The fall of one of Iran’s top prosecutors is the latest move in a prison abuse case that has caused shock waves through the system. While the suspension of Deputy Prosecutor General Saeed Mortazavi has gratified those who accuse him of sanctioning arbitrary imprisonment and abuse, it is unlikely to herald a new commitment to human rights.
Deputy Prosecutor-General Saeed Mortazavi and two judges were suspended from office late August after a judicial investigation into the death of three men detained on his orders following the controversial June 2009 presidential election.
The suspension means Mortazavi, like his two colleagues, is stripped of his immunity as a member of the judiciary, and this could open the way for the legal proceedings which many lawyers want to bring against him
A statement by 216 of the 290 members of Iran’s parliament welcomed the move and praised the judiciary for its courageous decision to suspend the officials.
It remains to be seen whether Mortazavi will go to trial and if so, whether he will face any kind of punishment. There are also concerns that even if he is found responsible for the deaths of the three detainees, he will make a convenient scapegoat for wider abuses sanctioned by top government officials, which will go unaddressed.
Mortazavi was chief prosecutor for the capital Tehran from 2003 to August 2009, when he was made deputy prosecutor general, a move seen as a way of sidelining him as the first revelations about the Kahrizak prison abuses emerged.
It was Mortazavi who ordered 147 detained protesters to be held at the Kahrizak prison in the weeks after last year’s election.
The three who are known to have died there were Mohammad Kamrani, Amir Javadifar and Mohsen Rouholamini. Security officials said the men died of disease, a finding contradicted by the Legal Medicine Organisation which examined them and found evidence of assault. Prison doctor Dr Ramin Pourandarjani gave similar testimony to a parliamentary committee investigating the case before he died under suspicious circumstances last November.
The matter was not allowed to die down – not least since one of the dead, Mohsen Ruholamini, was the son of an influential figure, Abdolhossein Ruholamini, a prominent scientist and adviser to Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Ruholamini who showed a steely determination to expose the truth and secure justice, and was able to rally powerful conservative figures to the cause.
Reports of deaths and serious ill-treatment at Kahrizak caused shock across the political divide, and it was conservatives in parliament who campaigned for Mortazavi to be brought to account for his alleged part in the scandal.
In January, a parliamentary investigation held the prosecutor personally responsible for sending the detainees to the prison – which was subsequently closed, apparently because Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was so concerned about what had happened there.
Throughout his career, Mortazavi had made a name for himself as an unswerving hardliner, and official investigations as well as his critics have accused him of trampling roughshod over the law in pursuit of his beliefs.
Even when the reformist president Mohammad Khatami was in office, Mortazavi was busy locking up journalists and intellectuals and closing newspapers, so that he became known as the "butcher of the press".
When Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in detention at Tehran’s Evin prison in 2003, Mortazavi’s name cropped up again and again.
He was involved in the interrogation process, yet was appointed to investigate the circumstances of her death. A second investigation, by an Iranian parliament commission, found that evidence of assaults on Kazemi was covered up, that Mortazavi manufactured documents and got witnesses to alter their testimony to support his assertion that she died of a stroke, and that this behaviour suggested he was seeking to pervert the course of investigations. Mortazavi ignored the commission’s requests to appear before it.
Lawyers acting for Kazemi’s family allege that Mortazavi not only sanctioned interrogation sessions that involved mistreatment, but personally attended some of them. Mortazavi, who denies that prison officers harmed Kazemi, has told a Canadian human rights lawyer that he was briefly present during the interrogations.
A similar pattern was observed in 2004 when 20 journalists, bloggers and website managers were arrested and detained on Mortazavi’s orders.
This author was among them, and later testified to an official fact-finding committee on the use of brutal interrogation, physical and psychological torture, and solitary confinement in tiny cells over a three-month period.
Mortazavi met detainees at his office and also inside the secret prison, and was aware of interrogation techniques and physical state of the prisoners.
As in the Kazemi case, numerous eyewitnesses and participants have given accounts of Mortazavi’s use of open threats to silence them.
In my case, he warned me what would happen if I ever talked about what had gone on in the prison.
“Anyone can be in a car accident, from members of parliament to taxi drivers to plumbers. You journalists are no exception,” he said.
The “Blogger Case” caused an outcry in Iran, and the head of the Iranian judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, expressed shock when he met the released detainees personally. He sidelined Mortazavi and put three independent judges in charge of the case, but after one of them died in a car crash, Mortazavi regained control.
From then on, it was clear that Ayatollah Shahroudi’s hands were tied, and Mortazavi – notionally his subordinate – was untouchable.
That continued until the Kahrizak scandal. A month before the January parliamentary report, Mortazavi was appointed by President Ahmadinejad as head of his anti-smuggling committee. It may well have been payback for Mortazavi’s iron-fisted action that helped secure Ahmadinejad’s position after a decidedly shaky election.
Following Mortazavi’s suspension, lawyers whose clients were arrested, interrogated, and prosecuted by him and his subordinates over the years are preparing lawsuits. At least two lawyers say they are filing multiple cases. Investigating all these claims could take years, and result in court summonses for judicial officials, police and prison warders implicated in the various cases.
Many people doubt Mortazavi will be brought to trial for his actions last year. He was no maverick prosecutor acting on his own, but part of a powerful security and judicial machine serving the powers that be. If he were deemed worthy of punishment, so would many others.
Some fear that he will get off with a slap on the wrist. As a precedent they cite the case of Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, who now occupies a prestigious post as commander of the Basij paramilitary volunteer force. Yet as head of police intelligence, he was court-martialled and sentenced to eight months imprisonment in 2000 for the torture of witnesses to make them testify for the prosecution in the trial of former Tehran mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi. Naghdi never went to jail, and was rapidly rehabilitated.
That is one scenario. Another is that like others who fall foul of the regime and hold potentially damaging information about superiors whose orders they acted on, he will meet with an unfortunate accident.
Whatever the outcome, the downfall of Mortazavi is unlikely to bring fundamental improvements to rule of law in Iran. His removal has less to do with justice than with the internecine strife between rival political factions, of which he is a mere casualty.
Omid Memarian is a journalist and Iran expert who lives in San Francisco. (Institute for War and Peace Reporting www.iwpr.net)