Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed a controversial hard-line cleric accused of gross human rights violations as head of the country's influential Judiciary.
In a decree issued on March 7, Khamenei appointed 58-year-old Ebrahim Raisi as the new chief of the advisory body.
Raisi is a senior cleric and longtime prosecutor who is also custodian and chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi, the organization that runs Iran's holiest Shi'ite religious sites.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the U.S. State Department blasted his appointment at the helm of the Judiciary, saying that he was involved in the "mass executions" of political prisoners in the 1980s.
Observers said that Raisi’s appointment could strengthen the hard-line camp and weaken the moderates, led by President Hassan Rohani.
The appointment "reflects the deteriorating human rights situation" in Iran, Human Rights Watch said in a statement, adding that Raisi "served on a four-person committee that ordered the execution of several thousand political prisoners in 1988.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said: “It’s disturbing and frankly frightening that [Raisi] will be overseeing justice and accountability in Iran.”
He "should be investigated for grave crimes, rather than investigating them,” she said.
Raisi, "involved in mass executions of political prisoners, was chosen to lead Iran's judiciary. What a disgrace!" U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino tweeted on March 5 before he was officially appointed.
The Iranian leadership “makes a mockery of the legal process by allowing unfair trials and inhumane prison conditions. Iranians deserve better!" he added.
Khamenei said Raisi has “faith, knowledge, and experience” and urged him to rejuvenate the Judiciary, fight corruption, restore public rights and legitimate freedoms, and supervise the implementation of laws.
Raisi succeeds Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, a conservative cleric with close ties to Khamenei as well as the country's military and intelligence bodies.
In December, Larijani was appointed as the head of the Expediency Council, which is tasked with mediating disputes between parliament and the Guardians Council, Iran's constitutional watchdog.
Rumors had circulated for months that Raisi would be appointed Larijani's successor.
He has also been mentioned among the possible successors to the 79-year-old Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014 amid long-standing rumors that he has prostate cancer.
Raisi lost the presidential election in 2017 to Rohani, who won a second term.
The head of the Judiciary is appointed by Khamenei for a five-year term.
The decision comes at a challenging time for Iran, which is dealing with the reimposition by the United States of tough economic sanctions following President Donald Trump's decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Iran’s hard-liners have been highly critical of the landmark agreement aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.