The trial of Akbar Tabari, the former deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, and several of his closest allies is underway. But although it promises to be one of the Islamic Republic’s biggest and most dramatic corruption cases in recent years, it is unlikely to bring about any meaningful change to Iran’s judicial system. It's more likely to set the tone for Iran’s political battles to come.
After his appointment as the new head of the judiciary in March 2019, Ebrahim Raeisi ordered the arrest of Akbar Tabari on charges of corruption and abuse of power. Tabari was deputy under Sadegh Amoli Larijani, who served as chief justice for 10 years.
The arrest followed Ayatollah Khamenei’s instructions that Raeisi tackle corruption, and some commentators said it signaled a potential shift in the judiciary and even a move toward large-scale reform of it.
But the establishment of a fair and rigorous justice system in Iran would require, first and foremost, ensuring the judiciary was entirely independent from the other branches of government, and crucially, from Iran’s security and military institutions. Secondly, there would have to be the introduction of rules and regulations that guarantee fair trials without interference from individuals, groups or institutions that might be able to influence trials for political or personal gain. Currently, none of this can be said of the judicial branch of Iran's government.
The Supreme Leader appoints and oversees the work of the judiciary. In recent years, Iran’s security forces have also commanded substantial influence over the way the judiciary operates.
From every angle, the case against Akbar Tabari is symbolic of the widespread and systematic corruption of Iran’s judiciary. When Tabari was arrested in July 2019, former judiciary head Sadegh Amoli Larijani stated that he had investigated the charges against his deputy during his tenure and had acquitted him on every count. This, he said, would come out in any subsequent trial.
So who is telling the truth? Was Sadegh Amoli Larijani unaware of the widespread corruption in the judiciary while he was there? Was he aware of it and took the decision to declare Tabari was innocent anyway? If Tabari is innocent, why is Ebrahim Raeisi taking such drastic action, which will have vast repercussions for Amoli Larijani?
Ebrahim Raeisi and Sadegh Amoli Larijani have both been raised as possible successors to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. So has Raeisi tried to raise his chances of becoming Supreme Leader by launching a major financial corruption case against someone with close ties to his main rival?
Even if Raeisi had no intention of discrediting Larijani among the Iranian public, this has now happened, since Tabari's name is inextricably linked to that of his former boss. Iran’s politicians and the public alike will want to know what role Larijani played in the huge corruption scandal unfolding, and why he is not being prosecuted.
From this standpoint, Tabari's case amounts to something more like a political settlement between Khamenei's successors rather than a process of purging the judiciary of corruption.
No Scrutiny of Historic Cases
The case also involves other high profile figures, including Gholamreza Mansouri, a former judge known for handing down tough sentences to newspapers and journalists, currently in exile in Germany, and Bijan Ghasemzadeh, a prosecutor who does not have any direct links to Tabari's case. Some observers have commented that further people were implicated in the scandals in an attempt to attract greater international media attention.
If cases Judges Mansouri and Ghasemzadeh had ruled on had been re-opened and even invalidated and put forth for retrial as part of the current case, there might be reason to believe the judiciary was actually under scrutiny and that moves to reform it could be taken seriously. But judgments and rulings issued by these senior judicial officials, both accused of corruption and bribery, have not been invalidated or revised, another sign of the lack of real change in the judiciary of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As well as being the judge for the town of Lavasan in Tehran province, Gholamreza Mansouri has served as head of the Culture and Media Prosecutor's Office, as judge for the Execution of Orders Office, as well as working in the office of another prominent prosecutor.He has issued arrest warrants for a number of journalists and prosecuted government employees. Ghasemzadeh issued the famous order that led to the Telegram messenger application being filtered, a case that raised questions about the legality of such a ruling in the first place.
The clearest sign that nothing fundamental is going to change in Iran’s judicial system is the continued disregard for the Code of Criminal Procedure. Raeisi had not changed the regulation since taking on the top job at the judiciary, but even though it is flawed, it should be adhered to as the only procedure the judiciary has in place. Raeisi has not observed the code, including in the Tabari case.
During Akbar Tabari’s trial, the judge instructed the defendant to speak for himself, despite the fact that he had appointed a lawyer, in direct contravention of the criminal code. The most basic tenets of the code were violated, even the stipulation that defendants not be forced to appear in court in prison uniform. Although Ghasemzadeh attended court in normal clothing, Tabari was forced to appear in prison garb, putting an end to claims that there was fairness or consistency to the proceedings.
The trial of Akbar Tabari is so much more than a corruption case, or even judgment on a system that allows the powerful to bolster their financial gains outside the gaze of public and legal scrutiny. It is about the power struggles that define Iran’s political system, and, given that it could have some impact on who becomes the next Supreme Leader, about the future of Iran. It is not, however, the start of any kind of notable transformation or change in the country’s judicial system.