(Beirut) – The appointment of a former judge responsible for mass executions to be head of Iran’s judiciary reflects the deteriorating human rights situation in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. On March 7 2019, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raeesi, who served on a four-person committee that ordered the execution of several thousand political prisoners in 1988, to lead Iran’s judicial branch.

“It’s disturbing and frankly frightening that Ebrahim Raeesi will be overseeing justice and accountability in Iran,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Raeesi should be investigated for grave crimes, rather than investigating them.”

The Iranian authorities extrajudicially executed thousands of political prisoners during the summer of 1988. Most were serving prison sentences for their political activities after unfair trials in revolutionary courts. The authorities have never acknowledged these executions, nor provided any information about the number of prisoners killed.

But in August 2016, the family of Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the former deputy supreme leader, who died in 2009, released an audio file online in which he is recorded harshly criticizing the executions in a conversation with the committee that included Raeesi, calling it “the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us.”

On November 27, 2016, following the release of the audio file Iran’s Special Court of Clergy sentenced Ahmed Montazeri, Montazeri’s son, to 21 years in prison, but subsequently reduced the sentence to six years. The charges included "acting against national security" and "revealing state secrets." Authorities then arrested the younger Montazeri on February 23, 2017 but released him after eight days. Zahra Amleshi Rabbani, Montazeri’s wife, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran that Raeesi, the prosecutor in Iran's Special Court of Clergy, played a role in her husband’s trial and arrest.

Raeesi has had a long career in Iran’s judiciary, an institution that has not acted independently of the government. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented abuses by the judiciary against the citizens whose rights it is supposed to protect. Raeesi served as a first deputy to the judiciary during the crackdown that followed the 2009 presidential elections, in which authorities arrested thousands of activists and protesters, torturing and harassing many and imposing long prison terms after unfair trials.

Raeesi reportedly defended the August 2009 trial of Mohammad-Reza Ali-Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour, both of whom were sentenced to death in a mass trial on charges of “enmity against God(moharebeh) for their alleged involvement with armed groups. The authorities executed them on January 28, 2010 without providing any notice to their lawyers or family members. Raeesi insisted that the two men were arrested during the post-election unrest in Tehran even though both had been arrested before the 2009 presidential elections.

“There is no justification for appointing someone who is accused of overseeing mass arbitrary executions to head the judiciary,” Whitson said. “His appointment is a reminder of Iran’s decades-long failure to prosecute rights abusers.”