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Men Who Knew Too Much: The Islamic Republic's Dark History of Overseas Killings

June 22, 2020
Ehsan Mehrabi
7 min read
Abbas Yazdanpanah Yazdi, a British-Iranian businessman, was kidnapped in Dubai in 2013 and was never heard from again. The British police later told his wife that he had been killed
Abbas Yazdanpanah Yazdi, a British-Iranian businessman, was kidnapped in Dubai in 2013 and was never heard from again. The British police later told his wife that he had been killed
Dr. Ramin Pourandarjani revealed he had been pressured to cite “meningitis” as the cause of death on murdered dissidents death certificates, was assassinated in 2009
Dr. Ramin Pourandarjani revealed he had been pressured to cite “meningitis” as the cause of death on murdered dissidents death certificates, was assassinated in 2009
Hossein Kanganinejad was killed in 2013 in a Kuala Lumpur car parking lot. He is thought to have been assassinated because he knew secrets about convicted billionaire Babak Zanjani
Hossein Kanganinejad was killed in 2013 in a Kuala Lumpur car parking lot. He is thought to have been assassinated because he knew secrets about convicted billionaire Babak Zanjani

“I was once a murderer myself; I was a jailor.”

Due to a typo in a newspaper report, this odd sentence has come to be associated with Ruhollah Hosseinian, a notorious former deputy intelligence minister and security advisor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The same man now claims that Islamic Republic “had no reason to kill” Gholamreza Mansouri, the fugitive Iranian judge who was found dead in Bucharest, Romania, on June 19.

The Islamic Republic has been accused of orchestrating dozens of political assassinations outside Iran. But over the decades there have also been several assassinations that, unlike political ones, would have benefited various “stakeholders” as well as just the government. What all of these men had in common was that they appeared to have known too much financial corruption in the Islamic Republic.

As of now, Iranian officials have rigorously stuck to the line that Gholamreza Mansouri died by suicide. They have not responded to the charge that he was assassinated; perhaps reasonably given the charge remains at the level of a speculation and Romanian officials have yet to offer a conclusion as to whether he jumped, fell or was pushed to his death at the Duke Hotel.

Some Iranian politicians, including President Rouhani’s own advisor Hesamodin Ashna, have insinuated Mansouri’s death may be linked to the ongoing corruption trial of Akbar Tabari, a former deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, and associates. The most high-profile name so far cited in the trial is that of Sadegh Larijani, the former head of the judiciary who was replaced last year.


Politicians with Their Own Assassination Squads

Alongside their political and security teams inside Iran, some powerful factions of the Islamic Republic also have access to killers-for-hire outside the country. These include the Larijani brothers: former speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani and former Chief Justice Sadegh Larijani.

When the Kurdish opposition leader Abdul Rahman Ghasemlou was assassinated in Vienna in 1989, Mohammad Jafari Sahraroudi, the head of the Islamic Republic’s negotiating team with Ghasemlou, was Ali Larijani’s chief of staff and was widely accused of having played a direct role in the murder.

In recent years, however, the Islamic Republic has preferred to hire assassins instead of dispatching its own agents. This was the case with Mohammad Reza Kolahi, a member of the opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization who was accused of terrorist acts against the Islamic Republic and later assassinated in the Netherlands in 2015.

As a judge of Islamic Republic, Gholamreza Mansouri had a long history of suppressing freedom of expression. He ordered the closure of several newspapers in Iran in 2012 and signed the arrest warrants for at least 20 journalists, but he has also been identified as a corrupt and brutal interrogator.

It has been speculated that he was assassinated because the Islamic Republic was worried that Mansouri were put on trial in Europe for crimes against humanity, as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and activists had requested and as one seasoned international lawyer had intended, it would have had consequences for the entire Iranian judiciary.

The Islamic Republic itself had asked for Mansouri to be extradited to Iran to face a bribery allegation. “Had Mansouri been put on trial, many dark corners of the recent corruption case [against Tabari and his accomplices] would have come to light,” said Ruhollah Hosseinian. “The Islamic Republic had no logical reason to kill Mansouri and, as it happens, one reason to assassinate Mansouri was to hurt the interests of the Islamic Republic.”


Jockeying for Power Over Corpses

The extradition of Mansouri would not have much benefited the Islamic Republic as a whole. But it might have strengthened the hand of opponents of Sadegh Larijani. Aside from the ongoing Tabari trial, Mansouri had been involved in corruption cases directly connected with the Larijani brothers, including charges against Fazel Larijani.

Hosseinian, the same official who now declares the Islamic Republic innocent in the death of Mansouri, has previously branded the death of Saeed Emami, former deputy intelligence minister, a murder instead of a suicide.

