Could Iran Elect Its Own Rodrigo Duterte?

Ebrahim Raisi in 2015. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Tasnim News Agency/Hamed Malekpour

Ebrahim Raisi oversaw 1988’s infamous “death panels.” Now he could unseat Hassan Rouhani.

Montazeri may have been right: the executions were, according to the premier historian of the period, unnecessary, and may have been a power play by Khomeini. In a recent interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Princeton professor Ervand Abrahamian was asked why Khomeini issued the fatwa that led to the killings:

One interpretation is that he wanted to empty out the overcrowded prisons, but he could have done that by releasing the prisoners. Another interpretation is that the regime was so insecure, that it saw the executions as a way get rid of the opposition, to improve its security. But that doesn’t make sense either because the regime had basically just concluded the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and this was a time of relief, with no upsurge by the opposition.

Since there was no upsurge, we arrive at the interpretation that this was a way for the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, to really cement who was 100 percent behind the regime. By doing something as outrageous as the horrendous executions, he could divide the half-hearted, from the liberal, to the solid supporters of the regime.

Indeed, many of those executed were not hard-core fighters, but people who had been picked up years before for minor offenses, or people who had completed their sentences. Many were not even linked to the MEK. It was naked, willful, pointless injustice.

Khomeini, argues Abrahamian, “clearly . . . wanted the executions, so he appointed hardliners. He must have thought Raisi was a good person for that.” Indeed, Raisi passed the test with flying colors. Abrahamian notes that only one of the death panelists—not Raisi—“tried to bend the rules to save some people.”

And so thousands went to their deaths. Accounts from prisoners who survived are horrifying. One told the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (which put Raisi’s photo on the cover of a 2009 collection of witness statements) that “the intensity of the executions was so much that it affected the guards themselves. Even the cruel torturers, who had been tormenting and executing prisoners for years, were astonished by this level of cruelty and barbarity. Hajj Amjad, a guard . . . famous for his short temper and brutality, became unbelievably quiet and introverted after the carnage.”

Another prisoner, a member of the Tudeh Party, was beaten until she agreed to accept Islam, and then mocked by one of the panelists:

The day I finally said that I believed in Islam was a very painful day for me. I had lost my pride. If the whippings had continued, I would have surely lost my life. But I did not want to die defeated. I did not want to die like that. My urine was bloody and I was not in good physical condition. I remember when they untied me from my bed. I slowly dragged myself up the stairs and was about to enter my room when Naserian saw me and said, ‘You poor wretch! You are so stupid. If you had given in on the first day you wouldn’t have to crawl on all fours in front of me!’ I can’t forget that moment. I was wearing a chador. I was blindfolded and gagged. I was teary-eyed and bloody. Fluids were running from my mouth and nose. I was crying. And on the other end, they were laughing and making fun of me.

Other prisoners speak of seeing empty cell after empty cell in once-jammed prison wards, of realizing that the dozens of thumping noises they heard outside the prison building every night were bodies being loaded onto trucks, of the stench of rotting corpses. The relatives of victims recount days and weeks of growing dread as prisons went on lockdown and rumors began to circulate; often, they would be summoned to the prison and told that their loved one had been executed, but then would not be given correct information about where to collect the body. A desperate search would follow—one woman told Amnesty International how “groups of bodies, some clothed, some in shrouds, had been buried in unmarked shallow graves in the section of the cemetery reserved for executed leftist political prisoners. The stench of the corpses was appalling but I started digging with my hands because it was important for me and my two little children that I locate my husband's grave.”

There has been no suggestion that Raisi, if elected, will embark on another campaign of mass killings (although he did recently, in defense of his record, say that “my past was driving the ominous shadow of terrorism from the country,” in apparent reference to the executions). Iran will likely remain a world leader in executions regardless of who wins.