Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

IRAN: The Strange Case of Saeed Mortazavi

TEHRAN, May 8 2012 (IPS) - After weeks of wrangling between the Iranian parliament and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the appointment of a highly controversial former judge to direct the country’s Social Security Organisation, the parliament has once again failed to impose its will on the president.

Today, the former judge, Saeed Mortazavi, who has been indicted for serious human rights abuses, including “complicity in murder”, remains at his post despite a promise to key members of Parliament that he would resign.

The latest turn of events has led to widespread speculation on the role that Mortazavi may be playing between Ahmadinejad and Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has highlighted both the opacity and complexity of the regime.

The public display of discord went as far as a procedural call for the impeachment of Mortazavi’s boss, Minister of Labour and Welfare Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, who hinted that Mortazavi’s appointment had been imposed on him by the president.

The parliament cannot actually remove Mortazavi, as its impeachment privileges do not include sub-ministerial appointments. But MPs ultimately decided not to impeach the minister in late April, after former speaker of the parliament Gholamali Haddad Adel publicly stated that Mortazavi had taken an “oath of honour” to resign.

Although Mortazavi did not show up to work for a few days, this lasted only a short while. He told one journalist that MPs were lying about his resignation.

The series of events have badly embarrassed Haddad Adel, whose efforts to resolve the conflict were initially seen as an attempt to increase his chances of becoming speaker of the newly elected parliament.

The 45-year-old Mortazavi is a highly controversial figure in the Islamic Republic. He became a judge when he was just 20 years old, despite lacking legal training, and rapidly climbed the judicial ladder.

He ended up as the chief press judge during the reformist era (1997- 2005) and was responsible for the closure of many reformist papers and the arrest of journalists and bloggers. Repeated complaints about his extralegal activities, including those lodged by members of the reformist members of parliament, went nowhere.

In 2002, Mortazavi was chosen as Tehran’s chief prosecutor, and it was in this position that he was later accused of killing Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photojournalist. Evidence of physical abuse again led members of parliament to attempt Mortazavi’s removal, but to no avail.

At that time, the prominent reformist MP Mohsen Armin explicitly commented upon the possibility of support for Mortazavi from higher levels. “I know that Judge Mortazavi is not at the level to engage in such acts without support,” Armin said.

Conservatives too have been unhappy with Mortazavi, accusing him of ethical and financial misconduct. In 2008, when the illegal sale of questions for the competitive entrance examination to Iran’s largest private university, the Azad University, was being investigated, the hard-line MP Alireza Zakani accused Mortazavi of destroying the evidence of the crime and losing key files that eventually made the pursuit of the case impossible.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2009 election, Mortazavi was identified as being responsible for sending peaceful demonstrators to the overcrowded Kahrizak prison, where prisoners were severely mistreated, resulting in the deaths of five young men.

Even Khamenei, who many have identified as one of Mortazavi’s main supporters, acknowledged violations at that time, ordering the closure of Kahrizak and promising prosecutions. But Mortazavi was merely demoted from his position as prosecutor general and continued working as deputy prosecutor.

It was only in 2010, following a parliamentary commission’s probes of the Kahrizak affair, that Mortazavi was finally relieved of his post. Eventually he was indicted for “complicity in murder”, “violation of citizens’ rights”, and “dishonouring Iran’s security forces”.

Yet even as these charges awaited prosecution, Ahmadinejad appointed Mortazavi to head the Task Force on Drug Trafficking. In March 2012, Ahmadinejad further elevated Mortazavi to his most recent posting, as director of the Social Security Organisation, the government’s largest social welfare agency.

It was this move that created an uproar in the parliament, particularly since Mortazavi had no background in running such a large agency.

Yet with Mortazavi continuing in his position, many are increasingly coming to believe that his survival could not be possible without direct support from Ayatollah Khamenei. In this, observers point to Haddad Adel’s intervention to avert the ministerial impeachment, highlighting the fact that Hadded Adel’s daughter is married to Khamenei’s son.

According to the Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji, Mortazavi is one of many to have carried out Khamenei’s orders – and who is now being protected by the Leader.

Others argue that given the key posts that Mortazavi has held in the past, the government is now forced to deal with him leniently, lest he reveal regime secrets. The opposition website Jaras has even suggested that Mortazavi has left secretive material on a CD in the United States, to be released if necessary.

Some dismiss such conspiracies. A university professor, speaking anonymously, doubts that Khamenei’s direct orders were behind Kazemi’s murder, the Kahrizak crimes, or even Mortazavi’s appointment to the Social Security Organisation.

“To the same extent that Ayatollah Khamenei did not know about these crimes or appointments in advance, he is incapable of punishing individuals upon whom he relies for the repression of his opponents,” the professor says.

The issue is a “management problem”, he suggests, along with an over- reliance on repressive forces. “People like Ahmadinejad and Mortazavi have made it their business to create dossiers on others, including Khamenei himself,” the professor notes.

“Khamenei is forced to remain quiet on Mortazavi out of the fear of what he may reveal. Meanwhile, by hiring Mortazavi, Ahmadinejad essentially keeps under his wing a walking dossier against the Leader.”

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