Beginning in July 1988, thousands of political prisoners in Iran were taken out of their cells and brought before a panel of judges, who asked them a series of questions such as: Are you a Muslim? Do you pray Are you ready to cross a minefield to help the army of the Islamic Republic?
Anyone who gave the wrong answer during an interrogation was given a pen and paper and asked to write down their last wishes and will. At least 5,000 political dissidents – some on the left, many others affiliated with a militia known as the People’s Mojahedin of Iran – were executed after being questioned by a panel of judges, which became known as name of “Death Commission”. ”
The victims were hanged from cranes erected in a parking lot behind Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, or in what inmates called the “amphitheater” of Gohardasht prison on the outskirts of the capital. Some say the actual number killed in the prison massacre was closer to 30,000.
This week, Ebrahim Raisi, who as Tehran’s deputy prosecutor was a member of the Committee on the Killing of Four People in 1988, became Iran’s president-elect. Many believe he is set to succeed aging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s supreme leader, potentially putting him in a position to chart the country’s direction for decades to come.
“Whenever they were going to execute a group of 10, 12 or 15 prisoners, all the members of the Death Commission, including Raisi, would go to the amphitheater and testify. And then they had a party. They came to our cells with cakes and cookies and asked us to join in their celebration, ”said Iraj Mesdaghi, who spent 10 days in what is called“ death row ”in the prison. de Gohardasht, before being released after swearing to end all political activities.
Mr. Mesdaghi now lives in Sweden, where he is a key witness in a landmark trial against Hamid Nouri, another Iranian official who allegedly participated in the 1988 massacre. Mr. Mesdaghi told The Globe and Mail that he had been questioned four times times to Gohardasht by the panel of judges which included Mr. Raisi. He says Mr Raisi has said he wants to rid Iran of all its political prisoners, and that the president-elect will be implicated by the evidence he and others intend to give to the Swedish court.
In his current role as the country’s chief justice, Mr. Raisi also played a leading role in Iran’s investigation into last year’s downing of Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752, which was hit by two missiles shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 people on Council. Although 138 of the victims were citizens of or traveling to Canada, Iran has refused to give Canadian investigators full access to the crash site, and the families of the victims have been outraged by the conclusion of the Iranian investigation according to which disaster was caused by human error.
The Canadian government’s forensic report, released Thursday, found that Iran had failed to provide “a credible explanation of how and why” a branch of its military shot down the passenger plane. A full account of what happened seems even more unlikely after Mr Raisi was elevated to the presidency.
“I don’t know how the international community is going to treat this guy,” Mesdaghi said in a telephone interview. “Can he come to international organizations? The United Nations? Can he visit other countries? How? ‘Or’ What? “
This is a question that US President Joe Biden and others will soon have to answer. Mr Biden’s administration is in the midst of sensitive negotiations over the future of a 2015 deal that saw the US and other countries agree to lift long-standing economic sanctions against Iran in return restrictions on the country’s nuclear program.
Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the pact in 2018 and reimposed the sanctions. Mr Biden’s administration has promised to join the deal, but now faces an informal August deadline, when Mr Raisi formally succeeds the more reformist President Hassan Rouhani. “I find it hard to imagine that if an agreement is not restored by August, Raisi will be able to make the compromises that Rouhani has avoided,” said Ali Vaez, Iranian expert at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
As the United States has sought to expand the nuclear pact to include restrictions on Iran’s missile construction program, Mr. Raisi said in his first public remarks after winning the election that the United States should lift the sanctions before Iran is forced to take action. When asked if he would be willing to meet with Mr. Biden once the sanctions are lifted, Mr. Raisi replied, “No”.
Adding to the complexity of the negotiations, Mr. Raisi has been on the U.S. sanctions list since 2019 for his alleged surveillance of human rights violations – including the execution of minors and the punishment of prisoners by amputation – committed by the Iranian justice.
That Mr. Raisi could step out of the Death Committee to become Iran’s head of government is revealing. The same goes for the effort Ayatollah Khamenei – the country’s supreme authority – and his allies made to secure Mr. Raisi’s victory in the June 18 presidential election.
Elections in Iran are always a carefully run business, with Ayatollah Khamenei and his coterie screening candidates based on their perceived loyalty to the regime before allowing the public to choose between the few who pass the rally.
But even by those standards, the regime made unusual efforts to ensure voters had no choice but to support Mr Raisi. Of the more than 600 people who nominated for the presidency, only seven were approved by the powerful Guardian Council, three of whom dropped out before election day.
The anxiety of the moment is believed to be linked to the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei is now 82 years old and his health is rumored to be deteriorating. There is speculation inside and outside Iran that by installing Mr. Raisi, 60, as president, the Supreme Leader is effectively appointing his own successor.
By introducing Mr. Raisi to the presidency, Ayatollah Khamenei could also seek to end the long-standing struggle between the regime’s hard-line supporters and pragmatists such as Mr. Rouhani, with the latter faction seeking to improve its relations with the West.
“What makes Raisi unique is that he owes everything he has to the Supreme Leader. He is totally loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, ”said Vaez. “The system is really now at a point where it cannot afford a dysfunctional government. “
While Mr Raisi is set to become Iran’s next Supreme Leader, it is not clear that a majority of Iranians support the idea. Official figures show that only 48.8 percent of voters voted on June 18. Mr. Raisi won with an unequivocal 62 percent, with nearly 15 percent of those who voted spoiled their ballots.
“It was a protest vote against the candidates, against the political system,” said Sanam Vakil, Iranian expert at Chatham House, a London think tank. “There is an obvious frustration that people are no longer considered important to this process. “
Mr. Raisi was born into a devout Shia Muslim family in the northeastern city of Mashhad and received a religious education at a seminary in the holy city of Qom. Since his time on the Death Commission, he has risen steadily through the ranks of the judiciary. He was appointed the country’s attorney general in 2014 and chief justice five years later.
Asked this week about his role in the 1988 massacre, Mr. Raisi told reporters in Tehran that “if a judge, a prosecutor defended the safety of the people, he should be commended.”
Mr. Raisi then played a role in a series of crackdowns on dissent, including the violent crackdown on anti-government protests in 2009 and 2019.
Payam Akhavan, an Iranian-born Canadian lawyer specializing in war crimes and crimes against humanity prosecutions, said Mr. Raisi’s rise “speaks volumes about the nature of the regime.” He said the 1988 massacre had become “Iran’s Srebrenica – the only massacre that epitomizes this decade of violence”.
Mr. Akhavan said his own uncle, Firuz Naimi, was tortured to death during a crackdown on followers of the Baha’i faith in 1981, overseen by Mr. Raisi, who was a regional prosecutor at the time. He said Mr. Raisi was a “fanatic” willing to do whatever the Supreme Leader told him to do.
” The message [from the election] it’s ‘we’re here to stay,’ ”Akhavan said in an interview. “It is about the stability of the regime. Continuity. It is about crushing dissent and all hopes of reform.