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Raisi dead, but tyranny lives on

by
31 May 2024

The Iranian President oversaw fierce oppression of Christians, writes Steve Dew-Jones

Alamy

President Ebrahim Raisi, pictured in November, died in a helicopter crash this month

President Ebrahim Raisi, pictured in November, died in a helicopter crash this month

WHEN I first visited Iran, back in the days of the eccentric and antagonistic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I had assumed that it was he — and his tendency to say outrageous things, like wanting to “wipe Israel off the map” — that was the problem.

I was soon informed, however, that, in Iran, it does not really matter who the President is: it is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the strings of power.

Perhaps nothing could highlight this more than the “election” process — known as a “selection” by most Iranians — during which candidates must first be vetted by the clerics, leaving behind only those hand-picked by Ayatollah Khamenei.

One could also point to the dubious re-election of Ahmadinejad in 2009, which led to the Green Movement protests, for another clue to the lack of power wielded by the Iranian voter.

There have been times during the past 45 years, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, when reformist candidates have brought hope to Iranians that their nation might be changed for the better. But, with every “election”, fewer and fewer reformists are permitted to stand, leading to an ever-increasing sense that Iran belongs to the hardliners, however little popular support they command.

And these hardliners — none more fierce than the late President Ebrahim Raisi, known as the “Butcher of Tehran” for his hand in ordering the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s — will stop at nothing to stay in power, as can been seen in the brutal reaction to protests, as in 2009, 2019, and, most recently, 2022, in the wake of the death of Mahsa Amini (News, 14 October 2022).

On each occasion, protesters were rounded up, arrested, beaten, raped, tortured, and, in some cases, even killed. The sentencing and executions relating to the 2022 protests are still ongoing, as in the case of the rapper Toomaj Salehi, whose death sentence was passed only last month. His crime? Officially “corruption on earth”, which is code for singing songs that were highly critical of the Islamic Republic and supporting a revolution.

 

WHEN a ruling regime is prepared to tackle dissent with such an iron fist, what hope is there for effecting change? Sadly, it seems that such hope dwindles with every failed “revolution”.

It is, therefore, little wonder that many Iranians have reacted with joy at the small victory, as they see it, of the death in a helicopter crash of one of those who has been responsible for wielding such tyranny (News, 24 May). Iranians have been videoed dancing and setting off fireworks — even, bravely, in Raisi’s home town, Mashhad.

This is how much the Iranian leaders are despised by the masses. It is little wonder, given the deprivation of freedoms which they are forced to endure — freedoms such as choosing whether to wear the Islamic veil, a decision that, as in the case of Mahsa Amini, can have deadly consequences, or freedom of expression, as evidenced in the case of Toomaj Salehi.

At the charity for which I work, Article18, our primary focus is on the freedom to choose what to believe. The charity is named after Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights — which Iran ratified before becoming an Islamic Republic and continues to claim to uphold — which enshrines freedoms including the ability to change one’s faith and to share it with others.

But at no stage in the past 45 years have either of those freedoms been without consequence for Iranians. On the contrary, any Iranian who wishes to take up a faith other than Shia Islam must be prepared to face arrest, imprisonment, and even, potentially, a death sentence for “apostasy”.

 

ONLY one Iranian Christian has been hanged for his “apostasy” in the past 45 years: a pastor, Hossein Soodmand, also from Mashhad, back in 1990 — but several others have been sentenced to death or killed extrajudicially.

Three such examples took place during the first six months of 1994, when three senior church leaders were murdered on the streets of Tehran, a chain of events that began with the release from prison of one of those who was later to be murdered, another “apostate”, the Revd Mehdi Dibaj, who had spent nine years in prison and then finally had been sentenced to death.

His friend and leader of the Assemblies of God churches in Iran, the Revd Haik Hovsepian, was murdered within a week of securing his friend’s release. Five months later, Dibaj was also killed, as was Hovsepian’s successor as head of the Assemblies of God, the Revd Tateos Michaelian.

Their deaths were later included in the list of what became known as the “Chain Murders”: a series of targeted killings of dissenters between 1988 and 1998.

Raisi was the prosecutor of Tehran at the time; but, instead of being reprimanded for his crimes, including being part of the so-called “death committee” responsible for the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, Raisi went on to be promoted as head of the judiciary and, finally, President.

So, while his death may not have the power to bring about the change so sorely needed in Iran, and while many others would have preferred to see him tried in the International Criminal Court, many Iranians see his death as bringing at least a semblance of that rarest of commodities in Iran: justice.

Steve Dew-Jones is News Director for Article 18, a non-profit organisation based in London which advocates religious freedom in Iran.

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