When Ebrahim Raisi was appointed as the regime’s president last month, policymakers and human rights experts throughout the world began raising alarms over the future of Iran’s human rights record. While that record has always been abysmal, Raisi’s so-called election represents the regime’s endorsement of one of the worst single incidents in its 42-year history of abuses.
In 1988, the founder and first supreme leader of the regime, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious edict declaring that the members and supporters of the main opposition organization, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) are considered as “enemy of God,” and punishable by death. As a result, political prisoners throughout the country were subjected to fleeting trials and given capital sentences when they refused to denounce the MEK.
The new sentences were issued by specially designated tribunals comprised of a religious judge, a judiciary official, and a representative of the Intelligence Ministry. As they set about interrogating political prisoners over their views and affiliations, these bodies came to be known as “death commissions,” and in the space of about three months, they became responsible for over 30,000 deaths. At the time, Ebrahim Raisi was the deputy public prosecutor in Tehran, and as such he became one of the key figures in the death commission responsible for Evin Prison, home to the largest share of Iran’s political prisoners.
Although it has been more than three decades, the 1988 massacre has not faded from memory, and neither has public awareness of Raisi’s culpability. When his presidential candidacy was announced, many of the massacre’s survivors and many victims’ families responded by staging public protests that decried him as the “henchman of 1988.” Other protests highlighted his more recent contributions to human rights abuses, including those made during his time as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
In March 2019, Raisi took over the judiciary on orders from the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The effects of his leadership were gradually revealed in the form of expanded applications of the death penalty, which further reinforced Iran’s longstanding reputation as the country with the highest per-capita rate of annual executions. Targets of the death penalty under Raisi’s leadership include political prisoners, including Navid Afkari, who had become the object of a global campaign for clemency after it became clear that he was tortured during his detention and accused of a murder he could not have committed, all because he took part in large scale protests in 2018.
The initial uprising and the subsequent year-long period of loosely connected local protests seem to have helped motivate Khamenei to appoint Raisi as judiciary chief. There is little question that that appointment was made not in spite of Raisi’s record as the “henchman of 1988” but precisely because of it. It coheres with a long pattern of regime authorities being rewarded for their defense of crimes against humanity which aim to stamp out organized dissent in Iran. Although individual arrests and executions served to partially confirm Raisi’s ongoing commitment to that strategy as judiciary chief, the real test of his conviction came during and after November 2019, when the country was rocked by another nationwide uprising, this one much larger than its predecessor.
Within days of the start of that uprising, Iranian authorities had opened fire on numerous crowds of protesters, killing over 1,500 people. For months thereafter, the judiciary subjected as many as 12,000 political detainees to torture as part of an effort to elicit forced confessions and justify prosecution on national security charges, which could carry the death penalty.
Amnesty International detailed much of that torture in a 2020 report titled “Trampling Humanity.” And when Raisi was selected president the next year, the human rights advocacy organization pointed to his record as judiciary chief and to the legacy of 1988 and said, “That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
Unfortunately, that impunity has been reinforced over the years by feckless Western policies for dealing with the world’s foremost executioner and leading state sponsor of terrorism. Many experts and policymakers have recognized this fact and have traced a pattern of inaction all the way back to the 1988 massacre.
Last year, seven United Nations human rights experts wrote a letter to Iranian authorities in which they acknowledged that the international body was made aware of the killings while they were still going on, yet failed to take any action apart from condemning them in the context of a contemporary resolution on the regime’s human rights record. That failure, the experts wrote, “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to… maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”
In December 2020, that letter was published for an international audience after it became clear that no response from Iranian authorities was forthcoming. It was evident from the text that this was the expected outcome, as it explicitly stated that the international community would have to take up the issue if Tehran persisted in its refusal to hold its own officials accountable.
There can hardly be a clearer sign of the regime’s rejection of that accountability than its decision to not only promote Ebrahim Raisi as a presidential candidate but also to pull him out of the ballot box. Now, it is time for the international community to hold the regime accountable for its crimes against humanity.