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Tehran's Hard-Line Prosecutor Moved To State Role, But Little Changes

Known as the "Butcher of the Press," Said Mortazavi will now take on a national role, though it's unclear how much his powers will change.
Known as the "Butcher of the Press," Said Mortazavi will now take on a national role, though it's unclear how much his powers will change.

Iran's judiciary chief has named hard-line Tehran prosecutor Said Mortazavi -- the man behind mass trials of post-election detainees -- deputy prosecutor general.

Officially the move is a promotion for Mortazavi, but legal experts say his power has diminished.

Mortazavi is known as "the Butcher of the Press" because he was the bane of Iran's independent and reformist publications.

He has ordered the closure of more than 100 pro-reform publications as well as the summoning to court and jailing of journalists and bloggers.

Among them was the New York-based journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, who was jailed in Iran in 2004 with several of his colleagues and forced to make false confessions.

The case's aim was to implicate reformist figures in spying and other actions that violate Iran's national security laws. Mortazavi was in charge of the case.

Mirebrahimi tells RFE/RL he was happy to read the news about Mortazavi's removal as Tehran prosecutor, describing Tehran's prosecutor's office as "the jugular vein of the judiciary of the Islamic republic."

He adds that he believed that as long as Mortazavi was Tehran's prosecutor, "judicial reforms wouldn't be possible."

Another Iranian journalist, Fereshteh Ghazi, says that for Iranian journalists, Mortazavi brings up painful memories -- such as the closure of newspapers, imprisonment, the loss of their jobs, and being forced to leave Iran and become homeless.

Mortazavi has led the mass trials of opposition protesters in Tehran.

On August 29, state media reported that the new head of Iran's judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, had appointed Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi to replace Mortazavi. Dolatabadi is said to be less ideological than Mortazavi.

A day later it was announced that Mortazavi had been appointed deputy state prosecutor.

Superficial Changes

Prominent human rights lawyer Mohammad Seyfzadeh says that Mortazavi will now have less executive power and won't be making any judicial decisions.

Still, he dismisses the changes as being of little importance. Seyfzadeh says if the system was to change, then Mortazvi should have been held accountable.

"The judicial disciplinary court should have moved to suspend him," Seyfzadeh says. "He should have been summoned to court to explain the majority of his actions."

The 42-year-old Mortazavi reportedly played a role in the 2003 death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in a hospital as the results of head injuries she sustained after she had been jailed.

Mortazavi had ordered Kazemi's arrest while she was photographing a protest in front of Evin prison by the families of detainees.

Mortazavi is described as a cruel and vengeful person who would use psychological pressure and harassment during interrogations. Mirebrahimi says he remembers how Mortazavi indirectly threatened to kill both him and his family.

"I had many encounters with Mortazavi that ranged from positive, in order to force me 'to cooperate,' to threats -- where he would threaten me and my family and say that we could die in an accident," he says.

Mortazavi was also reportedly involved in the arrests of dozens of women's rights activists, workers, peaceful protesters, and reformists after the disputed June 12 presidential election that led to mass demonstrations.

Pawn Of The Regime?

He has often been criticized by independent lawyers and rights activists for lacking independence. Reformist politicians inside Iran had said that Mortazavi should be summoned to court over his role in the death of Kazemi and other issues.

But he was said to be untouchable. Some observers say Mortazavi had the support of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mortazavi is said to have the firm support of the conservative establishment.

Mirebrahimi thinks Mortazavi was a pawn of the regime. "I don't think he was on his own in all he did," he says. "It's true that it was personal to some extent. But he had a powerful backer."

Mirebrahimi says Mortazavi told him several times: "I am one quarter of the country. One fourth of the country's power is in my hands." He adds a person cannot say such a thing without having "prominent backers."

Mortazavi was the head prosecutor in the trial of a number of top reformist figures who have been accused of involvement in planning postelection protests and plotting a "velvet coup."

Tehran-based lawyer Nemat Ahmadi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the removal of Mortazavi and the creation of a special committee to investigate the postelection unrest could have a positive impact on the fate of the prominent reformist detainees.

But Seyfzadeh, from the Center of Human Rights Defenders, is less optimistic. He believes that those in power now are "determined to eliminate the opposition that is from within the establishment, having already sidelined the children of the revolution and the opposition."

Seyfzadeh thinks the process will go on till "the end," unless "something else happens."

A blogger has reacted to Mortazavi's new appointment by thanking the new head of the judiciary for the reminder that "the Islamic establishment cannot be reformed."

The blogger writes, "Tehran's executioner becomes the state executioner!"

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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