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Iran's Crumbling Judiciary

15 Aug 2009 10:319 Comments

The breakdown of the judiciary has never been so glaringly visible. Photo: Ayatollah Shahroudi seated with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Date unknown.

Update: Iran's supreme leader appoints Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani as the new head of the country's judiciary.

By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 15 Aug 2009

Iran's judiciary is facing a deep crisis. The Stalinesque show trials alone would be comical if not for the serious and grave nature of them. Dungeons in the Interior Ministry, torture to the point of death, and all around lawlessness have come to characterize the judicial system over the past few weeks.

Of course such developments are not news to those like the author who are familiar with the way things have taken shape in Iran over the past 30 years. But even so, the breakdown of the judiciary has never been so glaringly visible.

The judiciary chief is Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. He was born 61 years ago in Najaf, Iraq, in a family that has had a long tradition of being part of the clerical establishment. He was a student of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr who was the ideological founder of the Islamic Dawa Party -- the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maleki of Iraq -- and was executed by Saddam Hussein in 1980. Al-Sadr is also father-in-law of the Shiite firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi nationalist and fierce opponent of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. His two cousins, Mohammad Sadegh al-Sadr and Imam Mousa al-Sadr, were also very prominent Shiite clerics. (Mousa al-Sard disappeared in Libya many years ago. He was presumably murdered by Libya's intelligence service.)

Shahroudi was also a student of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, when he was living in exile in Najaf in the 1960s and 70s. He is a firm believer in Ayatollah Khomeini's concept of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the supreme jurist), which is the backbone of Iran's political structure. Shahroudi was arrested once by Saddam Hussein and tortured. After his mentor, Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr, was executed in 1980, Shahroudi moved to Iran permanently. There he founded the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and was highly active against Saddam Hussein's regime. After the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, SCIRI moved its headquarters to Iraq and participated in the government; it renamed itself the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Shahroudi the chief of the judiciary in 1999. Soon after his appointment,Shahroudi said that his predecessor, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, has left him a ruined judiciary. Yazdi's years at the judiciary were some of the worst in terms of fairness and justice. Yazdi had dissolved the general structure of Iran's modern court system, which had been established in the 1930s, and replaced it with a chaotic system in which, for example, the judge and the prosecutor were the same person. There was practically no jury in most trials. Those arrested and jailed had no access to counsel, and corruption and bribery were rampant. Yazdi also has a reputation for being one of the most corrupt officials and clerics in Iran.

262s36gIn terms of theological and Islamic knowledge, Shahroudi is formidable. Brilliant is often the word used to describe his knowledge and thinking. When he was appointed judiciary chief in 1999, he spoke of the need for "judicial reform." In 1999, Iran was in its reform heyday; President Mohammad Khatami was in his second year in office. When Shahroudi spoke of political reform in the judiciary, people (especially activists) believed it was possible.

Shahroudi did implement some reforms. He put a moratorium on the cruel and medieval punishment of stoning (the practice has been widely reduced, but it has not completely ended); decriminalized certain offenses; and proposed limited, but still significant, amendments to the family law in favor of women. He also restored most of the structure of the judiciary before Yazdi had dismantled it, and made the system more efficient.

At times Shahroudi had been critical of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He has opposed several attempts by Ahmadinejad to give his supporters in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) unfettered access to the country's national resources. At other times, he has responded to Ahmadinejad's allegations of corruption against former officials by telling him to present the judiciary with solid evidence, which Ahmadinejad refused.

At the same time, Shahroudi has been ineffective in terms of putting an end to arbitrary arrests of political activists, journalists and human rights advocates; cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners, which is often accompanied by torture; biased and often totally unlawful trials, etc. He did not try, or was unable to do anything about the arbitrary closure of hundreds of newspapers weeklies, and monthly publications.

