Salavati: Iran’s Judge of Death

Abulghasem Salavati is a 49 year old Iranian judge who heads the 15th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran who is also known as the “Hanging Judge” or the “Judge of Death” for his pension to issue death sentences, or incredibly long prison sentences, to Iranians accused of criticizing the regime in any way.

Salavati’s “work” and his career exemplify everything that is wrong with Iran’s judicial system: His loyalty to the regime is reflected in the harshness of his sentencing and overwhelms any effort at managing a fair trial. In fact, his management of his trials and his rulings usually include outright contradictions to Iran’s laws and constitution or the “bending” of these laws while Salavati takes on the role of prosecutor as well as judge. With his rough looks and his “dead” eyes, he has turned into a man who is feared by most Iranians, reviled by most of the world and respected by the members of the regime.


Bridging Between the Regime and the Courts

Iran’s judicial system is, according to its constitution, a separate entity from the regime, the parliament and the government. Unfortunately for Iranians, sentences for politically tainted crimes such as “propaganda against the state”, “colluding against national security”, “assembly and collusion”, “insulting the regime”, “insulting the Supreme Leader”, “insulting the IRGC”, “insulting the Prophet”, “spreading corruption on earth” etc… are, on the whole, politically motivated. All of these “crimes” are based on criticism against the regime and its leaders and are taken for granted in the free world as a basic freedom of speech. But the regime doesn’t take criticism lightly – in fact it is considered a sin – and the sentences the Iranian “criminals” receive for criticizing the regime are outlandishly harsh ranging from a few years in jail to execution. These sentences are compounded by the fact that these “criminals” are usually denied bail and therefore are jailed for months until their trial, are usually (illegally) denied access to their lawyers and families, are mistreated, harassed and tortured while in jail, in part as an effort to force them to sign “confessions”, are systematically denied medical care and are rarely paroled on appeal.

The regime requires the services of judges who are ready to punish anyone who is critical of the regime because the alternatives are too problematic. It could simply kill critics of the regime, as it has done on numerous occasions in the past, but witnesses and the families and friends of the murdered “criminal” can create embarrassing situations for the regime. On the other hand, since the regime is not a democracy, it strives to maintain its power through the use of oppression and fear which, paradoxically, weakens its legitimacy and therefore any unpunished criticism can lead to a counter-revolution. Knowing that these two options are not viable for the regime, the only real alternative is to employ people who are 100% loyal to the regime in the army, the police, the courts etc… .


Salavati is Notoriously Ruthless

Salavati has handed down tens of death sentences and over 600 years in prison. He works fast (sometimes, a double digit prison sentence can be handed down within minutes), prefers closed door trials without the defendant nor his/her lawyer present and doesn’t distinguish between hard evidence and the “evidence” procured by the ministry of Intelligence, the IRGC or the police. His trials include human rights activist Narges Mohammadi (11 years in jail for “assembly and collusion against national security”), former MP Esmail Gerami Moghaddam (6 years in jail for “collusion against the state”), physicist and activist Omid Kokabee (10 years for “conspiring with foreign countries”), human rights activist Mohammad Ali Dadkah (9 years in jail for “interviews with foreign media”) , blogger Soheil Arabi (sentenced to death for “propaganda against the state”) and many many more.

In his latest high profile case, Salavati handed out sentences of 5-10 years in jail to reporters who were arrested following the post-JCPoA crackdown. One of them, Davoud Asadi isn’t even a reporter but his brother is. Their official “crimes” were, as usual, quite vague and included the usual “propaganda against the state” and such. Rumors even abounded that they would be tried for spying for foreign media but in the end, it must have been seen as too ludicrous. They have been in jail since November 2015.

Make no mistake, Salavati is not alone in being such a sorry example of a judge – he is one of six judges who specialize in dealing with politicized criminals. As an Iranian human rights lawyer explains, “they impose sentences that do not correspond with the crime committed; they ignore the defense 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“. These judges include Salavati,  “Mohammad Moghiseh, former justices Yahya Pirabbasi and Hassan Zareh Dehnavi (known as judge Haddad), and appeal judges Hassan Babaee and Ahmad Zargar“.


