On Tuesday, Iran’s most notorious human rights abuser – a designation that is an unfortunately competitive field in the Islamic Republic – was sentenced in a case that shocked even a political establishment that routinely uses violence and depravity to crush its opponents. Saeed Mortazavi, who made his name as the judge who sought to silence the reformist press during its heyday and reportedly supervised the deadly interrogation of an Iranian-Canadian photographer, was charged last year in connection with the torture, sexual abuse, and murder of those arrested amidst the upheaval of the contested 2009 election. Mortazavi finally found himself on the receiving end of Iran’s legal system on Tuesday, and— like the accused and the system of justice in Iran more broadly— the sentence was a disgrace.
Mortazavi, along with two other judiciary officials, faced charges of falsifying reports and unlawful arrest for his role in detaining hundreds of young men who had been swept up in the government’s brutal effort to subdue street protests over the dubious reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition, Mortazavi was specifically charged with participating in the murder of three men after sending them to the Kahrizak Detention Center, located just south of Tehran. The charges came nearly three years after a parliamentary inquiry— led by a conservatives— found that Mortazavi was directly involved with and primarily responsible for the horrific treatment that detainees at Kahrizak were subjected to, including rape and beatings.
In this week’s verdict, Mortazavi was acquitted on the murder charges, and fined 200,000 rials (approximately $60) and banned from public office for five years for having instructed police officers to prepare false reports on the cause and location of the deaths. The slap on the wrist dashed the hopes that had been raised by rumors of a much stiffer sentence (the twitterverse has been anticipating a 15-year prison sentence, including five years in solitary confinement). And the outcome offers a sobering reminder that even at a time of guarded optimism for many Iranians as a result of the recent presidential election, the moral and institutional deficiencies of the Islamic Republic remain deeply rooted.
Mortazavi’s infamy long predates the Kahrizak case. During his tenure as a judge, he played a central role in shuttering dozens of reformist newspapers and penalizing writers, editors and bloggers, earning the nickname “the Butcher of the Press.” He undertook some of the earliest steps to sever Iran’s access to the internet and social media. He has been accused of direct involvement in the 2003 torture and death of Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian photographer of Iranian origin, who was arrested while covering demonstrations near another notorious Iranian prison, Evin. Elevated to the position of prosecutor general that same year, Mortazavi assumed a prominent position in a hardening regime’s campaign of terror against its own citizens, ultimately guiding the show trials that followed the 2009 protests. In one of his characteristic affronts against basic decency, Ahmadinejad even dispatched Mortazavi to Geneva as part of Iran’s delegation to the inaugural session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2006.
As with so many of cases involving the Islamic Republic’s mistreatment of its own citizens, the Kahrizak case and Mortazavi’s fate underscore the appalling pathology of power in Iran’s revolutionary system. Dissent is met with disappearance; shadowy networks of regime enforcers mete out punishments beyond the reach of the meager protections of Iranian law; whistleblowers (such as the doctor who treated the victims and helped dispel the government’s cover story) wind up mysterious deceased; and the system protects its own. The Kahrizak brutality might have gone unacknowledged were it not for the death of the son of an influential government scientist. And Mortazavi might well have escaped prosecution entirely were it not for the fact that he had become associated with Ahmadinejad during the president’s final, discredited days; his arrest and trial were not an attempt to provide justice to the victims, but rather to disadvantage a factional adversary.
What is perhaps most outrageous about Kahrizak and Mortazavi’s escape from punishment is that the whole sordid saga echoes similar crimes committed by the Islamic Republic in the past, and foreshadows what the regime, even with a moderate reclaiming the presidency, is still capable of perpetrating against its critics.
There is another terrible irony in this week’s verdict; the abuses that took place at Kahrizak were publicized by Mehdi Karroubi, one of the 2009 presidential candidates who helped lead the protest movement that emerged in its aftermath. Today, the 75-year-old Karroubi remains under house arrest, isolated in a government safe house where he is denied proper medical care and fresh air. Meanwhile, Mortazavi goes free, promising to appeal his $60 fine.