Accessibility links

Breaking News

Obituary: Iranian Revolution's Willing Executioner

Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani (right) attends a meeting of the Assembly of Experts during the opening session of its annual assembly in Tehran in September 2002.

Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani is being hailed by Tehran as a hero of the Islamic Revolution. But many will remember him as an executioner willing to cleanse Iranian society of anyone -- possibly even his own sons -- who opposed the regime.

Iranian authorities and state-controlled media are describing Gilani, who died on July 9 at a Tehran hospital where he was being treated for lung disease, as a "great jurist" and "brave judge" who led a "blessed life."

Gilani, who was 86, had headed the revolutionary courts, served as Supreme Court chief justice, chaired the Guardians Council, and was a member of the Assembly of Experts. Late in life he was awarded the medal of justice, and in death he was to be honored with a funeral ceremony at a Tehran mosque before being buried on July 10 in the holy city of Qom.

But others -- particularly opponents of the regime and human rights activists -- hold a much different view of the man. They refer to him as a ruthless judge who played a significant role in the executions of a large number of regime opponents -- possibly including his own sons -- in the 1980s. Rights groups say the executions took place after summary trials that lasted a few minutes.

Roya Boroumand, the co-founder and executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, whose work includes the Human Rights and Democracy for Iran project, says that as a senior judge Gilani actively worked to eliminate dissent in the "dark years" that followed the 1979 revolution.

"Thousands of people were executed, and as the head of the Islamic revolutionary court of Tehran, where many, many executions took place, he was a decision-maker," Boroumand says.

Excising Corruption

Born in 1928 in the province of Gilan, Gilani was 41 when the Islamic Revolution took place. He was appointed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to preside over the newly formed revolutionary courts, putting him in a position to sentence many to prison and to death on vague charges such as "corruption on earth."

Boroumand, whose foundation documents human rights abuses in Iran, says Gilani was among the judges who laid the foundation for a justice system that today is often accused of being unjust and politically motivated.

In interviews and state television appearances, Gilani spoke in favor of executions as well as flogging by cable -- a punishment that was reportedly used against those arrested.

The Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) reported that during an 1981 interview with the official IRNA news agency, Gilani "justified" the executions of several Baha'i leaders by claiming that they had been engaged in espionage activities.

"It has become clear that [the members of] this group or sect spy for imperialist espionage organizations and the damages they have caused to this country [are immeasurable].... In the case of those who were executed, their spying for Israel and its agents has become quite clear and they met with their just punishment according to the orders of the Holy Koran," Gilani was quoted as saying by IHRDC.

Many remember Gilani as a ruthless judge who played a significant role in the executions of a large number of regime opponents -- possibly including his own sons -- in the 1980s.
Many remember Gilani as a ruthless judge who played a significant role in the executions of a large number of regime opponents -- possibly including his own sons -- in the 1980s.

Boroumand says Gilani viewed executions as a way to protect and cleanse the Islamic society he and his colleagues had worked to build in Iran. She says he was among officials who contributed to the reign of terror in the early years of the revolution.

"His understanding of executions, and why people have to be executed, was that in Islam humanity is a whole body, and if a member of this body is corrupted, leaving this member alive will cause the other members to deviate and become corrupt. Therefore, every one of them had to be executed," Boroumand says.

Deaths Of Two Sons

Among many Iranians, Gilani gained notoriety because of allegations he ordered the executions of his own sons.

The cleric never commented publicly on reports, including one by the semiofficial Mehr news agency, that claimed he issued death sentences for two sons who were members of the opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO).

In 2009, while awarding Gilani a medal of justice for what was described as his services and achievements, then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad praised the cleric and said he had first applied justice to himself.

The comments were interpreted as a confirmation of the reports that Gilani had presided over the trial of his own children and ordered their executions in 1981.

Later, however, media including the daily "Jomhuri Eslami" dismissed the reports, and claimed that Gilani's sons had committed suicide by taking cyanide pills to escape arrest by Iranian forces. reported on June 9 that Gilani had not issued the execution order for his sons. The website did, however, note that Gilani had said that if his sons were to be arrested, they should be dealt with like other opposition members. "Do whatever you do to others," the website quoted Gilani as saying.

According to, if middle-aged Iranians today are asked about Gilani, their response is likely to be: "[The one] who executed his two sons?!"

Among his other accomplishments, Gilani is known for having presided over the court that sentenced Abbas Amir Entezam, the spokesman and deputy prime minister of the postrevolutionary interim government of Mehdi Bazargan, to life in prison.

Amir Entezam is described as the longest-held political prisoner in the Islamic republic.

  • 16x9 Image

    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.