Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative and mid-ranking cleric, was inaugurated as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran on August 5. His election in June was a foregone conclusion as the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, breached conventions to pave the way for the ascendance of his acolyte.
Raisi, sixty-one, comes from a humble clerical background in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Not much is known of his political tendencies before the 1979 revolution. However, he didn’t get far with his religious studies, as he soon placed himself at the service of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Raisi became deputy prosecutor in Karaj in 1981. By the end of the 1980s, he was a prominent and trusted young figure in the Islamic Republic’s judiciary.
The Great Massacre of 1988
Raisi was appointed deputy prosecutor of the Tehran judiciary in 1985. In 1988, when he was only twenty-eight-years-old, Raisi was among two of the most important state officials in charge of administrating the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners during the mass killings of July-September 1988.
In the course of about two months, approximately five thousand prisoners of conscience were slain—most inmates were hanged—according to ex-political prisoners, lists provided by human rights groups, political organizations, and information provided by bereaved family members. The mass executions were carried out in many cities across Iran. Neither Raisi nor the politico-religious establishment that has ruled the country for the last forty-two years have ever spoken with clarity about that massacre. It remains a closely guarded state secret to this date.
Despite plenty of evidence and the tireless endeavors of the bereaved families, the exact number of executed people is unknown, as the Islamic Republic does not permit any independent investigation of the executions and penalizes all those striving for truth and justice. Many families have yet to receive the death certificate of their loved ones, nor do they have a proper burial place.
In an edited volume and as the first dedicated monograph on this dark chapter of modern Iranian history, Voices of A Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988, a number of writers, ex-political prisoners, and family members did their best to meticulously retrace the carnage. The bloodshed was first targeted against the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, a Muslim political organization that emerged in 1965, but then struck hundreds of leftists, some of whom had already completed their prison terms. Others belonged to formations, such as the pro-Moscow communist Tudeh party of Iran or the Majority faction of the Fadaiyan-e Khalq, a leftist political organization whose political line was identical with the Tudeh party. Both of these organizations had been loyal to the Islamic Republic until their arrest.
Raisi was one of the four members of the death commission executing Ayatollah Khomeini’s two fatwas (edicts) that ordered the mass murder. Raisi’s involvement was first publicized thirty-two years ago, when three letters penned by Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri—then Khomeini’s heir apparent—dated August 15, 1988 were leaked in 1989.
In 2016, the release of an audio recording from August 15, 1988—in which Montazeri criticized the executions and addressed the four members of the death commission—caused a stir. Besides Raisi, the board members included Hossein Ali Nayyeri, a sharia judge, Morteza Eshraghi, the prosecutor general of Tehran, and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a representative of the intelligence ministry.
Raisi and Nayyeri were the most active members of the death commission, traveling to several prisons across the country to conduct the inquisitorial interviews. Raisi never denied his role in the 1988 massacre. As to his activity in the kangaroo courts of 1988, he recently uttered at a press conference: “I am proud of being a defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort as a prosecutor wherever I was.” Thus, there is no doubt whatsoever that Raisi has committed crimes against humanity and needs to be brought before a criminal court instead of assuming office as Iran’s new president.
The executions unfolded along a well-planned pattern. On July 28, 1988, the tribunals began the inquisition. They started with male and female Mojahedin, who were generically called monafeqin (hypocrites) from the outset of the 1979 revolution. Blindfolded, they were lined up in hallways and taken one by one into a room that was to become the interrogation chamber.
Refusing to denounce the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and its leadership was enough to send the Mojahedin to the gallows. Leftists were asked if they believed in God, the afterlife, Prophet Muhammad, and the Quran, and whether they prayed. Some male prisoners were even asked: “Are you willing to walk over landmines?” A negative answer to any of those questions resulted in their execution.
The dead bodies were not given back to the families. In Tehran, in August 1988, as Amnesty International reported, “a woman dug up the corpse of an executed man with her bare hands” to find her husband’s body in Khavaran cemetery—one of the sites where the corpses of the executed prisoners had been dumped in “unmarked shallow graves.”
To date, the families of the murdered prisoners of 1988 are still being criminalized, harassed, and beaten when attempting to mourn, while the state has been doing its best to destroy the evidence of the executed by regularly bulldozing mass graves.
For the approximately ten thousand political prisoners who, according to Amnesty International, were executed prior to the Great Massacre and also some five thousand men and women who were slaughtered in 1988 (and their relatives and loved ones), obtaining justice is impossible as long the Islamic Republic remains in power.
The road to power
Largely as a result of Raisi’s staunch obedience to the Islamic Republic, particularly his prominent role in the 1988 massacre, this apparatchik was able to climb the career ladder quickly. He received favorable treatment by Khomeini—independent from the judiciary—to address legal issues in a number of provinces.
Between 2004 and 2014, under the gaze of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, Raisi, was instrumental in sentencing many dissidents to death, especially after the rigged 2009 presidential election, as deputy head of the judiciary. Raisi was promoted to prosecutor general (2014 to 2016) and was subsequently one of the few men allowed to run for president in 2017. However, the release of the aforementioned audio recording in the lead up to the election contributed to his defeat by incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who obliquely alluded to the massacre during his campaigning.
As a result of his marriage to Jamileh Alamolhoda—the daughter of the influential Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, Ahmad Alamolhada—and Khamenei’s reward for his continued obedience, Raisi was appointed to be chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi (2016 to 2019). The organization is the most formidable endowment and real estate holding in the country. It runs factories, banks, and hotels, among others.
Raisi was appointed the head of the judiciary in 2019 and, is therefore, liable for the execution of a number of dissidents who were detained after the nationwide street protests in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Moreover, it is believed that he is to play a major role in managing the crisis of succession upon the death of the Supreme Leader, the most powerful figure inside Iran’s theocracy.
In the eyes of the dominant power bloc of the Islamic Republic, Raisi would be sufficiently competent to run the affairs of the state in the case of Khamenei’s death. Indeed, he is one of the foremost figures within the younger generation of the Islamic Republic leadership, who has proven time and again that he is ruthless enough to rule with an iron fist if required.
Nasser Mohajer is an independent scholar of modern Iranian history. His many books include the edited volume Voices of A Massacre: Untold Stories of Life and Death in Iran, 1988.
Kaveh Yazdani is assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter: @kaveh_ya.
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