Salavati is Beginning to Lose Ground

Salavati’s problem is that numerous of his cases have reached appeal courts which have drastically reduced the sentences, raising questions on Salavati’s ability to function as a judge.

Take the case of the trial of Mohammad Amin Valian, a protester during the problematic 2009 elections. Valian took to the streets to protest the election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because of widespread accusations that the elections were rigged to beat the more moderate candidates. Valian joined the other protesters and threw rocks at the police forces and was subsequently convicted to be executed based mostly on his own “confession” that he had thrown three rocks. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to three years in jail with no new evidence!

More recently, there is the famous case of Atena Faraghdani. Faraghdani is an Iranian artist who posted a cartoon in 2014 which she drew depicting the Iranian members of parliament as animals. The impetus for this drawing was a bill in parliament which was meant to prohibit vasectomies and minimize the sale of contraceptives in Iran. Through her drawing, Farghadani criticized the bill, the MP’s, the regime and the Supreme Leader. She was arrested and was convicted by Salavati to 12 years and 9 months in jail. Nearly two years into her sentence, after being tortured and forced to a virginity test, and following numerous hunger strikes, a court of appeals drastically reduced the sentence to 18 months in jail. From nearly 13 years to 18 months with no new evidence!

Salavati, along with some other judges have been sanctioned by the US, the EU and the UN for his role as the regime’s pawn in punishing critics of the revolution. Hopefully, the Iranian people will one day overthrow them in the hopes of offering every Iranian a fair trial.


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Zarif’s Endless Hypocrisy

All successful politicians can justifiably be accused of hypocrisy in its many forms – some lie brazenly, some create spins, some refrain from telling the whole truth…In order to survive politically, these seasoned politicians place the agendas of their governments before their personal integrity because honest politicians have very short life-spans.

Without a doubt, Iran’s FM Javad Zarif is a successful politician: he not only understands the rules of the game, he is smart and ambitious enough to create his own rules on the way. Zarif, along with President Hassan Rouhani, is responsible for the nuclear deal with Iran and he enjoys a “superstar” status in Iran which earned him the honor of a statue of his bust in Iran.

Whether Zarif will continue to enjoy the adulation of the Iranian people and of the regime is questionable but, at least for now, he is at the top of his career and one of the key factors of his success is his straight-faced hypocrisy: this has made him a great negotiator with the P5+1, a great interviewee and, for now, a prized asset for Rouhani. On the other hand, this outstanding quality has also made him a politician whose statements should be taken with large doses of skepticism and scrutiny.

Following are a few of his statements which exemplify Zarif’s hypocrisy. Whether you agree with the statements and the agendas they represent or not, one thing is certain: they should not be accepted at face-value.


Zarif on Terrorism

syriaZarif whole-heartedly supports Rouhani’s rebranding of Iran as a champion against terrorism, as opposed to a state which supports terrorist militias. Rouhani’s brilliant re-positioning of Iran on the issue of terrorism was based on, and facilitated by, the brutal terroristic nature of ISIS and the reported support that ISIS received from the US in its infancy. If ISIS is “the bad guy”, then fighting ISIS is “good”, hence Iran’s fighting ISIS earns it the title of being “the good guy” regardless of whether it supported and continues to support terrorist militias or not… a bit like a convention of butchers rallying for vegans.

Tehran has supported Assad since 2011 and is fighting ISIS since 2014. Over the past two years, it continuously took the credit for fighting ISIS and continuously denigrated the efforts of the dozen or so countries, especially the US, in fighting ISIS. When Moscow joined the fray, at the insistence of Tehran, Zarif glowingly praised the Russian involvement adding that all countries should follow Russia’s lead. What he “forgets” to mention is that Tehran, as the self-proclaimed leader in the fight against ISIS, has failed dismally to destroy ISIS and doesn’t deserve the role of judging who is and who isn’t doing a good job in the war against ISIS.