After the reformists swept the elections for the 6th Majles (parliament) in February 2000, Ayatollah Khamenei lashed out at the press, accusing them of being agents of Iran's enemies. In less than 48 hours, 16 prominent reformist newspapers were closed, and their managing editors and editors-in-chief summoned to court (since then at least 200 more publications have been closed). Many distinguished journalists such as Dr. Ahmad Zeidabadi, Masoud Behnoud, Ebrahim Nabavi, Dr. Latif Safari, Abdollah Nouri, Abbas Abdi, Akbar Ganji, Emad Baghi and others were jailed on bogus charges. Many more were summoned to the courts and given suspended sentences after staged trials in order to frighten them. During the entire time that such unlawful actions were taking place, Shahroudi either did nothing, or sometimes even defended the shameless proceedings.

One of the worst cases of extra-judicial action was taken against Hossein Loghmanian. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Loghmanian was a reformist Majles deputy representing Hamadan, in western Iran, in the 6th Majles. When during a speech in the Majles he harshly criticized the hardliners, he was arrested in violation of his parliamentary immunity. Shahroudi defended Loghmanian's arrest, saying that the Majles deputies have immunity "so long as they have not committed any offense," which is, of course, nonsense. The definition of immunity claimed by Shahroudi is applicable to all citizens. The deputies should have political immunity for speaking their minds. Loghmanian was even jailed. Only after Mehdi Karroubi, then Speaker of the Majles (and one of the two reformist candidates in June's rigged election) strongly protested his jailing, was Loghmanian freed.

Another gross violation of justice happened when Akbar Gangi, a courageous investigative journalist, was handed a 10-year sentence in 2000 based on bogus charges. When Ganji appealed his sentence, a brave judge, Ali Bakhshi, reduced Ganji's sentence to 6 months, declaring that he was essentially innocent. But, the hardliners in the judiciary overturned Bakhshi's verdict, gave Ganji a 6-year sentence, and forced Bakhshi into retirement. Shahroudi did nothing to prevent all of this from taking place.

Another notorious case under Shahroudi's watch was the case of Dr. Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist arrested while taking photos of Evin prison in Tehran, where many political prisoners are held. She was murdered while in custody. According to Shirin Ebadi, the distinguished Iranian attorney (and the 2003 Nobel Laureate for Peace) who represented Dr. Kazemi's family in court, she had died of a hemorrhage. She had three fractures in her skull, a broken nose, a crushed toe, and bruises all over her body. When Ebadi and another distinguished attorney, Abdolfattah Soltani, strongly implicated Saeed Mortazavi in her murder -- he is Tehran's notorious Prosecutor General and Prosecutor of Tehran's revolutionary court -- not only was no action taken, but Soltani was arrested on Mortazavi's order and kept in solitary confinement for months. Shahroudi took no meaningful action against Mortazavi.

Another notorious case took place in 2004. Several young Iranian bloggers, including Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafizadeh, and Rouzbeh Mir Ebrahimi (the three now live outside Iran), were arrested, tortured and forced to "confess." Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran's notorious Prosecutor General, and the Prosecutor of Tehran's revolutionary courts, even tried to force them to be his witnesses against Ali Mazrouei, president of the Association of Iranian Journalists, in his trial, after he had written a letter to then president Khatami and spoken about the use of torture in jails against journalists. Mortazavi had filed charges against Mazrouei for libel. Shahroudi was sympathetic to the young bloggers, but could not do much against Mortazavi.

There are simply too many similar cases to discuss here. With few exceptions, Shahroudi has either not been willing to take action against such abuses, or has been overruled by the powers behind-the-scenes.

