Once more, former President Ahmadinejad has grabbed headlines. His chances in the upcoming presidential election are close to nil, but he has successfully diverted attention from a more serious and dangerous candidate. Ebrahim Raisi, a relatively unknown cleric outside Iran whose name is also mentioned as a candidate to replace the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Leader, will run against President Rouhani. To those who document human rights abuses and the thousands of Iranians who have lost loved ones to summary executions, he is well known. Raisi’s nefarious 37-year career in the judiciary is paved with corpses. His candidacy for any leadership position should raise alarm because of its significance and because the consequences of his success will be deadly both inside Iran and well beyond its borders.
Ebrahim Raisi was a prosecutor at the age of 20 and on the fast track in the ranks of the judiciary from 1980 onward. He, like scores of very young seminary students, was brought in by Ayatollah Beheshti to be trained as regime cadres. He was neither a brilliant law student nor experienced in prosecution, but he was willing to get the work done. Those days, eliminating dissidents and spreading terror among Iranians was a priority and young Raisi was assigned to the task. Since then, he has been a low profile and quiet loyalist who has excelled at the task of eliminating undesirables.
Iranian authorities do not report all executions and do not allow independent monitoring of trials and executions. Yet during Ebrahim Raisi’s tenure, the existing numbers, collected from witnesses and survivors, the Iranian media, official judiciary websites, and human rights groups’ reports paint a vivid enough picture to raise serious concern about his leadership ambitions.
During Raisi’s most recent tenure as General Prosecutor (August 24, 2014 to March 20, 2016,) the number of reported executions rose to at least 1,395, the highest number in decades. Prior to that, Raisi was the Chief Justice’s First Deputy for ten years. Among his many responsibilities, at a time when the law denied drug offenders the right to appeal, was to approve death sentences issued by courts for alleged drug offenders. Under his watch (2004-2014,) the number of drug offenders executed rose exponentially. In 2004, out of 146 executions reported in Iran, 34 (18%) were drug-related. By 2010, with at least 732 reported drug-related executions, the number rose to 89%.
These executions took place following a judicial process that fell short of most due process standards and denied defendants the most basic rights, including that of not being tortured to confess and having a proper defense. Drug charges leading to executions, as reported by official sources in Iran, included “possession of 18 grams of Heroin (Karaj, 2007); possession of 25 grams of heroin and sale of 30 centigram of heroin (Kerman 2009); possession of 43 grams of heroin (Ahvaz 2010); participating in storing 162.9 grams of heroin (Ardebil 2015).”
Documenting killings in Raisi’s early years as prosecutor in Karaj (1980-1982), Hamedan Province (1982-1985), and then Deputy Prosecutor of Tehran (1985-1988) and Tehran Prosecutor (1989-1994) has been a challenge. Yet, in spite of secrecy, the annihilation of civil society, and victims’ fear, there is information on hundreds of cases of politically motivated executions in which the prosecutor was given free rein to call for the death penalty on vague charges such as “corruption on earth,” and “enmity with God.” Defendants prosecuted at the time had no defense lawyers and no right to appeal. According to Raisi’s biography, Ayatollah Khomeini sent him on special missions swiftly implement “divine judgment” in areas where difficulty was experienced.
The high point of his career however is his role in the cold-blooded inquisition that led to the secret hanging of at least four thousands political prisoners in less than three months in the summer of 1988. Raisi was one of the judges of a four-man itinerant panel or, as survivors call it, the Death Committee. The Committee was tasked by Ayatollah Khomeini to eliminate problematic prisoners; those who had not recanted their beliefs and were not loyal to the regime. Raisi and others secretly and hastily questioned and evaluated prisoners for their beliefs and decided whether they would live or die.
The 1988 massacre of political prisoners has been well documented and prestigious international jurist, including Geoffrey Robertson, have described it as a crime against humanity. For weeks, Raisi and his fellow Death Committee members moved from one prison to another, watched prisoners’ empty slippers pile up, and ensured that their bodies were dumped in a refrigerated truck and later in mass graves. Most of the prisoners questioned by Raisi and others had been arrested in their teens or twenties and sentenced to prison. Most of them were led to believe that the panel members were there to pardon them. All of them were denied the right to say goodbye to their families.
Ebrahim Raisi is not apologetic for his deeds. The 2016 release of an audio recording of his conversation with Ayatollah Montazeri during the mass killing leaves no doubt about his participation. His response to the outrage and questions raised, including in the Iranian parliament, is to run for president. The Judiciary’s response to the incriminating recording was to defrock and sentence to prison the Ayatollah’s son, Ahmad Montazeri, for releasing the audio recording. Ironically, Raisi was also the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Clergy, which swiftly tried and sentenced Montazeri.
In a statement on February 26, 2015, Raisi provided the rationale behind his determination to kill and his aversion to accountability:
“There are armies, soldiers, wars, etc. in all of the world, but the difference between us and them is that we are holy; our judiciary is holy and our regime is holy… There are various threats out there that want to annihilate this sanctity; defenders must ensure that this sacredness is not damaged. The prosecutor plays an important role in identifying [the threats], and in making sure that action [in facing and combating the threats] is taken in a timely and appropriate manner. We must not allow corruption to infiltrate anywhere in the country.”
After his tenure as the head of the General Inspection Office, the Supreme Leader has rewarded Raisi for his years of service by making him the Head of Astan Qods Razavi, the richest Muslim charity in the world, in March 2016. This promotion and the candidacy of a mass killer as president send a chilling message to the Iranian people. A President Raisi, with his understanding of “threats,” will have no qualms about joining forces with the judiciary and the revolutionary guards to kill. And his lethal hand will certainly not stop at the borders of Iran. With a mandate from God, Raisi will feel accountable to no one and the world should only expect the worst in the region and beyond.
When it comes to Iranian politics, it is wiser to avoid predictions. It is however safe to say, based on past experience, that President Rouhani is the favorite in the race. So far, all presidents who have made it to end of their first term, have won re-election and Rouhani, who has successfully resolved the nuclear crisis, should be no exception. But Raisi is a serious contender. A loyalist from the Leader’s hometown, he has gained management skills and, most importantly, he has no constituency of his own to challenge Khamenei. Whether or not Raisi intends to stay in the race, campaigning will raise his profile and, if his candidacy to replace the Supreme Leader is more than a rumor, his chances to rise to the top.
That Ahmadinejad is running for president should not distract us from the real danger. The international community should make sure that those who are encouraging Raisi’s presidential bid or are raising his profile to succeed Ayatollah Khamenei, understand that with Raisi, it will not be business as usual. We may have a long way to go before Raisi and human rights abusers like him are held to account in Iran. But it is morally and pragmatically necessary for the international community to show its outrage and, as a first step, to put Raisi on the list of sanctioned individuals and impose a travel ban on him.