During the Munich Security Conference hosted in (surprise, surprise) Tehran, Zarif warned about nations backing terrorism in order to attain “temporary capital”. Although he is 100% right to say this, he conveniently “forgets” that Tehran has done exactly this by supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic jihad etc…in order to achieve what he is warning against.

Furthermore, he urged Europe to be more “flexible” in regards with the Syrian refugee crisis emanating from Syria. Again, he is 100% correct in stating this but he “forgets” to mention that most of these refugees are actually fleeing Assad and Hezbollah/Iranian forces and that had Tehran not supported Assad since the inception of the war, it would not have lasted so long and taken such a heavy toll on the Syrian people.

Tehran might be fighting ISIS terrorist, not too successfully it seems, but it also is using terrorists in order to achieve its own goals.


Zarif on Meddling

meddle eastTehran is a notorious meddler in the affairs of its regional neighbors. It does so in order to “export the revolution” and build itself a network of allies which may help it lead Khamenei’s vision of a Global Islamic Awakening with Tehran (and Shiism) at its center. Zarif himself is in tune with these efforts: Tehran, he wrote, has a “viewpoint that has the potential to be projected globally and change the international order” and that “without revolutionary goals, we don’t exist”.

Tehran’s influence is Lebanon, Syria and Iraq is massive while its influence in countries such as Yemen and Bahrain is still kept in check by the ruling governments there and their partner, Saudi Arabia.

And yet, Zarif repeatedly dismisses accusations of meddling and portrays Tehran’s meddling as nothing more than a “helping hand” to friends. According to him, it is up to the Syrian people to decide the future of Syria and that their fate should be “determined at the polls and not by weapons“. Once again, he “forgets” to mention, that Tehran blindingly supporting Assad with weapons and fighters and if he is so keen on a democratic decision, why hasn’t Tehran convinced Assad to hold a free election since 2011? No, Tehran wants Assad in power, with or without elections since Assad represents the Shiite-like Alawite minority which is more in tune with Tehran than the majority Sunni rebels.

Similarly, Zarif stated that Lebanese people should decide their own fate politically, conveniently “forgetting” that Lebanon is indirectly under Tehran’s rule through the political and military power of its proxy, Hezbollah. Without the interference of Tehran in Lebanese politics, Hezbollah would probably be ousted and Tehran would lose another ally on the road to a global Islamic Revolution.

Tehran’s “helping hand” to its neighbors holds the guns needed to support whoever is more in tune with Tehran in killing and suppressing whoever isn’t.


Zarif on Human Rights

Zarif’s take on human rights is just as hypocritical as his statements on terrorism and meddling. As with other leaders in Iran, Zarif seems to believe that Iran is a true and open democracy focused on the welfare of its citizens…a government by the people and for the people…a government which “follows its people, not the other way around“. Of course, he “forgot” to mentions that Iran is only semi-democratic in that its president, Rouhani, is chosen by the people through open elections but the regime, with Khamenei at its head, is chosen by the regime itself and it is Khamenei who has supreme control in Tehran, not Rouhani. Even the free elections for the presidency are tainted by the fact that nominees for the presidential elections have to be accepted by Khamenei himself.

In an interview with Charlie Rose last year, Zarif’s hypocrisy shone out when he stated “Iran doesn’t jail people for their opinion“, ignoring the imprisonment, torture and oppression of thousands of Iranians who are paying for the crime of criticizing the regime (a “sin” punishable by death). Zarif, in the same interview also stated that Tehran “has a plan to improve human rights” but unfortunately, he hasn’t shared the details of such a plan and neither has Rouhani.

Lately he spoke about trying to release WaPo’s reporter in Tehran, Jason Rezaean, from jail and from his death sentence for being a spy – although the charges against Rezaean are “serious”, Zarif said, he wants to “resolve it (his imprisonment) from a humanitarian perspective“. Too little, too late: Rezaean should not have been imprisoned with restricted contact with his lawyers and family in the first place for simply doing his duty as a reporter.

