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Rohani Choice For Justice Minister Draws Fire Over 'Death Commission' Reports

Then-Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi speaks during a state-organized, anti-U.S. demonstration in Tehran in 2007.
An Iranian official accused of playing a key role in the summary executions of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988 is poised to become Iran's justice minister.

The prospect of Mostafa Purmohammadi in the cabinet of newly elected President Hassan Rohani -- who campaigned on a pledge to seek the release of political prisoners -- has led rights groups and others to say he should be brought to justice, not dole it out.

Purmohammadi, who heads Iran's General Inspectorate Organization, a body linked to Iran's judiciary, attracted attention in 2005 when he joined former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's cabinet as interior minister.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized that appointment at the time in a report titled "Ministers Of Murder," which highlighted Purmohammadi's alleged role in the 1988 executions, the assassination of political figures abroad, and the 1998 killings of intellectuals inside the country while he was a director in the Intelligence Ministry.

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Purmohammadi served as the Ahmadinejad administration's interior minister until 2007, and HRW's calls for a thorough investigation went unheeded.

Rohani reportedly included him in his proposed cabinet based on a nomination from the judiciary. Under the Iranian Constitution, the justice minister is selected from among individuals proposed by the head of the judiciary.

The Justice Ministry serves as a conduit between the judiciary and the government, and rights groups warn that, as justice minister, Purmohammadi would be in a position to influence investigations into human rights abuses.

His nomination has been condemned by rights groups and families of the victims of the killings.

In a joint statement, Reports Without Borders, the International Campaign For Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch on August 8 called on Rohani to withdraw his nomination of Purmohammadi.

HRW Middle East researcher Faraz Sanei says that given Purmohammadi's dark past, he should have no place in any cabinet. "This is an individual who should actually be investigated and who should likely be prosecuted for the crimes that he was involved in," Sanei says.

"Rohani campaigned on freeing political prisoners, making reforms with regard to the situation of citizen's rights. On the 25th anniversary of the 1988 prison massacre to now suggest that this individual, Purmohammadi, could become a cabinet member, no less in the Justice Ministry, is really quite a slap in the face to many of the families of the individuals who lost their lives."

'Death Commission'

Abdolkarim Lahidji, president of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH), echoes the call, saying that Rohani should be held accountable for his controversial choice. "Designating such an individual with such a background is a bold and shameless move," Lahidji says. "The Iranian president should respond to the protests by human rights advocates and the victims of those tragedies."

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The 54-year-old Purmohammadi was the Intelligence Ministry's representative on one of the three-member committees in charge of interrogating political prisoners prior to the 1988 executions. The committee, dubbed the "death commission," questioned prisoners who had already been sentenced to prison about their political and religious beliefs.

Prisoners were asked questions such as "Do you pray?", "Are you willing to go to the war front and fight the Iraqis?", and "Do you recant your beliefs?" Those who gave unsatisfactory answers faced execution.

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The extent of the purge, carried out following a fatwa by Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is unclear. According to some reports, more than 5,000 members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), leftist groups, students, and others were executed in the span of a few months.

Purmohammadi was central to the mass executions of prisoners in Tehran, according to the memoirs of dissident Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the onetime designated successor to Khomeini.

Sanei says Purmohammadi was involved in the decisions on who was going to live and who was going to die. "Purmohammadi was specifically named by Ayatollah Montazeri in his memoirs," Sanei says. "And also, there had been eyewitnesses who had survived the prison massacre in Evin prison who have also been able to identify him as someone who was in fact on the death commission."

'The Pain Is Fresh'

Mansoureh Behkish, a prominent human rights activist who lost several of her relatives in the killings in the 1980s, has criticized Rohani's choice for justice minister in an open letter, a copy of which was e-mailed to RFE/RL.

"Mr. Rohani, did you know that 25 years ago, your choice for justice minister was a member of death commissions that executed, due to their dissent, several thousand of the best and most truthful people -- including two of my dear brothers -- who had been sentenced to prison?"

In the letter, Behkish, who faces a four-year prison term related to her activism, notes that the families of those executed have never been provided with details about the killings and they don't even know where their loved ones were buried.

Behkish also called on Rohani to end the pressure on the families of those executed and allow them to hold commemorations without being harassed.

On the 25th anniversary of the massacre of 1988, Behkish says the families of the victims are still searching for the truth. "This pain is still fresh for us and we will continue to follow up," she wrote.

The nomination of Purmohammadi and other proposed cabinet members will be reviewed by parliament. Observers suggest he is likely to pass the test.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on 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.