After a long, drawn-out investigation, a special investigatory committee of Iran's Majlis parliament has found Saeed Mortazavi as the "main culprit" behind the death and torture of three detainees at Kahrizak detention facility. After it was revealed that Mohsen Rouholamini, the son of a prominent strategist to conservative presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei was among the deceased, widespread outrage from Iran's political right forced Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to order the closing of the facility.
The committee’s findings come after the judicial branch of the Iranian Armed Forces issued a statement in mid-December classifying the cause of death of the three detainees as "torture," and not meningitis as the regime had previously claimed. While Mortazavi personally ordered the transfer of the respective protesters to the facility on July 9th, only twelve officers below him have been arrested in relation to the deaths thus far.
Mortazavi has a long history of torture in Iran. As a former judge and Tehran’s Prosecutor General, he was responsible for the closure of over 100 newspapers that were deemed threatening to the regime. In his crusade against the Iranian media – which earned him the nickname “the butcher of the press” – more than 600 journalists were arrested, including Saeed Hajarian, a close aide of former president Mohammad Khatami who was also arrested and later released this past summer after making a forced confession in one of several televised show-trials.
In 2003, Mortazavi played a role in the death of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer who was arrested (and allegedly raped) for photographing Iran’s notorious Evin prison. A year later, he led a campaign against Iran’s most prominent bloggers, confining at least 20 to solitary confinement in undisclosed prisons for extended periods of time, where they were similarly forced to make coerced confessions implicating themselves in trying to overthrow the regime. Most recently, Mortazavi oversaw the arrest and trial of Roxana Saberi, an American-Iranian journalist who was arrested for espionage. Miss Saberi was also subsequently released.
After the outrage over Kahrizak came to a head, Mortazavi was removed from his post as Prosecutor General by Judiciary head Sadegh Larijani, who was himself appointed in the wake of the Kahrizak controversy. Larijani (brother to Majlis head Ali Larijani) also removed several of Mortazavi’s deputies from their respective posts. Mortazavi, however, was never actually removed but rather “promoted to obscurity” to the post of Deputy Prosecutor General for all Iran. Most recently, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed him as the head of the Office Against Goods and Foreign Currency Smuggling.
While the committee’s finding is the regime's greatest admission of fault since June's rigged election, political calculus is likely behind its disclosure. It increasingly appears that the massive outpouring of protesters during the Ashura demonstrations has rattled the regime. Where protesters (and the Green movement as a whole) were being branded as "foreign agents" only weeks ago, there is now renewed talk of "reconciliation" in the air – this time coming not from the leaders of the opposition, but rather, from more pragmatic conservatives on the right. Mohsen Rezaei, Ali Motahari, and Ali Larijani have all recently weighed in, denouncing "extremism" on both sides of the political spectrum, a not-so-subtle jab at Ahmadinejad and his backers in government.
And so, if the regime is coming to accept that it must make concessions in order marginalize threats to its hold on power, Mortazavi's outing by Majlis' investigatory committee should not be read as it holding the main perpetrator of the protesters' deaths accountable, but rather, as the regime looking for (and needing) a scapegoat to placate popular anger and outrage. It remains doubtful that the move will be enough, however.
The explicit placing of blame squarely on Mortazavi also symbolizes the political fissures that have emerged between so-called "principalist" hardliners and more pragmatic politicians on the right. While Ahmadinejad loyalists have urged for the continued prosecution (or more aptly, persecution) of protesters and those who constitute the Green movement, traditional conservatives appear to be more keenly aware of the dire situation facing the Islamic Republic.
Going forward, the clash between moderates and radicals in the conservative camp may prove just as consequential to Iran's future as the opposition's own showdown with the regime. Will a growing chorus of lawmakers and clerics pressure Khamenei to make concessions to the opposition? Will Ahmadinejad play ball? While what the proceeding months hold in store remains unclear, there is certain to be continued friction between those who are not a part of the opposition. Just as soon as the Majlis committee implicated Mortazavi in the protester deaths, a group of lawmakers rejected the report, branding it as "fabricated, untrue and biased." Such conservative disunity not only continues to dilute the Islamic Republic's once monolithic base of support, but also gives the Greens the open political space they need to press forward with their demands. Time will tell if the regime will listen, if only to ensure its own survival.
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