Try Mortazavi for Deaths of Election Protesters
September 27, 2012
Mortazavi is accused of the worst abuses against Iranian detainees, so an investigation into the allegations is good news, if long overdue.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division

(Beirut) – Iran’s Judiciary should move forward speedily and transparently with the criminal investigation of Saeed Mortazavi, the former Tehran Prosecutor General, for the deaths of protesters after the June 2009 elections and prosecute if there is evidence implicating him. Mortazavi, now head of Iran’s Social Security Organization, is accused of involvement in the deaths, torture, and arbitrary detention of dozens of protesters following the disputed presidential poll and other rights abuses perpetrated over more than 12 years. 

After years of delay, a judiciary spokesperson announced on September 17, 2012, that authorities have opened a criminal case against Mortazavi in connection with alleged post-election abuses at Kahrizak prison, but he has not yet been indicted. A 2010 parliamentary investigation implicated Mortazavi in the 2009 abuses. 

“Mortazavi is accused of the worst abuses against Iranian detainees, so an investigation into the allegations is good news, if long overdue,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “But justice won’t come from making Mortazavi the regime’s fall guy: the Judiciary should pursue other high-ranking officials for abuses following the 2009 elections.” 

On September 17, 2012, Gholam-Reza Mohseni Ejei, a high-ranking judiciary spokesperson and Iran’s general prosecutor, said the criminal case against Mortazavi remains open and that prosecutors have received defense pleadings from Mortazavi’s lawyers. Ejei said that he expected prosecutors to summon Mortazavi to court soon, but that he had not yet been indicted on any charges.

Ejei’s announcement comes days after media reports that authorities had freed Ali-Akbar Heidarifard, one of Mortazavi’s deputies and a main suspect in the Kahrizak case, who had been arrested earlier in 2012 on unrelated charges. In January 2010, a parliamentary inquiry investigating the deaths at Kahrizak detention facility found Mortazavi, a former judge and Tehran prosecutor, to be the main culprit in the transfer and mistreatment of detainees at Kahrizak. The inquiry also named Heidarifard and Hasan Dehnavi, another one of Mortazavi’s deputies, as suspects in the case.

As widely reported in the media, three detainees – Amir Javadifar, Mohammad Kamrani, and Mohsen Ruholamini – died at Kahrizak, operated by Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces. In 2010, the victims’ families and rights activists reported that two other detainees, Ramin Aghazadeh Ghahremani and Abbas Nejati-Kargar, died after their release from the facility, allegedly due to injuries suffered while in custody there. Authorities have so far refused to link their deaths to injuries they sustained at Kahrizak.

Other detainees have alleged that security forces subjected them to torture and abuse, including sexual assault, during their detention at Kahrizak. In addition, two doctors who treated some of the victims and who testified before the special parliamentary panel in 2009, later died in mysterious circumstances. Their reports contradicted statements by Mortazavi and others that the detainees had died of meningitis.

In July 2009, Iran’s parliament set up the Special Parliamentary Committee to Investigate the Status of Post-Election Arrestees to look into allegations of torture and abuse of detainees arrested in the post-election crackdown. The panel’s report found that Mortazavi, Tehran’s Prosecutor-General at the time, claimed his decision to send detainees to Kahrizak stemmed from a lack of space at Evin prison, in northern Tehran. But authorities at Evin told the panel that their prison had been ready to accept the prisoners. The panel concluded that Mortazavi’s decision to transfer protesters to Kahrizak was “not justifiable even if Evin did not have the capacity” to take them, and held Mortazavi responsible for the deaths of Javadifar, Kamrani, and Ruholamini.

In December 2009, a military court charged 11 police officers and a private citizen who allegedly collaborated with the police, with murder over the deaths of detainees at Kahrizak. On June 30, 2010, Iranian media reported that the military convicted and sentenced two of the defendants to death, fines, lashings, and monetary compensation to the victims’ families. Nine others received undisclosed prison sentences and monetary fines for their role in abuses perpetrated there, according to media reports. The court acquitted the highest-ranking defendant, General Azizollah Rajabzadeh, who headed Tehran’s police force at the time, of all charges.

The court hearings took place behind closed doors and did not examine high-ranking judicial and police officials such as Mortazavi, Dehnavi (Mortazavi’s deputy, also known as “Judge Haddad”), Heidarifard (another one of Mortazavi’s deputies), Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam (commander of the Law Enforcement Forces), and Ahmad-Reza Radan (deputy commander of the Law Enforcement Forces. On April 30, 2012, Tabnak News, a pro-regime website, reported that security forces had arrested Heidarifard, but authorities later said he had been summoned for a criminal matter unrelated to Kahrizak.

Soon after the military court issued the sentences, family members of the victims announced they had forgiven the two officers sentenced to death so they could “witness the punishment of the real perpetrators.” They have since pursued their case against Mortazavi, Dehnavi, and Heidarifard, whom they believe are responsible for their sons’ killings. All three lost their positions in the judiciary in 2010 following investigations into their involvement in the deaths at Kahrizak, and as a result their governmental immunity to prosecution. Despite the strong evidence linking Mortazavi to serious rights abuses, he has since taken up posts in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, first as head of Iran’s Task Force Against Smuggling and now as head of the Social Security Organization.

Human Rights Watch called on Iranian authorities to provide public information regarding the status of the criminal investigation or prosecution against Mortazavi and other high-ranking officials responsible for abuses perpetrated in Kahrizak and during the post-election crackdown. More than three years have passed since the deaths of anti-government protesters at Kahrizak detention facility and the judiciary has failed to provide any concrete information regarding criminal investigations or proceedings against Mortazavi and the others. 

Mortazavi was also in charge of investigating detained reformist leaders and party officials in the aftermath of the disputed election according to relatives of persons detained by security forces who spoke to Human Rights Watch. They said Mortazavi led the investigations of those arrested in Tehran in his capacity as the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Court and Prosecutor-General of Tehran.

The authorities should also ensure a criminal investigation also looks at a series of rights violations that took place earlier in Mortazavi’s tenure as judge and prosecutor. 

In April 2000, Mortazavi, then a judge of the Public Court Branch 1410, led a crackdown to silence growing dissent in Iran, ordering the closure of more than 100 newspapers and journals. In June 2003, Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died while in the custody of judiciary and security officers presided over by Mortazavi. Lawyers for her family have alleged her body showed signs of torture, including blows to the head, and that Mortazavi participated directly in her interrogation.

In 2004, Mortazavi organized the arbitrary detention of more than 20 bloggers and journalists, holding them in secret prisons. Human Rights Watch research established that Mortazavi was implicated in abuses of these detainees, including holding them in lengthy solitary confinement and coercing them to sign false confessions. The signings of the false confessions were later repeated in front of television cameras.

“This is a critical opportunity for the judiciary to show it can fairly and transparently investigate Mortazavi for the many human rights abuses he’s been accused of over the years,” said Whitson. “Iranians deserve to see justice done for abuses committed by high-ranking officials.”