Think of any case against a journalist, blogger or activist in Iran and Saeed Mortazavi springs to mind. For many, the notorious judge — dubbed the Butcher of the Press — is synonymous with a clampdown on the reformist press, and with it the intimidation, arrest and torture of journalists. Known internationally as the man who ordered the torture of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died while in detention at Evin Prison, he has also held a number of public and government offices, including the head of Iran’s Press Court, chief prosecutor in Tehran from 2003-2009 and chief of the Social Security Organization, appointed by then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He caused a stir when he publicly accused a member of the Iranian establishment of corruption. But he is perhaps best known for his alleged role in the brutal torture and deaths of at least three prisoners at Kahrizak Detention Center in 2009.
On November 15, the Iranian Supreme Court handed down its verdict for his involvement in the unlawful detention of protesters at Kahrizak. Mortazavi was disbarred, and will not be able to hold another judicial position for the remainder of his career. He was also banned from public office for five years. Human rights advocates and government critics have welcomed the verdict, but point out that because Mortazavi is eligible for public office in 2019, it falls short of justice.
For years, Mortazavi escaped prosecution for his illegal activities. When he was dismissed from one position, he was immediately appointed to another. Following a report by the Truth Commission, the body set up to examine events at the Kahrizak Detention Center, Mortazavi was found to be responsible for ordering the transfer of detainees to the center and was removed as the general prosecutor of Tehran. However, soon after, he was appointed as the head of the government’s Task Force Against Smuggling by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mortazavi has used laws designed to combat criminal activity to target journalists, and has faced no criticism for this misapplication of Iranian law. According to lawyers Hossein Raisi and Mehrangiz Kar, Mortazavi applied the “Prevention of Crimes and Probation Act" of 1339 (1960) — which was specifically drafted as a preventative measure to deal with dangerous professional criminals — to close down reformist newspapers, including Jameh, Tus and Salam. “In 2000, during a critical point during the reformist era, Mortazavi cited Article 13 of the Act to close down about 20 publications,” says Kar. “But this law has nothing to do with the press.” Over the years, at least 76 publications have been challenged under the Act, and some sources, including Justice for Iran and Roozonline, have reported that hundreds of publications have been targeted using the legislation.
Mortazavi also escaped scrutiny for criticizing a member of one of Iran’s most powerful families. On February 7, 2012, Mortazvi attested that Fazel Larijani, one of the five powerful Larijani brothers, was guilty of corruption, a statement that was broadcast in parliament. Normally, because of the power and influence the Larijani family commands, there would be large-scale repercussions for a statement of this nature. But Mortazavi was detained for just one night and then released on bail.
A Regime in Need of a Scapegoat
So how did such a skilled escape artist finally get caught? What led to Mortazavi being permanently barred from judicial office?
Hossein Raisi believes that Mortazavi was disbarred because the regime was not able to cover up the Kahrizak Detention Center atrocities. And, that his own involvement in corruption set the price too high: the government could no longer justify keeping him within its ranks and took the decision to remove him. However it did not turn its back on him completely — Mortazavi will not stand trial for Kahrizak, or any other human rights violation for which he holds responsibility.
Mehrangiz Kar says Mortazavi’s dismissal had nothing to do with his unjust verdicts against journalists and activists. After the 2009 election and the brutal suppression of protesters, the reputation of the regime was damaged to such an extent that the regime felt it needed a scapegoat — and Mortazavi was that scapegoat.
But does Mortazavi bear sole responsibility for the unjust verdicts that have become his trademark? Are there other individuals or institutions that should be held accountable?
Under Article 157 and 158 of Iran’s Constitution, the Supreme Leader appoints the Head of the Judiciary, who is in charge of appointing, dismissing, transferring and promoting judges, as well as assigning them specific duties. Moreover, according to Article 164 of the Constitution, the Head of the Judiciary can transfer or reassign judges without their consent if he considers it to be in the public’s interest. As a result, it is very difficult for judges to act independently, as they are obliged to follow the will of the Head of the Judiciary — and, by extension, the Supreme Leader — in order to secure their positions. It is reasonable, therefore, to draw the conclusion that the Supreme Leader and the Head of the Judiciary share responsibility for the atrocities and unjust verdicts against journalists and activists.
“Mortazavi had immunity from prosecution because he was backed by the Leader,” says the lawyer Mohammad Olyaeifard. When Mortazavi was appointed in the late 1990s, Olyaeifard says, Ayatollah Khamenei addressed members of the judiciary, and had a particular message for those who raised questions about the appointment of Mortazavi: “Now that a young and brave judge has emerged and wants to take action, why do you throw stones in his way?” Olyaeifard says this was enough to create impunity for Mortazavi and his actions. Here, too, it is evident that the Leader shares responsibility for Mortazavi’s actions.
Raisi says it is important to look even wider, to other supervisory bodies, commissions and organizations within the regime — including the Commission on Article 90, which has the duty of investigating complaints concerning the judiciary, and the National General Inspectorate, an organization that supervises the proper conduct of affairs and the correct implementation of laws by the administrative organs of the government. And, Parliament itself, which is responsible for enacting laws that permits impunity for judges like Mortazavi.
Mortazavi may well be the fall guy for the regime. But looking closer, it is clear that responsibility for some of Iran’s most shocking human rights violations, including a brutal attack on the press, extends much further, into the very fabric of how the Islamic Republic operates.