In September 2020, ex-top judiciary official Akbar Tabari was sentenced to a stunning 31 years in prison for “setting up and heading a bribery network". In a months-long trial hugely publicized by Iranian state media and described as “the mother of all corruption cases”, Tabari and associates had been accused of facilitating serious bribery corruption in the judiciary, going back years, and laundering the proceeds.
Barely a year and a half later on June 11, 2022, the Iranian Supreme Court sent back the verdict against Tabari for reconsideration. Though startling at first glance, the decision is part of a much pattern of dramatic reversals observed in Iran over the past 12 months. Quietly and with far less publicity than the original cases granted, the perpetrators of a string of high-profile financial crimes in Iran appear to be being let off the hook.
The Raisi Connection
The flood of surprise acquittals has come about almost entirely since the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi as president of Iran. Just one of the about-turns took place before then, in June 2022, at a time when Raisi’s win was already practically guaranteed.
Raisi had previously served as the Chief Justice of Iran from March 2019 to July 2021. During his tenure the Economic Crimes Special Court tried and convicted a vast array of banking officials and financiers, politicians and judges, in connection with alleged corruption and economic crimes.
The trials were covered extensively and prominently on state TV. Officials boasted that it proved the independence of the Iranian judiciary, and the equality of all under the rule of law in Iran. They also undermined the credibility of the Hassan Rouhani administration, on whose watch many of the embezzlements had taken place, and that of the outgoing chief justice, Sadegh Amoli Larijani.
In reality, though, many of those convicted either never saw the inside of a prison cell, were gifted with never-ending furloughs, or were treated as VIPs in prison, largely free to come and go as they pleased. And since Raisi’s win, many have either been acquitted outright or seen their cases placed under review, like Tabari.
The Original Case Against Tabari
Before the charges were brought against him in summer 2019, Akbar Tabari had held down a series of top judicial positions for more than two decades. He was director-general of financial affairs under Chief Justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, then director-general of executive affairs and finally deputy head of the judiciary under Sadegh Amoli Larijani.
When Ebrahim Raisi was made chief justice in 2019, he immediately fired Tabari. A few months later, Tabari and others were arrested by the IRGC. A 14-session trial ended in his being sentenced to 31 years in prison for “heading a bribery network” and “receiving numerous bribes”, 12 years for money laundering, and more than 15 years for various other offences. On March 16, 2021, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili announced that the Supreme Court had upheld the 31-year sentence. At the same time, it was announced that Tabari was a defendant in “other open cases”.
The sudden about-turn on June 11 this year was first reported by the newspaper Etemad. A day later, the Supreme Court’s information office clarified that the verdict against Tabari had not been overturned, but rather two of the most serious charges – the “bribery network” and forging documents – had been sent back to the lower court for review. If Tabari is acquitted of these charges, his sentence could be reduced by two thirds.
Since the court case wrapped up a year and a half ago, two of Tabari’s co-defendants have been acquitted entirely. In fact, they were never even summoned to prison. One was Jalil Sobhani, a seemingly untouchable Tehran businessman accused by prosecutors of “providing the means of bribery [both cash and an apartment] between Akbar Tabari and Rasoul Danialzadeh, and paying bribes to Akbar Tabari, as well as participating in the formation of a multi-member bribery network led by Akbar Tabari”. Sobhani was sentenced to two years in prison. But eight months later on May 11, 2021, his lawyer Parviz Sadeghi announced that he had already been acquitted by the Supreme Court.
Sobhani was also a defendant in a massive, multibillion-euro corruption case involving the Iran Petrochemical Commercial Company. But like dozens of others, his name was removed from the list of those charged ahead of the trial.
The other of Tabari’s co-defendants to walk free was Bijan Ghasemzadeh, a former judge at Branch 2 of the Culture and Media Court, who in 2017 had famously issued the order to block Telegram in Iran. He was arrested in September 2019 and appeared as the eighth defendant in the case, later sentenced to 10 years in prison, a fine and 74 lashes for “allowing individuals to affect judicial decisions” and “taking bribes”. He was also banned from government service for life.
