The Trump administration should show support for Iranian protesters by sanctioning one of Tehran’s worst violators of human rights, says Tzvi Kahn
In February 2018, as Iran’s clerical regime continued to suppress nationwide protests, Tehran’s minister of justice ascended the dais of the UN Human Rights Council and accused Western countries of hypocrisy. “Arrogating to themselves a leading global human rights advocacy,” declared Seyyed Alireza Avaei, “these states have exploited human rights for political ends.” In fact, he argued, they have applied “double standards” against nations “having different political and cultural values and traditions, thus challenging the credibility of United Nations human rights machinery.”
But it’s Avaei himself who lacks credibility. As the US Mission to the UN noted in a statement before his address, Avaei is “responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in Iran, including preventing political freedoms and promoting repression, violence, and extrajudicial killings of political prisoners.” Nevertheless, while the European Union issued sanctions against Avaei for his human rights abuses in 2011, Washington has yet to follow suit. By adding Avaei, as well as the Ministry of Justice itself, to the US sanctions list, the Trump administration can demonstrate solidarity with the Iranian people, who – by any standard – have suffered grievously as a result of the both the ministry’s and Avaei’s actions.
Appointed in 2017, Avaei arrived at the Ministry of Justice following a notorious career as a prosecutor and judge. In 1988, Avaei facilitated crimes against humanity by serving as a member of a three-man death commission that decided whether political opponents of the regime would live or die – one of multiple panels established throughout the country that collectively massacred thousands of people. Avaei’s victims included some below the age of 18. His committee denied prisoners any form of due process. Sentences often followed imprisonments marked by torture. According to one eyewitness of Avaei’s tribunal, the “trial of 60 people lasted less than one hour.”
As the head of Tehran Province’s judiciary from 2005 to 2014, Avaei continued to play a key role in the persecution of dissidents. In 2009, Avaei oversaw the show trials of hundreds of Iranian protesters, resulting in mass incarcerations. At least three Iranians subsequently died in jail under torture. In one of the prisons under Avaei’s jurisdiction, inmates allegedly endured sexual abuse through the use of batons and soda bottles. A year later, in an interview with Kayhan, a regime mouthpiece, Avaei defended the judiciary’s handling of the demonstrators.
Today, under Avaei’s leadership, the Ministry of Justice continues to enable Iran’s repression. Nominated by the president based on the recommendation of the judiciary chief, whom the Supreme Leader directly appoints, the minister manages the judiciary’s finances and serves as an advocate for its policies and interests before the Iranian parliament and the president’s cabinet. In January 2018, the Trump administration sanctioned the judiciary head, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, for “serious human rights abuses,” including torture.
In its public statements, the ministry attempts to conceal Tehran’s malign conduct by routinely hailing the importance of human rights. On its website, the ministry claims that it works to combat corruption, investigate complaints against the judiciary, protect the rights of Iranian expatriates, and enforce international human rights statutes such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2015, it established a Department of Human Rights and International Affairs that purportedly aims to promote civil liberties. In his UN speech, Avaei cited President Hassan Rouhani’s publication of a Charter on Citizens’ Rights that would ostensibly halt the regime’s human rights abuses.
Still, the execution of juveniles persists. Regime corruption abounds. Multiple dual nationals languish behind bars. The judiciary remains unreformed despite widespread criticism. Rouhani has yet to implement the charter. And the Iranian people’s protests show no sign of abating.
In this context, if the Trump administration designated Avaei and the Ministry of Justice for sanctions, it would carry special significance. First, by targeting an official directly responsible for past and ongoing repression on a mass scale, Washington can boost the morale of demonstrators, thereby encouraging them to continue their campaign for justice.
Second, the sanctions would help discredit the widespread international perception that Rouhani constitutes a reformer who seeks to temper the regime’s belligerence. In fact, the president empowered Avaei despite knowing full well what he has done. In 2017, Rouhani even described Avaei as a moderate. Avaei’s immediate predecessor, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, whom Rouhani appointed in 2013, served on a 1988 death commission as well. Rouhani has failed to heed international calls for an investigation of the massacre.
Rouhani is not an agent for change; he is complicit in the regime’s atrocities.
Finally, the designations would draw fresh attention to the single greatest massacre perpetrated by Iran’s judiciary since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. As such, it would further delegitimize the mullahs at a time when they face an increasingly precarious position at home due to Iran’s domestic uprising and the reimposition of US economic sanctions. And in so doing, the United States can advance some small measure of justice for the thousands of victims who can no longer speak on their own behalf.
Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn