With a frightening reputation and friends in high places, Said Mortazavi for years appeared to have the untouchable status that bred impunity and led his enemies to label him the "torturer of Tehran."
As a judge and prosecutor, he shut down more than 60 newspapers, detained scores of journalists and political activists, and was even implicated in the murder and torture of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in the custody of interrogators in 2003.
But now, it seems, Tehran's fearsome former chief prosecutor may have met his nemesis -- brought low by violent events that have shocked Iran's political establishment into seeking a high-profile fall guy.
This week it emerged that Mortazavi was one of three judiciary officials suspended over abuses at the Kahrizak detention center that led to the deaths of at least three prisoners arrested in the street demonstrations that followed President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in June 2009.
The move potentially paves the way for Mortazavi -- a man long believed to have had the protection of close ties to the office of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- to stand trial over the abuses.
It came months after a report from Iran's parliament, the Majlis, said he had personally ordered 147 prisoners to be held in a 70-square-meter room for four days without proper ventilation, heating, and food. Inmates who were kept there reported being tortured and subject to brutal beatings, including being struck by rubber hoses after being doused with water.
The center was closed on Khamenei's orders after details over events there became public. Relatively junior functionaries at the prison have already been convicted over the abuses.
Mortazavi's suspension also followed a call by Khamenei for Iran's feuding conservative factions to stop squabbling and a unity meeting between Ahmadinejad and two of his chief pragmatic-conservative critics, Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker, and his brother Sadegh Larijani, the head of Iran's judiciary.
That has prompted speculation that Mortazavi may have been surrendered as a sacrifice by Ahmadinejad in an effort to fend off his adversaries. Scott Lucas, an Iran analyst at the University of Birmingham in Britain, believes the proximity of the two events is more than coincidence.
"The speculation is whether or not as part of this unity deal, in which Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani would make the public appearance of making up, that they now would offer a couple of bigger names on Kahrizak," Lucas says, "because when they finally came out and said 11 were guilty of some involvement with Kahrizak, including the two who were condemned to death, those were all relatively low-level people and there were rumbles of dissatisfaction, not just from the families but from some folks in the conservative establishment."
Brutality Went Too Far
Kahrizak has become one of the most sensitive legacies of the postelection turmoil. Some reports have suggested that Khamenei was made aware of conditions there after a pro-government photographer with links to his office told him he had been sodomized after being arrested and taken to the facility.
Conservative anger has been fueled by the fact that among those who died was Mohsen Ruhalamini, whose father headed Iran's prestigious Louis Pasteur Institute and served as a campaign adviser to Mohsen Rezai, a defeated conservative challenger in last year's election and a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The involvement of a scion of the Islamic republic's elite added political heft to the public outrage over the prison.
Mortazavi claimed the deaths of Ruhalamini and others had been caused by an outbreak of meningitis, a suggestion dismissed by an examining doctor who himself later died mysteriously after being charged with failing to properly treat the prisoners.
Amid calls by senior establishment figures for him to be prosecuted, Mortazavi was subsequently stripped of his chief prosecutor's post. But he was then appointed by Ahmadinejad to head a government antismuggling body -- a position he still holds.
The parliamentary report blaming Mortazavi was commissioned by Ali Larijani and widely seen as an implicit swipe at Ahmadinejad, who was viewed as the former prosecutor's political protector. That reasoning has prompted some commentators to read Mortazavi's suspension as a political blow to the president.
However, that may be an oversimplification. Farideh Farhi, an Iranian political analyst at the University of Hawaii, says the relationship between the two men is not well understood and that Mortazavi was widely assumed to have high-level immunity long before Ahmadinejad's presidency. Mortazavi's sudden downfall may reflect a desire by Khamenei to address the Islamic republic's ongoing legitimacy crisis, she says.
"The Kahrizak issue and the question of culpability is not only about the intra-conservative conflict, it is also about bringing back some sort of legitimacy to the Iranian political system," Farhi argues. "The way it looks, an attempt is being made to make an argument that the system as a whole is taking the egregious violations in Kahrizak seriously and responding to the demands by the parents of the individuals who were killed to go beyond the low-level operators at the prison and hold the judges who sent prisoners to Kahrizak culpable."
Mortazavi's suspension, Farhi says, can also be read as an attempt by Khamenei to expand the Islamic republic's base after the postelection upheavals left a significant sector of the population feeling excluded and disenfranchised.
"One has to look at it in the light of what was discussed last week by Ayatollah Khamenei when he talked about the attempt to bring more and more people into the system and reject as few as possible," she says. "So it seems to me that the immediate announcement that the three judges were suspended from their jobs was an attempt to make a point that a serious endeavor is being made to address the grievances of the opposition in the past year."
No Longer Protected
Against that backdrop, Mortazavi -- who is widely loathed among reformists and has previously drawn the complaints of fellow judges -- looks increasingly expendable, despite apparently having an official stamp of approval for previous abuses.
Ahmadinejad, who has spent much political capital defending other allies such as his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, may have calculated that the costs of linked to Mortazavi are too high and decided to wash his hands of him.
Hushang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council and a figure who has cultivated ties with the Ahmadinejad government, insists the president is not connected to Mortazavi. He also says Ahmadinejad cannot be held responsible for events at Kahrizak, comparing them to abuses that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq under U.S. supervision.
"Mortazavi was not Ahmadinejad's man," Amirahmadi says. "He was in the judiciary and Ahmadinejad has absolutely no control over the judiciary. Ahmadinejad did not appoint Mr. Mortazavi, nor did he remove him. I don't know why people speculate this to be connected to Ahmadinejad.
"Mr. Mortazavi has done things that the government now believes were not legal within the judicial system's culture and mind-set. They are now probing into his actions. Mortazavi had nothing to do with Ahmadinejad."
If that truly reflects the state of Mortazavi's political connections, his days as a baleful and intimidating presence in the labyrinthine corridors of Iran's justice system may indeed be over.