In November 2021, then-judiciary spokesman Zabihollah Khodaeian announced that the Supreme Court had vacated Ghasemzadeh’s sentence and had sent it back to the lower court for review. It is understood to have since been overturned.
The List of Quiet Acquittals Goes On
Ali Divandari was formerly the CEO of Bank Mellat and Bank Parsian, and also head of the Central Bank’s Monetary and Banking Research Center. He was arrested on January 28, 2020 in connection with a $165 million fraud at the two banks. Later, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Economic Crimes Special Court for embezzlement and “disrupting the national economy”.
On August 11, 2020, Divandari was diagnosed with Covid-19 and taken to the clinic at Evin Prison. Two days later, he was transferred to a hospital off-site. After that, Divandari spent just eight days back in jail in late 2020, after which he was granted a furlough that has yet to end.
Then on May 30 of this year, Fars News Agency reported that Divandari had been cleared of the “disrupting the national economy” charge. In its verdict, the court stated that Divandari had been framed by Ehsan Sakhaei, an alleged “super-debtor” and son-in-law of Hassan Rouhani’s ex-intelligence minister, Mahmoud Alavi. Sakhaei was never indicted but the court now claimed he had used “ but the “illegal and illegitimate methods to escape the law and rob the treasury, [and] accused Ali Divandari so he could escape justice”.
There has been no indication as to whether a case against Sakhaei will now be pursued instead. He is reported to be living in Switzerland, but plenty of high-profile trials in absentia have taken place in Iran before. It is also not clear whether any of the seven other defendants in the Bank Mellat affair will now have their cases re-examined in light of Divandari’s acquittal.
But still more convicts from other corruption scandals have been allowed to walk free in the past six months. Back in August 2018, after major fluctuations in the currency market, a trader named Vahid Mazloumin, known as the “Sultan of Coins”, was arrested and later executed. Around the same time, Ahmad Araghchi, deputy governor of the Central Bank for currency affairs, was arrested and released on bail.
Araghchi was later tried for “undermining the currency market” alongside Valiollah Seif, a former governor of the bank, and currency trader Salar Aghakhani. Seif was sentenced to 10 years in October 2021, and Araghchi to eight, for enabling the illegal trading of some $159.8m and €20.5m in foreign currency, as well as mismanagement and negligence in their respective roles.
Exactly two months and one day later, both convictions were overturned by the Supreme Court. The court announced that all the defendants in the case had only been following the government’s currency policies at the time and, therefore, had not committed acts that could be legally considered crimes.
This reversal of direction was one of the strangest exhibited by the Supreme Court in a very strange year. Before the verdict was overturned, media outlets associated with the government and a number of individuals had delivered fiery tirades against the defendants, surmising that taking the ex-governor of the Central Bank to task, of all people, proved the judiciary’s independence.
Other High-Profile Acquittals
On February 24, 2019, Iranian media outlets reported that Mohammad Reza Khani, the former CEO of Bank Sarmayeh, had been arrested. He had joined Bank Sarmayeh on August 23, 2016 but been sacked on April 17, 2017, after barely seven months in the job. Later in May 2020, the judiciary reported that seven directors of Bank Sarmayeh had been convicted over a reported embezzlement at the bank, including Mohammad Reza Khani for “major disruption of the economy”. He now faced 20 years in prison, 74 lashes, a lifetime ban from government employment and a fine of €640,000.
Just over twelve months later on June 10, 2021, IranWire discovered that the Supreme Court had abruptly overturned Khani’s conviction earlier that year and he had since been released. As of now, the judiciary has not confirmed this publicly.
One last acquittal has been noteworthy in the past 12 months: that of Saeed Mortazavi, a notorious former Tehran prosecutor and the head of the Social Security Organization. He was disbarred from the judiciary in 2014 and later convicted of murder and corruption, in part linked to the deaths of three people in Kahrizak Detention Center after 2009 protests. Last August, Mortazavi was suddenly acquitted by the Supreme Court of the charge of “accessory to murder”. His lawyer told reporters the gesture was a symbolic one aimed at “restoring his good name”.
With Ebrahim Raisi now installed as president, the masquerade of “fighting corruption” appears to be over. Having served their intended political purpose, one by one the convicts are casting off their prison garb and being allowed to walk free once more.