A few years ago, the author asked a friend in Tehran, who is a distinguished human rights attorney with an international reputation, why Shahroudi allows such injustice to take place, especially when he is such a distinguished Islamic scholar. "The real power in the judiciary is not Shahroudi," she said. "There is a small gang of hard-line judges, mostly graduates of the Haghani School in Qom, who together with Saeed Mortazavi are the true powers in the judiciary." The Haghani School is a seminary run by Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the reactionary hard-line cleric and the spiritual adviser of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

According to the author's attorney friend, those really at the top of the judiciary -- the men that most people in the judiciary are afraid of -- are Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei and Saeed Mortazavi. At the time, Ejehei was a prosecutor in the revolutionary courts, which were set up after the 1979 Revolution to prosecute political and counter-revolutionary offenses. A graduate of the Haghani School, Ejehei was also the Prosecutor General of the special courts for the clergy, an extra-judiciary court system meant to pressure and control dissident clerics. He was the head of the Judicial Complex for Government Employees (JCGE) as well. It was at the JCGE that most of the journalists were supposedly put on trial. (It's telling that the hardliners seem to view journalists as government employees!). Up until two weeks ago, Ejehei was Minister of Intelligence in the Ahmadinejad administration; he was fired.

Saeed Mortazavi is a most powerful judiciary figure. According to many sources, he reports only to Ayatollah Khamenei, his strongest supporter and patron. He began his work in the Basij militia, and worked for the judiciary in Yazd province in central Iran. There, according to Amir Farshad Ebrahimi (a former member of a paramilitary group, who broke off with the hardliners and now lives in exile), who used to work with Mortazavi, he wanted to have sexual relations with the wife of a man in jail in return for his release, but was arrested. Instead of being put on trial, Mortazavi used his family links to the late Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the powerful former Chair of the Assembly of Experts (a Constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and monitors his performance) to not only escape prosecution, but also land a job in the judiciary in Tehran!

Mortazavi was eventually appointed as a judge in branch 1410 of the JCGE. When in April 2000 the conservative-dominated 5th Majles approved new Draconian press laws -- the press was enjoying a relative degree of freedom at that time -- Mortazavi was in the audience and shouted Allah-o Akbar (God is great), expressing his joy at the approval of the new press law. It was Mortazavi who put many of the journalists on trial and "convicted" them. It was Mortazavi who ordered the closure of tens of reformist newspapers and other publications. The "butcher of the press" is one of the many apt titles Iranians attribute to Mortazavi.

It is believed that when Shahroudi's first five-year term expired in 2004, he told Ayatollah Khamenei that he would accept his reappointment only if Mortazavi was fired. The demand was not, however, accepted by Ayatollah Khamenei. Why Shahroudi accepted a reappointment is unclear, but the episode clearly indicates the power that Mortazavi wields. A reliable source told the author that Ayatollah Khamenei holds Mortazavi in high esteem and considers him as a "most revolutionary judge."

Other hard-line judges in the judiciary include Ali Razini, Ebrahim Raeisi, Jaffar Nayyeri. All three, who have been implicated in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, are graduates of the Haghani School. Hassan Haddad Dehnavi, known as judge Haddad, is also another such figure. In addition, Ayatollah Ghorban-Ali Dorri Najafabadi, the Chief Justice, and Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, the former Chief Justice, are among the hardliners. The Chief Justice is a position different from the chief of the judiciary, which is appointed by the former. Gilani was a judge od Tehran's revolutionary court from 1980-1985, when he ordered the execution of two of his own children because they were members of the opposition.

Currently, the most serious crisis that the judiciary is facing is the fate of the jailed reformist leaders and scores of others who have been arrested during protests and demonstrations after the rigged election, and revelations of egrigious crimes in many jails and detention centers, including murder. By law, all the jails and detention centers must be controlled by the judiciary. In practice, this has not been the case. The Ministry of Intelligence and the intelligence unit of the IRGC have their own detention centers, completely out of the judiciary's control. The reformist leaders who are not jailed have accused the judiciary of total incompetence.

