The following interview with Hadi Ghaemi, Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, was conducted and published by Iran Primer and republished here with permission.
What role did Raisi play in the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988? How important or decisive was it in the decision of the four-person commission to have these prisoners executed?
The mass execution of some 5,000 political prisoners was widely viewed as an extrajudicial massacre made a crime against humanity. These prisoners had already been prosecuted and sentenced to prison terms. They finished their sentences; some had even finished their sentences and were about to be released. However, as the end of the Iran-Iraq war drew near, the Iranian government decided at the highest level that the purge of political prisoners was essential to their survival.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme leader at the time, briefly ordered that all prisoners who still clung to their political beliefs should be executed. He appointed four men, including Ebrahim Raisi, to what would later become known as the “Death Committee” to organize and carry out his order. Raisi was a 28-year-old prosecutor at the time. As a member of the death committee, Raisi was reportedly instrumental in planning and organizing the massacre in just a few months. The executions have long been considered a sign of his brutality and loyalty to the system.
What did Raisi do afterwards as a lawyer or prosecutor? What are the most famous or notable cases associated with it??
Raisi has been continuously promoted to senior posts in the judiciary. Shortly after the 1988 mass executions, Raisi was promoted to Tehran’s Attorney General, a position he held until 1994. He then spent a decade, from 1994 to 2004, as director of the National Inspection Organization, the most powerful regulatory agency under the judiciary. He was then appointed first deputy to the judiciary from 2004 to 2014. His offices often overlapped. From 2012 to 2021 he was also chief prosecutor of the Special Court for the Clergy. From 2014 to 2016 he was Attorney General of Iran and from 2015 to 2018 he was also head of the Astan Quds Foundation, an economically powerful religious institution. From February 2019 until he took office in mid-2021, he was Head of Justice.
What was his position on prisoners arrested during the 2009 Green Movement protests?
In addition to his notorious role in the 1988 massacre, he is known as a key player in the repression of the Green movement in 2009. As the first deputy to the judiciary, he advocated a campaign that included the arrest, torture and execution of demonstrators. He is specifically linked to the fate of two political prisoners, Arash Rahmanipour and Mohammad Reza Alizamani, who were accused of participating in the Green Movement protests that began after the controversial presidential elections in June 2009. However, the Rahmanipour and Alizamani were reportedly arrested early in March 2009, questioning how they were could have protested weeks or months later. Both men were executed in January 2010. Days later, Raisi claimed: “Two people who were executed and nine others who are about to be executed were definitely arrested during the recent riots.” Both men “belonged to one of the counter-revolutionary currents and were involved in riots on the grounds of hypocrisy and the overthrow of the regime,” he said.
How was his record as head of the Iranian judiciary between 2019 and 2021?
During his tenure as head of justice, he led a repression campaign that turned the judiciary into a direct instrument of the security and intelligence services. His last official act as head of the judiciary was a lengthy directive entitled “Rules for Enforcing the Law on the Independence of the Bar Association”. The policy stripped the Iranian Bar Association of its independence in all of its governmental affairs. It is considered an illegal directive as only parliament can change laws governing the conduct of the bar. The legal community in Iran was outraged. Other acts carried out during his brief tenure as chief of justice were:
Iran had one of the highest per capita death penalty rates in the world in 2020. The death sentence was passed against:
- Protesters and dissidents such as Ruhollah Zam, a dissident journalist kidnapped from Iraq, brought back to Iran and tried in 2020
- Non-Persian ethnic minorities, including Arab, Baluchi, and Kurdish political prisoners
- Juvenile delinquent
- A man accused of drinking alcohol in 2020, the first execution for this offense in two decades
Abuse of Political Prisoners
People continued to be tried for peaceful activism. Political prisoners, especially women, were treated harsher, including:
lack of accountability
Senior security forces officials have not been prosecuted for serious incidents including:
- The killing of at least 300 peaceful protesters and passers-by in mass street demonstrations in November 2019 with limited or no impact.
- The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane killing 176 in January 2020, even after the Revolutionary Guards took responsibility.
Detention of human rights defenders
Human rights lawyers continued to be detained and prevented from doing their jobs. The main topics included:
What has Raisi done about corruption, a major political issue in Iran?
During his presidential election in 2021, Raisi’s campaign focused on his record in the fight against corruption, including the trial of Akbar Tabari, first deputy head of former Justice Sadeq Larijani. Tabari was tried in 2020 for corruption and money laundering. Raisi’s team led the prosecution and sentenced Tabari, who was sentenced to 31 years in prison. The process had overlapping political implications. It weakened Sadeq Larijani as a potential candidate for the next supreme leader. Sadeq’s brother Ali Larijani, an influential former parliamentary speaker, was then disqualified from running for the presidency against Raisi. Three members of the Larijani family have held senior positions in government since the 1980s. The widely acclaimed Tabari case undermined the future of two political rivals from the Larijani family who could have blocked Raisi’s path to becoming president or the next highest leader.
What about the application of Islamic law against the civil code? Is he more connected to one than the other?
In his numerous legal offices over the decades, Raisi is primarily associated with the Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy, both of which implement the Islamic penal code. He has no records in civil court proceedings.
Where did Raisi get his legal education from? And what legal form? Did he study law in a seminar or law school? How has his legal or legal career developed?
According to Raisi, after completing sixth grade, he studied in a seminary in his hometown of Mashhad for a few years. At the age of 15 he enrolled in a religious seminary in Qom. He was 18 years old at the time of the 1979 revolution. At the age of 21, with limited educational qualifications, he was simultaneously appointed public prosecutor in Karaj and Hamedan, both capitals of two major provinces. Raisi’s official résumé claims he received a master’s degree in civil law in 2001. It also states that he completed a doctoral degree in civil law at Motahari University in 2001 and obtained his doctorate in 2013.
Photo credit: Raisi via Tasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0); Green Movement protester via The New York Times; Raisi and Larijani from Mehr news agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons