New head of Iran’s judicial system has journalists’ blood on his hands

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for an international commission of enquiry into the persecution of journalists in Iran now that the running of its judicial system has been entrusted to Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, a former minister of intelligence who has always dealt severely with media personnel and who is implicated in the murder of at least one journalist in 1998 .

A conservative cleric and notorious hardliner, Mohseni-Eje was appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on 1 July to take charge of Iran’s judicial apparatus, replacing Ebrahim Raisi, who has just been elected as the Islamic Republic’s president.

Minister of intelligence from 2005 to 2009, prosecutor-general since 2009 and first deputy head of the judicial system since 2014, Mohseni-Eje has much in common with the man in succeeds. Both were implicated in one of the darkest episodes in Iran’s history, the terrible repression in 1988, when the regime murdered thousands of its political opponents, including hundreds of journalists. But that is not all.

After Ebrahim Raisi’s election as president, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei’s appointment to head the judicial system sends a terrible message to the Iranian people and international community – that everything is in place to guarantee impunity for crimes against Iran’s journalists,” said Reza Moini, the head of RSF’s Iran-Afghanistan desk. “The creation of an international commission of enquiry must now be on the UN Human Rights Committee’s agenda. Democracies that are HRC members must honour their commitment to human rights by enthusiastically supporting the creation of such a commission.

Never questioned

There is no secret about Mohseni-Ejei’s visceral hatred for journalists. During a 2004 debate with independent journalist Issa Saharkhiz about the persecution of the media and closures of newspapers, Mohseni-Ejei became so irate that he threw an ashtray at Saharkhiz and then went so far as to bite his shoulder. The incident could be laughed off were it not for Mohseni-Ejei’s dark past and his implication in the disappearance of four journalists.

When Pirouz Davani, a human rights and pro-democracy activist and editor of the newspaper Pirouz, disappeared in August 1998, his body was never found. But Sobh-é-Emrouz journalist Akbar Ganji reported in November 2000 that, after investigating Davani’s disappearance, he had concluded that he was killed and that it was Mohseni-Ejei who ordered his murder.

A few weeks after Davani’s disappearance, the bodies of Iran-é-Farda columnist Majid Charif and two other journalists, Mohamad Mokhtari and Mohamad Jafar Pouyandesh were found in a Tehran suburb, all showing signs of strangulation. In January 2001, 15 ministry of intelligence agents were given prison sentences and three were sentenced to death. But, as head of the special judicial entity responsible for investigating crimes by state officials, Mohseni-Ejei was never questioned although everything pointed to his implication.

Foreign agents

This judge with a penchant for radical methods also played a major role in the crackdown on the protests that followed the 2009 presidential election, contributing to the arrests and convictions of hundreds of journalists. For this, he and eight other Iranian officials were added to the list of targets of US sanctions for “serious human rights violations” in 2010.

As Iranian judicial system spokesman from 2010 to 2019, Mohseni-Ejei was also one of the officials behind the 2011 decision to place former prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi (the owner of the closed newspaper Kalameh Sabaz), his wife, and former parliamentary speaker and presidential candidate Mehdi Karoubi (the owner of the closed newspaper Etemad Melli) under house arrest in 2011 without any judicial proceedings. He also banned the media from reporting anything about them on the grounds that they had been designated as “heads of sedition” by the High Council for National Security and Justice.

This conservative cleric often uses national security or defence of morality as grounds for his harsh treatment of journalists. This was the case in June 2016, when Revolutionary Guards arrested a dozen editors and managers of pro-reform news pages that used Telegram.

US and European sanctions

The US authorities imposed new sanctions on Mohseni-Ejei in 2020 for repeated human rights violations. The European Union has also frozen his assets and imposed travel restriction on him for “serious human rights violations.” He is due to take over as head of the judicial system next month.

One of the world’s most repressive countries for journalists, one that subjects news and information to relentless control, Iran is ranked 174th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.