No, Mr. Zarif…speaking about Iran and human rights in the same sentence cannot be accepted as anything less than hypocritical.

Rezaian Caught in the Crossfire

caught in the crossfireJason Rezaian, the WaPo reporter with a dual American-Iranian nationality has been in jail in Iran since July 22nd, 2014, and is now to undergo a closed door trial.

His imprisonment and trial are travesties of justice and moralism. Answering three questions will lead the reader to understand that Rezaian’s crime is mainly to be at the wrong place at the wrong time:

  • Why is Rezaian in jail?
  • Why was Rezaian in prison until now?
  • Why is Rezaian isolated from help?

These three questions cannot be answered clearly unless one understands that Rezaian’s imprisonment and trial are based less on his actions than to the political conflicts between president Hassan Rouhani and his rivals.


Why is Rezaian in jail?

rezaian 1For 9 months, nobody could answer that question definitively because Rezaian was held in custody without formal charges. Word seeped out at first that he would be charged for “propaganda against the establishment”. As some journalists or bloggers in Iran know, such an accusation is enough to send you to jail for many years. But once the charges were upgraded to espionage, Rezaian suddenly found himself facing a possible death sentence.

What exactly are Rezaian’s alleged crimes? He seems to have passed on “privileged” information about the economy of Iran to the Washington Post and for some reason, this information, although never published, suddenly became “sensitive”. Without knowing it, it seems that Rezaian might have crossed two red lines in Tehran:

  • Freedom of Speech: Rezaian might be in jail for simply doing his job as a journalist in a country in which the notion of freedom of the press is not recognized or understood. He reported information that was privy to him without understanding that information is deemed free only if the regime decides it to be.
  • Political Ties: Rezaian reportedly had ties with Hassan Rouhani’s nephew, Esmail Samavi, who also acted as the president’s PR managers. Apparently, it was Samavi who supposedly procured the “sensitive information” to Rezaian. Although there is no evidence that Rezaian even had a meeting with Samavi, this did not prevent Rouhani’s enemies to use Rezaian as a means of attacking Rouhani who in turn was calling for a rapprochement with the West.

The final accusation of spying has very strong political overtones to it. Were Rezaian not a pawn in a political rivalry, these charges would probably never have been brought to light. But since this is supposedly classified information from Rouhani’s “inner circle”, the next question the hardliners will ask is whether Rouhani knew of or even authorized the leak or not.


Why was Rezaian in prison until now?

rezaian 2Were the charges against Rezaian clear cut, he would have been charged or released right from the start. Even if he were released on bail, he could at least have lived through the past ten months with much more ease. But that’s not how things work in Tehran which prefers to work on the motto that one is guilty until proven innocent.

But since there are strong political overtones in this case, every day that Rezaian lingered in jail symbolized a constant pressure onRouhani and his government. Not only was Rouhani under internal pressure for fear that the accusations of “espionage” would spill over to hime as well, but Rouhani, and his foreign minister Javad Zarif, also had to suffer international pressure. They were constantly grilled by Western politicians and reporters about the injustice to Rezaian, contrary to Rouhani’s efforts to present to the West a more moderate version of Iran.

Rouhani chose to evade the returning questions regarding Rezaian while Zarif blunderingly answered that “Iran doesn’t jail people for their opinion“. Meanwhile, Rouhani’s political opponents, the “hardliners”, were satisfied: Rouhani was under pressure in a “lose-lose” situation – were he to criticize the Iranian judiciary, he would be under attack by the hardliners, the Larijani brothers and perhaps even the Supreme Leader himself. Lack of criticism of the Iranian judiciary, led to constant attacks from the West.


Why is Rezaian isolated from help?

rezaian 3First of all, the Iranian judiciary does not recognize dual citizenship. Therefore, they are trying Rezaian solely as an Iranian. As such, Rezaian lost his rights to contact the Swiss embassy which acts de facto as the US embassy in Tehran. But Rezaian did not only lose his communications as a US citizen he was purposefully isolated from any contact with the world excpet sporadic communications with his lawyer and family.