The charge of torture has even been confirmed by Dorri Najafabadi, the Chief Justice, who also acknowledged implicitly that many of the detention centers were not in the judiciary's control. One such center was Kahrizak, in the southern edge of Tehran, where Mohsen Rouholamini, the young engineering student was beaten to death. His jaw had been broken, and the wounds had generated infection. If he did not die of the beatings, he died of the infection that had spread because he did not get the required medical care for his wounds and injuries developed under interrogation. He and at least two others were killed in the Kahrizak detention center. It was Ruholamini's killing that created revulsion and uproar even among the conservatives, which prompted Ayatollah Khamenei to order the closure of the Kahrizak detention center. Yesterday, the Iranian press reported that, despite the order, the center has not been completely closed. As the author reported two weeks ago, the order has not been carried out.

More serious charges are pouring in, this time by Mehdi Karroubi, one of the two reformist candidates in the rigged presidential election. In a letter to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karroubi reported that many people who had been arrested and jailed after the demonstrations against the rigged election appear to have been raped in jail.

Being raped in Iranian jail is nothing new (rapes occur in most jails around the world). In the 1980s, when thousands of political prisoners were executed in Iran, it was very well known that young women were raped before their execution, based on a "belief" that if a virgin woman is executed, she will go to heaven. Ayatollah Mohammadi Gilani said as much in an interview at the height of the executions in the 1980s.

What is significant about the revelations however is that they are now being acknowledged and reported by Karroubi, who has been part of the political establishment for three decades. So, a political system that claims to be Islamic, a symbol of fairness and justice, as well as kindness, is the culprit of heinous crimes such as raping young demonstrators. After Karroubi was attacked by the hardliners, and even by Ayatollah Khamenei, who without naming him, criticized him for the revelations, Karroubi provided more details of the crimes. Most of the details are so terrible that cannot be repeated here.

Others have come forward to confirm the rapes. For example, Majid Ansari, a cleric, a former member of the Assembly of Experts, and current member of the Expediency Council (a Constitutional body that arbitrates between the Majles and the Guardian Council, that vets the candidates for most elections), said yesterday that, "Unfortunately, rape of the prisoners is true; it have been proven to be true."

Shahroudi has apparently ordered an investigation of the crimes. In an open letter to him, a group of judges in the Tehran branch of the judiciary, strongly protested the crimes, criticized him, and reminded him of his responsibilities.

Shahroudi's second term is expiring. At some point he was considered as a plausible successor to Ayatollah Khamenei. Several years ago, his pictures were in many governmental places along those of Ayatollahs Khamenei and Khomeini, a subtle sign of who the next Supreme Leader might be. Given the crisis in Iran now, and all the fissures among the conservatives, it is no longer clear who Ayatollah's Khamenei's successor might be, or Shahroudi's chances for succeeding him.

It is widely believed that his successor is Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, a member of the Guardian Council, and a brother of Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Majles. He was supposed to be formally introduced today, August 15, as the new chief of the judiciary, but it has been postponed. He is believed to have opposed certifying the rigged presidential election (the Guardian Council must carry out the certification). This has generated strong opposition to him from the Ahmadinejad camp.

It is also believed that Larijani has stated that he does not want to take over the judiciary, so long as the Stalinist show trials are going on. He is said to be concerned about being held responsible for the trials. This was apparently revealed by Dorri Najafabadi, the Chief Justice.

Larijani's appointment is also opposed by some senior clerics in Qom, who not only question his knowledge of Islamic teachings, but are also opposed to having two brothers heading two important branches of the government.

Regardless of what happens and who succeeds Shahroudi, it is clear that Iran's judiciary is in shambles and has lost, like many other organs of the Islamic Republic, any shred of credibility it had in the eyes of the Iranian people.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau

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With all due respect, articles like these, are a sort of propaganda for the regime. Intelligent journalists who are anti regime should be writing about the non-violent ways to change the regime.

Ali Mostofi / August 15, 2009 7:39 AM

As I have commented in some of the past articles here, I stood firm that this man, Sharoudi should be persecuted too along with Khamenei and his tentacles of murderers. Iran does not need a Sharoudi but I believe he can effective in North Korea (just a wild thought).

