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Ebrahim Raisi Member of Iran's Death Commission Responsible for Horrific Torture and Murder of 30,000 Iranian Dissidents which he later praised as "one of the proud achievements of the system."

By Tzvi Kahn - Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

Even the prison guards were horrified.

In the summer of 1988, at the behest of Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the regime executed thousands of political dissidents incarcerated at 32 sites throughout the country.

Saeed Amirkhizi, an inmate at Evin Prison at the time, recalls that even those guards “who had been tormenting and executing prisoners for years were astonished by this level of cruelty and barbarity.”

Now, one of the massacre’s perpetrators – and a key architect of Iran’s human rights abuses in the subsequent 32 years – is a leading candidate for Iran’s presidency.

Ebrahim Raisi – the deputy prosecutor general of Tehran from 1985 to 1988 – facilitated the 1988 slaughter by serving on a four-member panel known as a Death Commission, which decided who would live and who would die. The commission would conduct interviews of prisoners – often just a few minutes long – aimed at determining their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Questionscould include: “What is your political affiliation?” “Do you pray?” “Are you willing to clear minefields for the Islamic Republic?” The wrong answer meant death.

The executions were usually by hanging or by firing squad. They typically took place the same day as the interrogations. The commissions allowed neither lawyers nor appeals. Burials occurred in unmarked mass graves. The regime waited months before notifying the relatives of the victims, refused to tell them the locations of the bodies, and told them not to mourn in public.

Raisi’s commission operated at Evin Prison and Gohardasht Prison, two of Iran’s most notorious jails. Kamal Afkhami Ardekani, a former Evin official, reported that throughout most of July and August, the prison executed inmates every half hour from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The victims included women and children as young as 13.

Raisi has defended the killings, saying in 2018 that they were “one of the proud achievements of the system.” He further praised Ayatollah Khomeini as a “national hero.”

In 2016, an audio recording from 1988 emerged of a meeting between Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri – a deputy to Khomeini – and Raisi and the other three members of his Death Commission. In a remarkable rebuke, Montazeri told the panel that its members had inflicted the “greatest crime committed under the Islamic Republic,” and “will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals.”

Before that happens, however, Raisi may become president. It’s not his first time seeking the job. In 2017, he ran against outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, receiving only 38.5% of the vote compared to the incumbent’s 57%. Of course these elections, like all presidential contests in the Islamic Republic, were hardly free and fair: A 12-member, unelected body known as the Guardian Council selects eligible candidates, ensuring that the resulting government remains loyal to the principles of the Islamic Revolution. Still, the majority of Iranians who opted to vote sought to defeat a candidate with so much blood on his hands.

During the 2009 Green Revolution, Raisi served as deputy chief justice, making him complicit in the prosecution – and, in some cases, the death sentences – of peaceful protesters who objected to Iran’s fraudulent election. A few years later, as attorney general, Raisi opposed lifting the regime’s house arrests of the Green Revolution’s leaders.

“Those who have proposed the elections were fraudulent and created doubt in the public’s mind have undoubtedly committed a grave crime and naturally will have to answer for the crime they have committed,” said Raisi in 2009.

The next year, Raisi praised the judiciary’s amputation of a thief’s hand as a punishment for stealing. The gruesome sentence, Raisi said, is “based on the law and divine punishment,” and is “a source of pride for us.”

Since 2019, Raisi has served as the head of the judiciary, making him directly responsible for how it mistreats prisoners of conscience. According to a recent State Department report, “Commonly reported methods of torture and abuse in prisons included threats of execution or rape, forced tests of virginity and ‘sodomy,’ sleep deprivation, electroshock, including the shocking of genitals, burnings, the use of pressure positions, and severe and repeated beatings.”

Iran’s judiciary also constitutes one of the world’s leading executioners. In 2021, after trials devoid of due process, it has executed more than 100 people to date. In 2020, it claimed the livesof at least 267 people. In 2019, it killed 280 people.

In 2019, the Trump administration sanctioned Raisi, citing his conduct in the 1988 massacre and the 2009 protests. Now, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has indicated that the Biden administration may lift some non-nuclear sanctions on Iran in order to persuade Tehran to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal. The regime, for its part, has pressed America’s negotiators to lift all nuclear and non-nuclear sanctions, which would include a removal of Raisi from the blacklist.

The Biden administration should resist such pressure. Regardless of the fate of the nuclear accord, perpetrators of crimes against humanity should not receive pardons.

Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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