year of the 1979 Islamic Revolution with a vigorous start of a new era deserving the second phase of the revolution. “For carrying out this crucial act, I have chosen you who have a long track record in different levels of the judiciary and are in touch with its nuances,” he said in the statement. He also called on Raisi in his new role to be “with the people, the revolution and against corruption”.
Raisi takes over from Sadegh Amoli Larijani who was Judiciary Chief in Iran from August 2009 until March 2019 and who also has a controversial human rights record of his own. During his tenure, 15 political prisoners died in state custody. The cases were never resolved with each being closed without any investigations or anyone held accountable for the deaths.
Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi said to Reuters,
“Larijani’s work as the head of judiciary was not acceptable,”
“But to replace him with Raisi, who had a role in the past in extrajudicial execution and massacre of political prisoners, will taint the judiciary even more … It is replacing bad with worse.”
During these so called “death commissions”, established by order of then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the then 28-year-old Raisi was assigned as part of a four-member special committee. They set up commissions around the country where political prisoners were tried and executed with some trials lasting just three minutes. It is hard to get reliable figures of the death sentences with some estimates at 4,000 and others as high as 30,000 people.
In 2016 Ahmad Montazeri, a Shia religious leader, did try to raise awareness of these crimes after he published a 40-minute 1988 audio file in which his late father Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri, and one-time heir to the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini, condemned the 1988 executions. But Montazeri paid for it with a prison sentence with the court sentencing him to 21 years then commuting the sentence to six years in prison.
In the audio recording, Grand Ayatollah Hosseinali Montazeri can be heard warning the members of the commission, which consisted of Raisi, 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.”
In a meeting with Hossein Ali Montazeri, in May 2018, Raisi did not dispute his presence in the media reports about his role in the 1988 killings.
On the 12th March the EU noted in a resolution that Raisi “as the new chief of Iran’s judiciary, is known for his involvement in multiple human rights violations, including mass executions”. In the same month Robert Palladino Deputy Spokesperson for the US Department of State Tweeted about Raisi and his human rights past and that “Iranians deserve better!”
In a press release addressing the new Judiciary Chief’s appointment Hadi Ghaemi Executive Director for the Centre for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) said: “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.” He continued,
“The appointment of Raisi 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.”
In March the UN Human Rights Council held an interactive dialogue with Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. Areas highlighted were the increasing rate of execution of juveniles and the extensive use of the death penalty, particularly against children, in the context of torture and lack of due process. The cracking down on protesters, journalists, and human rights defenders. The terrible state of women’s rights and the continued persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. Speakers also urged Iran to impose a complete moratorium on the death penalty.
During the 2017 Iranian presidential elections Raisi was a top challenger to the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani although he lost in the elections, he still garnered nearly 16 million votes in his campaign.
As a forewarning that the hard-line legacy of Iranian justice will continue in its present state, in a speech on his new role as new Judiciary Chief, Raisi said, “No one in any situation or any position will have the right to circumvent or violate the law.”