These people who are supposed to be public servants were and still are working on the other side of the fence to the point of amassing more power and bleeding Iran's coffers dry.

If one will notice here and in all my posts I have never addressed the power-hungry people in Iran "Mister, Ayatollah, or President" simply because I have no respect for these people.

shetty / August 15, 2009 10:41 AM

Is it right two bothers to be at the head of two branches of government?

sam / August 15, 2009 10:53 AM

Thank you once again Prof. Sahimi for this thorough article. You have indeed brought Iran closer to us.

shetty / August 15, 2009 10:56 AM

Just minutes back Khamenei has appointed Larajani, brother of the current "Big Liar" Parliament Speaker. I have some misgivings about his appointment. Sure he will sway to his brother's denials. I see real big mess here. Iranians please watch out!

shetty / August 15, 2009 11:12 AM

Some comparisons might be useful here. I'm old enough to remember various political crises that affected the United States in my lifetime. Though they are not exactly the same as the challenges being experienced today in Iran, nevertheless they are useful as a benchmark of comparison.

To a certain extent, similarities to the crisis in Iran can be found in the systematic persecution of the communist political party in America, particularly during the 1950's and 1960's. There were show trials put on, of anyone of any importance, who was in any way connected with the communist party. These were widely reported in the media. Communist party members were imprisoned, blacklisted, their press outlawed and books banned. I personally remember communist (and socialist) books banned in America, such as Das Kapital by Karl Marx. The communists were seen by American authorities as a soft power internal threat, as well as a hard power external threat (sound familiar?), from various hostile states such as the USSR. Even though the American communists never attained the following or mass imperative of today's opposition movement in Iran, the comparison remains valid based on principle.

Additional crises were experienced in America during the civil rights movement and the anti-war protest movements of the 1960's and early 1970's. Like we see in Iran today, there were many instances of protesters, particularly young people, who were beaten with batons and some were even shot by security forces. Political parties of both movements were infiltrated and a systematic process of undermining them was put into effect by US security forces. There were mass arrests and some leaders were assassinated. Unlike the current situation in Iran, there were instances where large numbers of US cities were deliberately put to the torch. These US crises lasted for many years.

I bring up these memories and make the comparisons to remind Iranian-Americans that the current crisis in Iran should be put into context, and that struggles such as these can take place anywhere, even in the USA. I know, I've seen most of it before, right here, during my lifetime.

Anonymous / August 16, 2009 12:10 AM

The appointment of Sadegh Larijani shows the real winner of the rift between Khamenei and Rafsanjani is the IRGC.

Khameni is clamouring to gain more support by appointing another member of the camp who is opposing Ahmadinejad.

In a triangle of power struggle between Khamenei,IRGC(Ahmadinejad), and Rafsanjani, there are some factors that will play a great role in the future.

One is Iran's parliament and its challenge of Ahmadinejad's proposed cabinet. Another is the purge of the intelligence, military and nonmilitary organizations of noncompliant elements by Ahmadinejad and appointing Haghani brotherhood graduates.

And the most important is which side Rafsanjani is going to be alligned with; the people,the leader,or the IRGC.

Shahnameh / August 16, 2009 2:52 AM

Raping virgins before executing them?

Sounds like throwing babies out of incubators. In other words, bullshit.

The 'green movement' doesn't need to fabricate stories to demonize their opponents; they only need to look to the hero whose legacy they're trying to save by 'reclaiming' his revolution - khomeini.

Oreo / August 16, 2009 3:16 AM


Once again you are making a totally uninformed comment. What is stated in the article is documented. It is so well-known in Iran, precisely because Mohammadi Gilani said so in a TV interview. Take a look at all Persian sites. They say exactly the same.

Take your uninformed comments and demonizing Iranians elsewhere, or change your manner when you comment. Otherwise, you may be prevented from commenting here.

Muhammad Sahimi / August 16, 2009 8:48 AM