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Political Payback Or Justice For Tehran's 'Butcher Of The Press'?

Tehran's former chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi (right), seems to be in trouble because of his close association with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left).
Years after three young men were tortured to death after being detained for participating in mass protests that followed Iran's 2009 presidential election, the man held responsible has finally gone on trial. Outside observers of the closed-door trial, however, hold out little hope for justice.

A former Tehran chief prosecutor with a notorious reputation for his sentencing of journalists and intellectuals now finds himself on the wrong side of the law.

Said Mortazavi is best known as the "Butcher of the Press," a moniker he earned for his role in closing dozens of reformist publications and the jailing of journalists amid the unrest that followed Iran's contentious 2009 presidential election. He was also tied to the 2003 death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

He was once considered untouchable, and was a widely feared figure in the Islamic republic. But having fallen from grace, he went on trial this week for abuses committed against prisoners at the infamous Kahrizak detention center, where a parliamentary committee blamed him for the torture and deaths of at least three detainees who participated in the protests against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's reelection.

The closed-door trial, which began on February 26, was met with relief by many, but the court proceedings against Mortazavi and two other suspended jurists appears to have little to do with justice. To many, the timing of the trial, coming ahead of June's presidential election, is too convenient for adversaries eager for retribution against Ahmadinejad and anyone closely associated with him.

"This can't be considered a positive signal for justice," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who has represented many victims of Iranian state abuse in court. "If it is a signal then it is aimed at warning Mortazavi that he has chosen the wrong camp. These cases, unfortunately, never lead to justice. At the most, [Mortazavi's trial] serves to settle political disputes."

Escalating Political Struggle

The charges against Mortazavi, his former deputy Ali Akbar Heydarifar, and former judge Hassan Zareh Dehnavi include unlawful arrest, filing a false report, and assisting in the filing of a false report. There are conflicting reports on whether the three also face murder charges.

Mortazavi was stripped of his post and Heydarifar and Dehnavi were suspended from their duties after news of the deaths and abuses committed at Kahrizak sent shock waves through the Islamic establishment.

One of those killed, Abdolhossein Ruholamini, was the son of a senior politician. And a report issued by the Iranian parliament implicated Mortazavi in ordering 147 detainees to be transferred to the facility, where they were reportedly subjected to torture, beatings, and sexual assaults, while also being held in inhumane conditions.

As the families of the victims sought justice over the past three years, Mortazavi's career continued to advance via his appointment to various state posts. He became Iran's deputy chief prosecutor. Then he received a presidential appointment to head the country's Center for Combating Smuggling. Eventually he rose to his current presidentially appointed post -- head of Iran's Social Security Organization.

But in recent weeks, as his mentor Ahmadinejad has engaged in an escalating political struggle against powerful opponents, Mortazavi has apparently been left exposed. The former Tehran prosecutor's trial is widely seen as an indirect move against Ahmadinejad, who in the past used Mortazavi to bring corruption charges against his political rivals.

Skeptical Observers

Notably, Ahmadinejad recently took on the influential Larijani brothers -- parliament speaker Ali Larijani and the head of the judiciary, Sadeh Larijani. While addressing parliament on February 3, the president publicly accused the parliament speaker's family of corruption and abuse of power, and presented a tape-recorded conversation between Mortazavi and another Larijani brother, Fazel, as proof.

The abuses that took place at Kahrizak were indeed seen as an embarrassment to the Islamic establishment, raising the possibility that those named in the parliamentary investigation could be sentenced. But Iran's poor record in passing sentences in similar cases leaves observers skeptical.

Significant changes would have to occur for this case to be an exception to the norm, according to Amnesty International spokesman Drewery Dyke. "For Iran and Iranians to benefit from an investigation into how people in custody may have died or how they suffered, it needs to be an open and inclusive trial so that everyone can understand the truth of the events under consideration," he said.

While Iranian news sources initially reported that the trial would be open to the public, presiding Judge Siamak Modir Khorasani announced on the opening day of proceedings that it would, in fact, be held behind closed doors.

According to Shirin Ebadi, that was to be expected. "The accused in this case, particularly former prosecutor Said Mortazavi, received direct orders from officials above him -- including the [Supreme] Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]. Therefore, [the authorities] would never dare put him on trial in public."

The first day of the proceedings lasted just over three hours, according to Iranian news reports. Some of the families of the victims, as well as their lawyers, were reportedly present.

One was Mohsen Ruholamini, father of the deceased Abdolhossein Ruholamini and an adviser to Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai. Iranian news agencies quoted Ruholamini as saying that one of the accused was charged with accessory to murder. Iran's ISNA news agency had reported that murder charges would not be entered in the case.

The next session of Mortazavi's trial is scheduled for March 10.

Written and reported by Golnaz Esfandiari with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Mohamamd Zarghami

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