This Friday was the official swearing in of Ebrahim Raisi as the head of the federal judiciary in the Islamic Republic of Iran. His predecessor in the position, Sadeq Larijani, was notorious for hardline enforcement measures including systematic denial of due process, and in recent years he has overseen the steady escalation of crackdowns on dissent throughout Iranian society. If history is any indication, Raisi, who was appointed to a five-year term by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is set to be even worse.
There are a number of features of the new judiciary chief’s record that underscore his apparent disregard for human rights and any recognizable principle of justice. But one thing stands out above all others: In 1988, Raisi was among the officials appointed to three-person “death commissions” in Tehran and other cities for the express purpose of interrogating political prisoners over their attitudes toward the fledgling theocratic regime and then ordering the execution of those who were deemed to still be disloyal.
In a matter of just a few months, these commissions were responsible for an estimated 30,000 executions, primarily targeting members of the leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. The precise scope of the killings remains unclear because many of the victims were buried in secret mass graves, and some of these were subsequently paved over by regime authorities. Plans are currently underway for the further destruction of evidence, and this has prompted a number of human rights groups to push, in recent years, for a UN-led inquiry into the incident.
Many statements to that effect highlight the notion that the Iranian government cannot be counted on to look into this matter on its own. After all, regime authorities have a long track record for denying wrong doing, especially in situations where the scale of the alleged abuse is so vast. Such denial may consist of simply refusing to acknowledge that the crimes took place at all, or acknowledging that they occurred but insisting that they were somehow justified.
Tehran has taken both approaches to the 1988 massacre, but the former strategy became untenable in 2016 with the release of an audio recording that had been made by Hossein Ali Montazeri, a clerical official who was on pace to become the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini at the time of the killings. The recording provided context for Montazeri’s falling out with the theocratic regime, in that it featured his condemnation of those who, like Raisi, had participated in “the greatest crime of the Islamic Republic.”
Although the recording’s release brought unprecedented public awareness to the massacre of political prisoners, it did not evoke any sense of shame from regime authorities, many of whom have clearly been rewarded over the years for the loyalty they demonstrated by helping to carrying out the killings, or by turning a blind eye to them. One of these officials, Mostafa Pourmohammadi played a role on the death commissions in 1988 and went on to serve as Justice Minister during the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani’s first term.
When asked in 2016 about the killings of PMOI members and other critics of the clerical regime, Pourmohammadi openly stated that he was “proud” to have helped to carry out “God’s command” of death for those who advocated an alternative form of government. The ensuing international outcry apparently led to Pourmohammadi stepping down in advance of Rouhani’s second term, which began in 2017. This might have given the impression that Tehran had some concern for its past human rights record or at least for its public image, if not for the fact that Pourmohammadi’s replacement, Alireza Avaie, played an equally prominent role in the 1988 massacre.
These and other high-profile appointments have sent the clear message that the regime stands by its past acts of violent repression and has no genuine interest in rehabilitating its image in the eyes of Western powers or the international community. Raisi’s appointment as head of the judiciary is only the latest example of this phenomenon, although it may have the most disastrous consequences, in that it promises to normalize the worst behaviors of Iranian authorities at a time of nearly unprecedented domestic unrest.
Since the end of 2017, Iranians all across the country, from all walks of life, have been putting their lives at risk by publicly demonstrating against Tehran’s ongoing, brutal repression and its general disregard for the welfare of the national population. Thousands of activists were arrested over the course of last year, and many of these were explicitly threatened with the death penalty. Raisi’s ascension to head of the judiciary should inform the international community of what a grave mistake it would be to assume that the regime is bluffing.
The stage may be set for another massacre and another attempt to stamp out the PMOI, which has lately played a leading role in organizing public protests and promoting the cause of regime change. As countless human rights advocates have already pointed out, not even the most “moderate” elements of the Iranian regime can be expected to prevent such an outcome. That responsibility falls primarily to the US and Europe, who must respond appropriately to Raisi’s appointment, by making it clear that Tehran will only grow more and more isolated until it convincingly repudiates its record of human rights abuses.
*Tahar Boumedra, Former chief of the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and legal expert.