Several United Nations special rapporteurs and various other human rights defenders have been raising alarms in recent days about the case of Heidar Ghorbani, an Iranian political prisoner who is facing the imminent threat of execution based on an unfair trial and affiliations with a Kurdish activist group.
A statement issued through the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights expressed serious concern, earlier this month about Ghorbani being denied legal representation throughout the course of his detention and trial, which relied on an eventual confession that was evidently “forced as a result of torture and ill-treatment.”
Unfortunately, stories like these are a dime a dozen in Iran, and international calls to action are always struggling to keep up with the pace of politically motivated arrests, trials, and executions.
The above-mentioned statement described it as “troubling” that the Iranian judiciary continues to “issue death sentences in trials that not only breach international fair trial standards but even domestic law and due process guarantees.” It then concluded by reiterating prior calls for Tehran to halt executions across the board.
For as many similar statements as having been issued over the years, it is strange that so many human rights advocates do not recognize that such direct appeals to the conscience of the Iranian regime are a fool’s errand.
Not only has Tehran blatantly ignored countless appeals in the past; it has repeatedly taken steps that reinforce its defiance of international human rights standards and its embrace of the most brutal tactics for suppressing dissent and maintaining its hold on power.
While the UN special rapporteurs are certainly correct to say that the behavior of the Iranian judiciary is troubling, their cause would perhaps be better served by emphasizing that that behavior is also completely predictable.
After all, until earlier this year, that judiciary was headed by a lifelong regime functionary who played a prominent role in the Islamic Republic’s single worst crime against humanity.
Although this fact made him the object of protest both at home and abroad throughout his tenure, he departed the position, not in disgrace but rather in triumph, being inaugurated as president on August 5 and handing off the judiciary to his deputy, who has been implicated not only in acts of domestic repression but also the assassination of dissidents beyond the country’s borders.
This shuffling of appointments, together with exceptionally tightly controlled parliamentary elections in 2020, has resulted in a situation where each branch of the Iranian government is in the hands of ultra-hardline officials whose support for political imprisonment, capital punishment, and the selective implementation of due process are unquestioned.
That government’s violent, hardline identity has been repeatedly reinforced in the five weeks since President Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration, especially through his appointment of cabinet officials who are under sanction by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations, or even subject to arrest warrants for their involvement in terrorist attacks.
Maryam Rajavi, the head of a pro-democracy coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described that cabinet as the “embodiment of four decades of mullahs’ religious dictatorship and terrorism, whose primary mission is to confront the people’s uprising, and to plunder the national wealth, step up terrorism and warmongering, and expand the unpatriotic nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.”
The “uprising” in question is a movement that has been active since the end of 2017 when a local protest in the city of Mashhad began spreading across the whole of the Islamic Republic while also taking on slogans like “death to the dictator” which evoked a popular demand for regime change.
In November 2019, another nationwide protest erupted spontaneously across nearly 200 cities and towns, prompting some of the worst repression in recent Iranian history and thus confirming both that the regime felt seriously threatened by the movement, and also that it had prioritized the repression of dissent ahead of virtually all else.
It is surely no mere coincidence that Raisi was head of the judiciary at the time of that crackdown, which say 1,500 people were killed in a matter of days, and thousands of others tortured in the regime’s jails over a period of months.
His appointment to the judiciary was widely recognized as a reward for decades of unquestioning service to the regime, the prime example of which was his role on the “death commission” that oversaw the implementation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa regarding organized opposition to the theocratic system.
That fatwa took particular aim at the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which now stands at the head of the NCRI coalition, and it declared that anyone who still believed in the organization was inherently guilty of “enmity against God” and thus a valid target for summary execution.
In response, authorities held cursory re-trials for political prisoners throughout the country, often interrogating them for only a few minutes before issuing a death sentence. Over the course of roughly three months, 30,000 people were killed in this fashion, the overwhelming majority of the members of the PMOI.
As one of the four main figures tasked with carrying out this massacre, Ebrahim Raisi arguably bears responsibility for more of those deaths than anyone else.
Eyewitnesses to the actions of the death commission often report that he was uniquely mechanical and uncompromising in the rapid issuance and implementation of capital sentences.
This no doubt helped him to secure the trust of higher authorities, leading Khomeini to extend his jurisdiction while the massacre was still going on and, much later, leading Khamenei to single him out as the person best suited to lead the judiciary and ultimately the presidency during a period of unprecedented conflict between the Iranian regime and civil society.
Statistics collected by Iranian activists indicate that the rate of executions in the Islamic Republic grew substantially during Raisi’s tenure as judiciary chief and that it has continued to grow since the August 5 presidential transition.
This almost certainly means that there have already been various figures like Heidar Ghorbani who have been put to death by the regime before they could become the object of international appeals for clemency.
There are certain to be more as time goes on, and even if UN officials issue statements about every single one of them, it will do no good unless those statements are backed up by action.
Instead of appealing directly to the Iranian regime, human rights defenders would do better by putting pressure on the UN General Assembly and leading world powers to establish a formal commission of inquiry into the 1988 massacre or to initiate prosecution against Raisi and/or other known perpetrators based on the principle of “universal jurisdiction” over cases involving genocide or crimes against humanity.
Until someone has been held accountable at the highest level of that massacre, Tehran will surely feel secure in assuming that it enjoys impunity in all matters.
The regime will have no incentive to comply with even the most basic international standards for due process or the treatment of detainees, and it will have no reason to take foreign critics seriously with regard to large-scale crackdowns like the one in November 2019, much less with regard to individual human rights violations like those suffered by Heidar Ghorbani.