His treatment is not so unusual for an Iranian convict specially for those who are arrested on charges with political or activist “crimes”: most of these types of prisoners are isolated as a method of “breaking them” and coercing confessions.

In the case of Rezaian which seems totally divorced from any real crimes, isolating him from his lawyers and family served to put additional pressure on Rouhani by Western powers since the lack of communication with Rezaian led reporters and leaders to constantly question Rouhani and Zarif about Rezaian’s fate.


Jason Rezaian is in jail and on trial for being caught in the crossfire between Rouhani’s efforts at rapprochement with the West and hardliners in Tehran who want to maintain the status quo. Those who want Rezaian’s fate to be part of a nuclear deal with Iran are dreaming: His fate is in the hands of only one person – Khamenei himself.


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Rezaian’s Future Looks Bleak


WaPo reporter Jason Rezaian has been in an Iranian prison for the last seven months, isolated from his family and lawyers for a crime that is still unknown. The buzz from Tehran is that Rezaian has finally signed a “confession” to being a “spy” although the content and the veracity of this “confession” are murky and Rezaian is still not formally accused of anything.

Unfortunately for Rezaian, there is no good news: there is only bad news and worst news.


Bad News for Rezaian – Politics

rasaeiThe bad news is that the motives for jailing Rezaian seem to be getting clearer: Rezaian is a pawn in a political fight between hardliners and President Rouhani.

Hardliner MP Hamid Rasaei is not only accusing Rezaian of being a “spy”, he is accusing Rouhani, or someone in Rouhani’s administration, of “supporting” Rezaian in his spying activities. The details of Rezaian’s “spying” activities are undetailed but his motive for “spying”, according to Rasaei, is to “bring about more pressure on various Iranian industries“.

Rouhani or someone close to him are supposed to have helped Rezaian to get access to classified and vital information although right up to his imprisonment none of Rezaian’s articles contain any sensitive information of any kind. Most of his articles “focused on the lives of ordinary Iranians“.

It doesn’t really matter whether the spying accusations are true or false since Rasaei is a staunch opponent of Rouhani’s moderate foreign policy and is fighting hard to stop any form of nuclear deal. Following Zarif’s mid-day walk with Kerry in Geneva, Rasaei wrote in his weekly newspaper: “every one of Zarif’s steps destroyed 100 kilograms of enriched uranium.” The response from Tehran to his article was surprisingly swift: Rasaei’s weekly was banned for going “against the regime’s nuclear policy” but Rasaei’s loud objections are still to be heard in the Majlis, Iran’s parliament.


Worst News for Rezaian – Human Rights

SalavatiThe worst news is that the judge assigned to Rezaian’s case is also a staunch hardliner who might be sympathetic to Rasaei’s cause. Abolghassem Salavati, known as the “hanging judge” or “the judge of death”, has earned a reputation of favoring executions in cases concerning journalists and political activists. Salavati presided over hundreds of cases following the 2009 Green uprising, ruling in most cases against the defendants.

With Salavati as judge, if Rezaian does go to trial for spying, his chances of getting out of Iran soon (or at all) are slim. In an earlier case, he sent two doctors working on a HIV campaign to jail with no evidence except the indictment by the intelligence ministry and the doctors’ participation in a seminar by an NGO in Washington.

Salavati sentenced a Canadian-Iranian blogger to 20 years in jail based mostly on a letter of recommendation by a Columbian University faculty member which “demonstrated problematic connections with a hostile state.”

Furthermore, following some of his more dubious sentences, the EU has placed Salavati under sanctions since 2011 – he is not allowed to enter a European country – for “gross human rights violations“.


So, whether Rezaian did or did not spy, his cause seems helpless. Not only is he a pawn in a political game between a hardliner and Rouhani, his judge is a trigger-happy hardliner who will be only too happy to either send him to rot in jail for a long time or, more likely, to the gallows.