On Tuesday, Iran’s Supreme Court acquitted the former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi for his role in three deaths that caused vast international outcry following government crackdowns in the 2009 protests. His lawyer boasted that the decision left Mortazavi with a clean record, years after he became the only major official to face domestic legal consequences for human rights abuses perpetrated by the Iranian regime.
Mortazavi came under particular scrutiny from world powers and human rights defenders in 2003 after the Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was beaten, raped, and killed in Evin Prison for taking pictures of prisoners’ loved ones as they were protesting outside the same facility. The incident leads to widespread calls for Mortazavi to be arrested if he came within reach of Western law enforcement agencies. In 2006, for instance, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the media, “We’re appealing to the international community to use all manner of law available to detain this individual, and have him face justice.”
There is no indication, however, that Mortazavi was ever in real danger of the international community fulfilling this request. This was due both to the care that he took in arranging international travel and to the fact that the Iranian regime was apparently intent on defending him for years after the Kazemi incident. This seemed to change some time after the Green Movement protests, which were sparked by the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a political ally.
This is not to say that Mortazavi’s protection was immediately revoked, but rather that he became the focus of factional wrangling, with his adversaries facilitating his arrest in February 2013 and friends like Ahmadinejad seeing to it that he was released just one day later. A 2011 investigation by the Iranian parliament established that Mortazavi was indeed responsible for at least three instances of death by torture in the midst of the 2009 protests, but the ensuing legal process went on for years before he was finally convicted in 2017 and sentenced to two years in prison.
This was a paltry sentence for three instances of murder, especially by the standards of the Islamic Republic, which is well-recognized as the nation with the world’s highest rate of executions per capita. The Iranian judiciary recognizes few mitigating circumstances when issuing sentences, and has carried out countless capital sentences for persons who credibly claimed to be acting in self-defense, or who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes and thus not subject to the death penalty under international law.
From Mortazavi’s case, it appears that one mitigating circumstance that does impact the judiciary’s decisions is a prior affiliation with the ruling system. This notion was reinforced in the months following his conviction, when Mortazavi went off the grid rather than reporting to prison to begin serving his sentence, and yet faced no additional consequences. In fact, after he was finally detained in April 2018, he served only 17 months of his two-year sentence before being released in September 2019.
The timing of that release was fortuitous, as it later proved to be only about two months removed from the start of one of Iran’s worst-ever crackdowns on dissent – far bloodier indeed than the suppression of the Green Movement protests. Faced with a nationwide uprising in November 2019 – the second of its kind in less than two years – regime authorities opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing 1,500. They also carried out mass arrests throughout the country, and the judiciary soon began a campaign of systematic torture which affected thousands of individuals and continued for months.
Much of that torture was detailed in a 2020 report published by Amnesty International and titled, “Trampling Humanity.” And much of it was similar to that which was visited upon persons detained in Mortazavi’s jurisdiction during the 2000s. In this sense, the recent conduct of the Iranian judiciary conveys open endorsement of the sort of activities that led to the former Tehran prosecutor’s prior conviction by that same judiciary. His acquittal by the Supreme Court reinforces that endorsement and potentially signals to all other hardline Iranian judges that they can expect to evade prosecution for identical crimes, or at least have their records expunged after the fact.
This is exactly what might have been expected in light of the fact that Iran’s judiciary and its executive branch are now under the control of notorious violators of human rights. Those men, respectively Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei and Ebrahim Raisi, are both currently under sanctions by Western nations for those violations, as is Mortazavi. Ejei has been implicated in, among other things, a series of assassinations of Iranian dissidents and intellectuals during the 1980s and 90s, while Raisi is especially well-known for his leading role in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners which primarily targeted the country’s main democratic opposition group and claimed an estimated 30,000 victims in the span of about three months.
Just prior to his conviction, Mortazavi was a prominent supporter of Raisi’s 2017 presidential campaign, which he lost to the incumbent Hassan Rouhani. Mortazavi described the prospective Raisi administration as his “dream” for the Islamic Republic, and in so doing he highlighted the mutual support that often exists among Iranian officials who are dedicated to the violent suppression of dissent.
Over the past two years, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has contributed to that support by working to consolidate power into the hands of loyalists and ultra-hardline figures like Raisi and Ejei. In advance of the June 18 presidential election, Khamenei made it clear that he intended for Raisi to inherit the presidency following the expiration of Rouhani’s second term. As a result, the regime’s Guardian Council excluded all other high-profile candidates from the race and cleared the way for Raisi to be elected via a rough parody of the democratic process.
In protest over that process as well as the legacy of the man who stood to benefit from it, the vast majority of the Iranian population sat out the election or submitted ballots that were deliberately invalid. Prominent organizers of the electoral boycott portrayed it as a means to “vote for regime change,” and ensuing protests have signaled to the international community that the Iranian people intend to actively pursue that outcome.
Unfortunately, the European Union and its member states have done little to show support for that population which is calling out for freedom and democracy. Instead, they have seemingly continued to prioritize cordial relations with Iranian authorities, as well as continuing to focus most of their attention on the prospective revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, despite the fact the relevant negotiations stalled thanks to Iranian intransigence long before Ebrahim Raisi took office.
This inattention to Iran’s domestic unrest becomes more and more dangerous with each of the regime’s new expressions of support for both recent and historical human rights waves of abuse. Raisi’s election should have prompted the international community to impose new sanctions and pursue legal solutions that might prevent another incident like the 1988 massacre. Now, Mortazavi’s acquittal should make that action seem even more urgent since there is no purpose for the Supreme Court’s decision other than as a green light for worse crackdowns on dissent.