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Iran: Tehran Rewards Officials for Rights Abuses; World Powers Must Demand Accountability

Perpetrators of the 1988 massacre Ebrahim Raisi (Right), Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei (Center), and Hossein Ali Naieri (Left)

On Thursday, the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei as the country’s next judiciary chief. In so doing, he reinforced the message that was sent the previous month by his promotion of Ebrahim Raisi as the successor to the regime’s outgoing President Hassan Rouhani. In both cases, Khamenei’s choice has stemmed in large part from the subject’s history of human rights abuses and general commitment to ultra-hardline policies and behaviors in defense of the theocratic system and the supreme leader himself.
Raisi in particular is infamous for the leading role he played in the mass execution of political prisoners at Tehran’s Evin Prison during the summer of 1988. Those killings were part of a nationwide massacre that reportedly claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, and one in which Ejei also played a prominent role as the judiciary chief’s representative to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Ejei’s connections to both the judiciary and the Intelligence Ministry put him on course to contribute to further repression of dissent both domestically and internationally in the years after the 1988 massacre, which primarily targeted members and supporters of the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). Throughout much of the 1990s, Iranian intelligence operatives committed a series of attacks on dissidents often referred to as the “chain murders.” Ejei played a significant role in this campaign while also contributing to the imprisonment and execution of dissident religious leaders as an official in the Special Court of Clergy.

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His alternating participation in foreign and domestic crackdowns continued into the modern era with Ejei serving as the head of the Intelligence Ministry from 2005 to 2009 and as prosecutor general until 2014. Since 2019, he has served as first deputy judiciary chief under Raisi, who was appointed as head of the judiciary following a stint as the “caretaker” of a “religious foundation” known as Astan-e Quds Rezavi, a well-known outlet for the clerical regime’s financing of militant groups and exportation of extremism.
On June 18, 2019, it was announced that the regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei had expanded Ejei’s authority, effectively making him co-equal with Raisi with respect to the issuance of death sentences. Iranian state media later reported that within two and a half months, this change had facilitated the “conclusion” of at least 600 capital sentences. The expansion of Ejei’s authority also presumably helped to accelerate the crackdown on dissent later in 2019, when anti-government protesters in nearly 200 cities and towns launched simultaneous demonstrations calling for “death to the dictator” and reasserting public support for the prospect of regime change.
The regime’s crackdown on the 2009 protests is notorious, and Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei was definitively implicated in the campaign of mass arrests, torture, and executions that followed. The US Treasury Department identified the 2009 crackdown as a major cause for its announcement of sanctions against Ejei in September 2010, though it also made reference to a larger body of severe and extensively-reported human rights violations. The European Union followed suit in sanctioning Ejei for this reason in April 2011, targeting 31 other Iranian officials in the process and barring them from entering any EU member states.

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Raisi has been slower to come under scrutiny or face demands for accountability from the international community. But in 2019, the United States government imposed sanctions on him as well, this time explicitly mentioning the 1988 massacre, an incident for which no one has been punished either domestically or in an international court despite the massage of more than 30 years. Various human rights organizations and Iranian political groups, including the group that was most directly targeted by the 1988 “death commissions” have kept up the pressure on Western policymakers and the United Nations during that time, urging justice for the victims of what many consider the late 20th century’s worst crime against humanity.


Those demands for justice have only grown more urgent in recent years, as Iranian regime authorities moved to destroy evidence of secret mass graves and especially as the supreme leader pushed for the installation of one of the massacre’s key perpetrators as the country’s next president. Because of Khamenei’s clear support, Ebrahim Raisi was confirmed as the regime’s president-elect following a campaign in which he remained largely unchallenged, with two would-be opponents actually dropping out in the final days to throw their support behind him. The Guardian Council, which is tasked with vetting all candidates for high office, excluded all other high-profile prospective candidates from the ballot in a move that opposition activists described as part of a larger strategy of consolidating power, spearheaded by the supreme leader.
Ejei’s appointment as judiciary chief is now being viewed as part of that same strategy. The National Council of Resistance of Iran stated on Thursday that with these latest appointments, all three branches of the Iranian government are now headed by persons with a history of human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.
The Iranian resistance will present its case in more detail from July 10 to July 12 in the annual gathering of Iranian expatriates and political supporters, known this year as the “Free Iran World Summit.” The event will be live-streamed throughout the world, thereby connecting tens of thousands of participants among hundreds of expatriate communities. As in previous years, speakers at the event will include dozens of American and European policymakers.

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Those Western speakers represent preexisting support for an expanded sanctions package targeting the likes of Raisi, Ejei, and other participants in the 1988 massacre, the chain murders, the crackdown on the 2009 uprising, and now the crackdown on the MEK-led uprising in November 2019. The last of these involved 1,500 shooting deaths in a matter of days, followed by months of systematic torture targeting protesters and known activists. It also naturally raised concerns about the potential for further escalation, especially under a government led by the perpetrators of some of the Iranian regime’s worst crimes.
That government must be deterred from such escalation before it takes office in August. This month’s NCRI gathering will provide policymakers with an opportunity to discuss how best to achieve that deterrence, and it will also highlight the further potential effects of sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and other measures targeting the Raisi administration and the regime as a whole. Such pressure will convey a message of support to an organized Resistance movement that brought the regime to the brink of overthrow in 2019 and is committed to doing so again at the start of the Raisi/Ejei era.