Iran’s judiciary confirmed on Sunday that former presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will serve as its next chief. The appointment of Raisi, who played a key role in Tehran’s 1988 massacre of thousands of political opponents, reflects the judiciary’s longstanding priority: to safeguard the power and Islamist ideology of the theocracy.
Selected directly by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Raisi replaces Sadegh Amoli Larijani, whom the Trump administration sanctioned last year for committing “serious human rights abuses,” including the “execution of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their crime and the torture or cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners in Iran, including amputations.”
The same description could apply to Raisi.
In the summer of 1988, then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa sentencing political prisoners to death, declaring them “apostates of Islam.” Tehran proceeded to establish panels in prisons throughout the country known as Death Commissions, which decided who would live and who would die. Raisi served on a four-member commission that presided over the killing of inmates in Evin Prison, Iran’s most notorious jail, and Gohardasht Prison.
“They would line up prisoners,” recalled Kamal Afkhami Ardekani, a former Evin official, “in a 14-by-five-meter hall in the central office building and then ask them one question, ‘What is your political affiliation?’” Those who identified as regime opponents “would be hanged from cranes in position in the car park behind the building.” Throughout most of July and August, he said, the prison executed inmates every half hour from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The “intensity of the executions was so much that it affected the guards themselves,” said one Evin prisoner, Saeed Amirkhizi. “Even the cruel torturers, who had been tormenting and executing prisoners for years, were astonished by this level of cruelty and barbarity. Hajj Amjad, a guard … famous for his short temper and brutality, became unbelievably quiet and introverted after the carnage.”
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 commission. In an extraordinary rebuke, Montazeri told the panel that its members had perpetrated the “greatest crime committed under the Islamic Republic,” and “will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals.”
Raisi has held multiple other positions in Iran’s judiciary, including prosecutor (1980-1994), deputy chief justice (2004-2014), and attorney general (2014-2016). In these capacities, he sought or presided over the prosecution, imprisonment, torture, and execution of countless detainees. On one occasion, he lauded the amputation of a thief’s hand, calling it “divine punishment” and a “source of pride.”
Since 2016, Raisi has served as the custodian of Astan Quds Razavi, a massive business conglomerate with a real-estate portfolio worth an estimated $20 billion, which effectively functions as a slush fund for Iran’s supreme leader.
Raisi appears unashamed of his resume. During his abortive bid for president in 2017, his campaign page posted a video justifying the 1988 massacre. And in a 2018 speech, Raisi referred to the massacre as “one of the proud achievements of the system.”
Washington should obviously sanction Raisi as well as Astan Quds Razavi. Consistency certainly compels such actions, as does remembrance and justice.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.