Iran's Hanging Judge

Abolghasem Salavat, dubbed “Judge of Death”, and two colleagues have presided over most political trials since last year’s unrest.
  • Judge Abolghasem Salavati presiding over one of the post-election trials of 2009. (Photo: Hassan Ghaedi)
  • Salavati (left) seems to rely more on prosecution indictments than mounds of substantive evidence. (Photo: Hassan Ghaedi)

A decision to show clemency to 81 of the people detained in the unrest that followed last year’s presidential election in Iran has once again shone the spotlight on the country’s judicial and penal systems. 

On June 2, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei approved a recommendation by the head of the judiciary. Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, to release some of the 81 under amnesty and reduce the sentences of the rest.

None of those eligible has been named, but most had been convicted by Iran’s Revolutionary Court system, which is separate from the civil judiciary and are tasked with dealing with threats to the the Islamic regime and the constitutional order. As such, they led the way in trying people detained in the wave of arrests that followed protests sparked by last summer’s presidential election.

Within the Revolutionary Courts, three judges – Abolghasem Salavati, Mohammad Moghiseh and Pir-Abbasi – stand out for their role in presiding over joint and individual trials involving hundreds of defendants.

Although some of these trials were held in public, the three judges remain shadowy figures. It is unclear what their legal backgrounds are, or how they came to be appointed. There are no pictures of Moghiseh or Pir-Abbasi, and they do not appear at public events. Pir-Abbasi’s first name is not even known.

A human rights lawyer in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “What they have in common is that they impose sentences that do not correspond with the crime committed; they ignore the defence case put by defendants and their lawyers; they approve indictments that have no legal basis; they are unfamiliar with the law and legal matters; and they undeniably come out with erroneous rulings.”

Salavati is somewhat better known than his two colleagues. Millions of people remember his face from televised trials where he sat in judgement over hundreds of defendants.

At least 12 death sentences are believed to have been passed against alleged participants in the protests that followed the June 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, and Salavati was responsible for half of these, winning him the grim nickname “Judge of Death”.

Salavati is rumoured to have acquired his post as head of Revolution Court branch thanks to the backing of former intelligence minister Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei.

His name first became publicly known in December 2006 when he passed death sentences against two defendants for the 2005 murder of Hassan Ahmadi Moghadas, deputy chief prosecutor for Tehran and himself a Revolutionary Court judge, who headed the same branch that Salavati later took charge of.

Moghadas also presided over countless trials of dissidents and journalists, including that of prominent investigative journalist Akbar Ganji whom he sentenced to 15 years in jail.

In January 2009 Salavati found four people guilty of colluding with the United States government against Iran for working on an HIV/AIDS prevention programme. Arash and Kamyar Alayi, brothers who were both doctors, got six- and three-year sentences, respectively, while Silva Haratounian and Mohammad Ehsani received three-year terms.

The Alayi brothers’ “crime” seems to have been to participate in a seminar held by the non-government Aspen Institute in Washington.

Salavati was unmoved by the defence argument that they were not working with the American government. No evidence was produced in court to support the prosecution case, and the judge simply based his decision on the indictment document submitted by Iran’s intelligence ministry.

The indictment, posted on the internet by the International Campaign For Human Rights in Iran, amounts to little more than a confused story of alleged US interference in Iran, rather than specific factual evidence.

Salavati seems to have proved his credentials with this case. His judicial backing for the intelligence agency’s pursuit of alleged dissidents made him the ideal candidate to take a leading role in the post-election trials of 2009, the biggest political cases in two decades.

In that role, Salavati sat in judgement over some of Iran’s most prominent political figures such as one-time vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former deputy speaker of parliament Behzad Nabavi; former government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh and a number of others from government and parliament.

Human rights groups called for Salavati to be suspended from his post because of the unswervingly harsh verdicts he issued based on thin evidence.

When the first hearings of 100 detainees were heard, Salavati read out an indictment similar in style to the one used in the Alayi trial. The defendants were accused of various misdeeds, very few of which constitute a crime under the law.

Despite the paucity of evidence, Salavati passed sentences of up to 15 years in prison and ordered the death penalty for two alleged protestors, Arash Rahmanipour and Mohammad Ali Zamani. Both men were arrested months before the June presidential election.

Rahmanipour’s lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran that both the trial and the investigation that preceded it were deeply flawed.

“He told me that during two interrogation sessions, his sister was brought into the room and seated opposite him. He was then told that if he wanted her to go free, he must confess to whatever he was told,” she said. “I was Arash’s lawyer, but I was never allowed to participate in his trial. I insisted to be allowed to attend a trial session in August [2009] but security officers threatened to arrest me and confiscated my lawyer’s license, which they returned to me only later.”

Sotoudeh said she was shocked that the two convicted men were executed in secret, and their families and lawyers informed only after the fact.

Another controversial case was heard following the December 2009 protests over the election result, which coincided with the Shia holy day Ashura.

Salavati sentenced 20-year-old student Mohammad Amin Valian to death on a single piece of evidence – the defendant’s own confession that he threw three rocks during the unrest.

The extreme nature of the sentence led to an outcry from international and domestic human rights groups. On appeal, the death penalty was commuted to a three-year prison term, a decision which lends weight to the argument that the original judge, Salavati, was swayed more by political than judicial interests.

Another defendant convicted by Salavati, and released once he had served his term, said the judge seemed a little vague on the detail of charges, which in his case involved alleged contact with foreign organisations and meetings with political figures abroad.

“When I asked what foreign organisation and which individuals [I met], he couldn’t even name them. I was accused of a range of charges but my entire court hearing lasted no more than eight minutes,” said the former prisoner, who did not want to be named. “From the nature of the court proceedings, you could tell the judge had already made up his mind. My appearance there with a lawyer was merely to uphold the pretence of due process.”

Lawyers involved in such political cases believe Salavati merely signs off on the indictments brought by the intelligence agency, and agrees to the sentences they request.

“In none of these cases has there been enough evidence to justify even holding my clients in custody,” said one lawyer. “No judge with any dignity would confirm such verdicts.”

The decision to show clemency to 81 prisoners comes just ahead of the first anniversary of the disputed presidential election. It is clearly an attempt to show the Supreme Leader has a merciful side, in contrast to the harshness shown by judges like Salavati who in the space of about three months, presided over questionable trials and severe sentences including numerous applications of the death penalty.

Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and blogger based in San Francisco.


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Abolghasem Salavat, dubbed “Judge of Death”, and two colleagues have presided over most political trials since last year’s unrest.
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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, was not always deeply conservative.