In Iran, Trials That Are Just for Show

Why the court proceedings against Iran's "Butcher of the Press" has little to do with justice

Iran hanging banner.jpg
Tehran Prosecutor General Saeed Mortazavi adjusts his hair as he attends an execution by hanging in Tehran in 2007. (Morteza Nikoubazi/Reuters)

Years after three young men were tortured to death after being detained for participating in mass protests that followed Iran's 2009 presidential election, the man held responsible has finally gone on trial. Outside observers of the closed-door trial, however, hold out little hope for justice.

A former Tehran chief prosecutor with a notorious reputation for his sentencing of journalists and intellectuals now finds himself on the wrong side of the law.

Said Mortazavi is best known as the "Butcher of the Press," a moniker he earned for his role in closing dozens of reformist publications and the jailing of journalists amid the unrest that followed Iran's contentious 2009 presidential election.

He was once considered untouchable, and was a widely feared figure in the Islamic republic. But having fallen from grace, he went on trial this week for abuses committed against prisoners at the infamous Kahrizak detention center, where a parliamentary committee blamed him for the torture and deaths of at least three detainees who participated in the protests against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's reelection.

The closed-door trial, which began on February 26, was met with relief by many, but the court proceedings against Mortazavi and two other suspended jurists appears to have little to do with justice. To many, the timing of the trial, coming ahead of June's presidential election, is too convenient for adversaries eager for retribution against Ahmadinejad and anyone closely associated with him.

"This can't be considered a positive signal for justice," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who has represented many victims of Iranian state abuse in court. "If it is a signal then it is aimed at warning Mortazavi that he has chosen the wrong camp. These cases, unfortunately, never lead to justice. At the most, [Mortazavi's trial] serves to settle political disputes."

Escalating Political Struggle

The charges against Mortazavi, his former deputy Ali Akbar Heydarifar, and former Judge Hassan Zareh Dehnavi include unlawful arrest, filing a false report, and assisting in the filing of a false report. There are conflicting reports on whether the three also face murder charges.

Mortazavi was stripped of his post and Heydarifar and Dehnavi were suspended from their duties after news of the deaths and abuses committed at Kahrizak sent shock waves through the Islamic establishment.

One of those killed, Abdolhossein Ruholamini, was the son of a senior politician. And a report issued by the Iranian parliament implicated Mortazavi in ordering 147 detainees to be transferred to the facility, where they were reportedly subjected to torture, beatings, and sexual assaults, while also being held in inhumane conditions.

As the families of the victims sought justice over the past three years, Mortazavi's career continued to advance via his appointment to various state posts. He became Iran's deputy prosecutor general. Then he received a presidential appointment to head the country's Center for Combating Smuggling. Eventually he rose to his current presidentially-appointed post -- head of Iran's Social Security Organization.

Presented by

Golnaz Esfandiari and Mohammad Zarghami

Golnaz Esfandiari and Mohammad Zarghami write for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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