By Hadi Ghaemi, Human Rights Watch Researcher
Published in The New York Times
June 29, 2006
LAST week Iranians woke up to a startling piece of news: their government had dispatched Tehran's notorious prosecutor general, Saeed Mortazavi, to Geneva as a member of Iran's delegation to the opening session of the new United Nations Human Rights Council.
Well-known and widely despised in Iran, Mr. Mortazavi personifies most of the ills affecting Iran's judicial system: lack of accountability, rampant impunity, disregard for fundamental constitutional rights, manipulation of the law to promote a political agenda, systematic use of torture, and above all, abuse of judicial powers to repress peaceful expressions of dissent and criticism.
Iranians refer to Mr. Mortazavi as "the butcher of the press." In 2000, Mr. Mortazavi, then a judge, closed more than a dozen newspapers in one month alone, invoking an obscure law from the 1950's on "ensuring public safety." The law was originally enacted to keep criminal gangs from intimidating members of the public. Since then he has shut more than 100 newspapers and journals.
Mr. Mortazavi was promoted to prosecutor general of Tehran in 2003. As such, he has prosecuted scores of Iranian human rights defenders, journalists, dissidents, students and activists, and he is alleged to be implicated directly in acts of murder, torture, arbitrary detention and coercing false confessions.
In June 2003, Iranian authorities arrested Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist, as she photographed Evin prison in Tehran. According to an investigation by the Iranian Parliament, Mr. Mortazavi personally took custody of her, accusing her of being a spy. Lawyers for Ms. Kazemi's family say that her body showed signs of torture, and that Mr. Mortazavi took part in an interrogation session where she received a severe blow to the head. A few days later, Ms. Kazemi fell into a coma and died. The Iranian authorities have not held anyone responsible for her murder.
In another case documented by Human Rights Watch, Mr. Mortazavi ordered the arbitrary detention of more than 20 bloggers and Internet journalists in 2004. The detainees were taken to a secret prison, held in solitary confinement and interrogated by Mr. Mortazavi's underlings. The interrogators tortured the detainees so that they would falsely implicate their colleagues in immoral acts and confess that they were foreign agents.
As a condition for their release, the interrogators coerced four of them to write false confession letters. The bloggers report that by threatening to harm their families, Mr. Mortazavi personally coerced them to appear on Iran's state-controlled television saying that their jailors treated them as "gently as flowers." One former detainee told me that Mr. Mortazavi's voice still rings in his ears, and that he fears for his young children.
So what was the Iranian government thinking? Perhaps it was still stung by its failure to be elected to the council, which aimed to exclude the most blatant abusers. Or maybe this was the regime's shock and awe strategy: shock the Iranian people with how little their government cares about human rights, and awe them with its utter impunity.
If Mr. Mortazavi were removed from office and prosecuted, as he should be, there would be no shortage of witnesses to testify. But because this is unlikely, many Iranians hope the new council will develop international mechanisms to bring men like him to justice, rather than facing him as a delegate at its sessions.
As a first step, the council should support the appointment of a United Nations special rapporteur on Iran to monitor and report publicly on human rights abuses and to see that the government's present lack of accountability does not translate into an even more extensive crackdown on political dissent and social freedoms.
Further, the members of the Security Council and Germany, which are engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran, should include human rights concerns on their agenda. As a confidence-building measure, they should demand that Iran improve its human rights record — and that it cease protecting violators like Mr. Morta- zavi.
Hadi Ghaemi is the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch.