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What Rafsanjani Takes To His Grave

In the course of Rafsanjani's political tenure, thousands of Iranians were executed and many were jailed and persecuted. 

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died of heart failure on January 8 at the age of 82, was an architect of the Islamic establishment in Iran whose image transformed from shark to voice of reason.

Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989 to 1997, may have taken the answers to some of the Islamic republic's biggest mysteries to his grave.

Killings Of Dissidents Outside ...

In 1992, three Iranian Kurdish leaders and one of their supporters were assassinated in a restaurant in Berlin.

A German court eventually implicated the Iranian political establishment in the killings, including then-President Rafsanjani and his intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, for whom an international arrest warrant was issued.

The killings are widely seen as part of a spate of slayings of Iranian intellectuals and dissidents inside and outside the country.

According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, since 1979 the Iranian leadership has been linked to at least 162 killings of opponents in 19 countries.

The center has named Rafsanjani as among the Iranian leaders who played "a central role in ordering and facilitating political assassinations."

Unnamed Western officials told Time magazine in 2001 that decisions about the assassinations were made by the Supreme National Security Council, which was then chaired by Rafsanjani.

... And Intellectuals Inside The Country

There have long been suspicions that Iran's leadership ordered the assassinations of dissidents inside the country as well.

Tehran blamed "rogue" Intelligence Ministry agents for the killings of four dissidents inside the country in 1998 and 1999, shortly after Rafsanjani's presidency ended. Activists and human rights groups have suggested that up to 80 writers and dissidents were killed from 1988 to 1998, a period during which Rafsanjani was president for all but two years.

Iranian investigative journalist Akbar Ganji has suggested that Rafsanjani, who was a key figure within the establishment before and after his presidency, at the least turned a blind eye to such actions.

Iran's lone Nobel laureate, Peace Prize winner and rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, has gone further, saying she believes the assassinations were conducted with Rafsanjani's "knowledge." She noted that a deputy intelligence minister eventually charged in the four dissidents' killings, Saeed Emami, "mysteriously died in prison to cut any connection with the top." Fallahani, she says, told the authorities that if he were to appear in court, his "boss" should also come -- an apparent reference to Rafsanjani.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (second from right) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani (center) pray on Rafsanjani's coffin before his funeral ceremony in Tehran on January 10.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (second from right) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani (center) pray on Rafsanjani's coffin before his funeral ceremony in Tehran on January 10.

They are charges that Rafsanjani never publicly addressed and, perhaps understandably, didn't include in his memoirs.

Writer Faraj Sarkohi, who was arrested and tortured during Rafsanjani's presidency, is also convinced that Rafsanjani was fully aware of the Intelligence Ministry's actions. He thinks the decisions were made at the top and that the ministry had free rein to eliminate those considered a threat to the Islamic establishment that came to power following the 1979 revolution.

Rafsanjani was president in 1996 when Sarkohi and 20 of his colleagues had a brush with death that they and others have blamed on the Intelligence Ministry.

The bus carrying them to a literary event in nearby Armenia was traveling through a mountainous region when the driver appeared to try to steer it over a cliff, turning the wheel and jumping out of the moving vehicle. One of the passengers managed to take control of the bus and prevent a tragedy.

Sarkohi, who went into exile in 1997 after his imprisonment stemming from his criticism of censorship, says that under Rafsanjani the Intelligence Ministry had an "open hand more than ever to conduct a campaign of terror."

"How is it possible for the Intelligence Ministry to be able to murder dozens of [dissidents], persecute and torture them without the knowledge of the president who supported the intelligence minister?" Sarkohi told RFE/RL. "That's now how things are run in the country."

AMIA Bombing

Rafsanjani was president during the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead and more than 300 wounded.

Argentina accused Hizbullah of carrying out the attack on orders from the Islamic republic, and prosecutors called for the arrest of Rafsanjani and seven others.

Iran has denied any role in the bombing.

Payam Akhavan, an associate law professor at McGill University and the founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, tells RFE/RL that Rafsanjani's role in many of the Islamic republic's human rights abuses cannot be forgotten.

"Rafsanjani was one of the most influential figures in the first years of the Islamic Revolution, during which tens of thousands were executed in Iran and many [were] assassinated abroad," Akhavan said.

"The question of legal and moral responsibility for such crimes against humanity cannot be swept under the carpet in the name of reform and progress," he added. "To the contrary, there can be no better future if we whitewash the past. Imposing historical amnesia is not the solution for a better Iran."

From 'Shark' To 'Voice of Reason'

In the course of Rafsanjani's political tenure, thousands of Iranians were executed and many were jailed and persecuted.

He was unpopular among many Iranians, who nicknamed Rafsanjani "The Shark" and "Akbar Shah" (King Akbar) due to reports of his wealth, charges of corruption, his alleged role in the state campaign against dissidents, and perceived political shrewdness.

The disputed 2009 reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president and the mass protests that followed marked a turning point for Rafsanjani.

By expressing support for the opposition Green Movement behind the protests, and criticizing the authorities' brutal suppression of the protests, Rafsanjani was rehabilitated in the eyes of many.

He gained a reputation as a supporter of reform and a voice of reason.

In a statement e-mailed to RFE/RL, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, Sarah Leah Whitson, said that while Rafsanjani never cleared his name of association with human rights abuses, "he died with more respect than he had at the height of his political power."

His January 10 funeral in Tehran was attended by hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including many pro-reform citizens who used the opportunity to call for the release of Mir Hossein Musavi, a leader of the Green Movement who has been under house arrest since 2011.

Passing The Torch

Rafsanjani leaves an unclear future for his wife, Effat Marashi, and five children -- two daughters and three sons. His family has in the past come under pressure by hard-liners who opposed Rafsanjani and took actions to hurt him and diminish his influence.

One son, Mehdi Hashemi, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for financial crimes, was granted prison leave to attend his father's funeral.

Daughter Faezeh Rafsanjani, who was jailed in 2012 for "antistate propaganda," was seen at his funeral flashing the V sign.

Faezeh Hashemi is a former lawmaker who became the target of hard-line criticism last year after reuniting with a former cellmate, a Baha'i community leader who was temporarily released on jail. The Baha'i faith is not recognized in Iran and its followers there are often subject to persecution.

Rafsanjani failed to publicly side with his daughter. He described the Baha'i faith as a "deviant sect" and said that Faezeh had made a "mistake" and that she must "redeem" herself.

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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.