In 1999 Emami was imprisoned and accused of masterminding the so-called “Chain Murders” in Iran, in the course of which many dissidents and intellectuals were assassinated by intelligence agents. In June that year it was announced that Emami had committed suicide in prison by drinking hair removal chemicals. Some were of the opinion that he had been assassinated by the associates of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. But Hosseinian accused security figures close to reformist president Mohammad Khatami of having “suicided” Emami.

“I was once a judge myself; I was a jailor,” said Hosseinian about the death of Saeed Emami. “Up to now, hundreds have drunk hair remover but none have died.” In reporting his statements, the newspaper Sobh-e Emrouz committed a small but catastrophic error and replaced the word “judge” with “murderer” – the words share the first two of their four letters in Persian – and this is how people still remember the infamous utterance today. More than 20 years later, the death of Saeed Emami still naturally remains an unsolved mystery.

Besides Emami, many other people who have been privy to secrets have been assassinated in the Islamic Republic, including several involved in corruption cases.


Hamid Hajian, Defense Attorney in Corruption Cases

Hamid Hajian was a lawyer who had represented several Iranian business tycoons accused of financial corruption. He was shot dead in April 2019 in the garage of a building in Tehran. One of his cases had been that of Hossein Hedayati, who had purchased Steel Azin Football Club and invested in Persepolis FC. The month after his attorney’s death, Hedayati was sentenced to 20 years in jail, 74 lashes, and restitution of 448 billion tomans ($30 million) to the public treasury.

“There is a very serious question: has this murder anything to do with the case of Hedayati?” the Iranian lawyer Kambiz Norouzi has asked. And the writer and attorney Nasser Zarafshan believes the fact that CCTV had been cut off in the garage where Hajian was shot indicates the murder was an organized assassination. Pedram Soltani, deputy chairman of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, has gone further, stating baldly that Hedayati’s murder was “an announcement that Iran’s economic mafia has entered the field of murder.”


Hossein Kanganinejad, Banker Involved in Babak Zanjani’s Case

Hossein Kanganinejad, known as Hossein Nejadi, was a banker who was assassinated in 2013 in a parking lot in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. His son Pascal Nejadi had sent the text of a contract for the sale of Arzesh Bank, tied to the case against Babak Zanjani, to the Iranian newspaper Shargh, revealing that $4 million had been paid for the purchase. The assassination of this banker, however, was not reported extensively in Iran.


Abbas Yazdanpanah Yazdi, Confidante of Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani

Abbas Yazdanpanah Yazdi was a British-Iranian businessman and a confidant of Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of the late President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “security offences and financial crimes.” Hossein Taeb, the current head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, had Yazdanpana arrested in his capacity as then-deputy intelligence minister under President Hashemi Rafsanjani and recorded some of his confessions. This led to the dismissal of Taeb from the Intelligence Ministry. As such, some believe that Taeb was responsible for the kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of Yazdanpanah in Dubai in 2013, after which he was never seen again. Dubai authorities arrested a number of Iranians in connection with this kidnapping but the case remains unsolved, although British police told Yazdanpanah’s wife that he had been killed.


Doctors Connected to Kahrizak Detention Center and the Case of Saeed Mortazavi

Following demonstrations against the disputed 2009 presidential election outcome, 124 protesters were detained at the Kahrizak Detention Center in southern Tehran. By order of Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran’s prosecutor at the time, they were tortured and several died from maltreatment and neglect. In the past few years a number of doctors who were witnesses to the brutality in Kahrizak events have been killed.

One was Dr. Ramin Pourandarjani, who had revealed that Mortazavi had pressured him to cite “meningitis” as the cause of death of those who were killed under torture. The other was Dr. Abdolreza Soudbakhsh, a university professor who, as the medical examiner, had examined the tortured and the dead at Kahrizak. He was assassinated in front of his clinic on September 21, 2010.


Related Coverage:

Will Romania's Investigation into the Fugitive Judge's Death be Independent and Fair?, 22 June 2020

The Dark Legacy of the Judge Found Dead in Romania, 20 June 2020

The Mysterious Death of an Iranian Judge in Romania, 20 June 2020

Fugitive Iranian Judge "Found Dead" in Romania, 19 June 2020

A Revolution in Iranian Judiciary or Jockeying for Leadership?, 16 June 2020

Iranian Judge Could Face Trial in Europe for Crimes Against Humanity, 14 June 2020

From Luxury Villas to Defrauded Banks: The Mother of All Corruption Cases Gets Under Way in Iran, 13 June 2020

Reporters Without Borders Asks Germany to Arrest Fugitive Iranian Judge, 11 June 2020

How Can an Iranian Judge in Germany be Brought to Justice?, 10 June 2020


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