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Society & Culture

The Butcher of the Press is Disbarred

December 3, 2014
8 min read
The Butcher of the Press is Disbarred

The Supreme Court disbarred Saeed Mortazavi, Iran’s so-called “Butcher of the Press,” on November 14, 2014. Although the hardline prosecutor, who was implicated in the deaths of at least four people while in prison, was also exempt from holding any government position for five years, journalists, human rights advocates and activists say justice has not been served.

Tehran’s prosecutor-general from 2003 to 2009 and former head of the Social Security Organization, Mortazavi was implicated in the deaths of at least three detainees at Kahrizak Detention Center in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, and in the death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in custody in 2003 after being beaten.

His trial was held behind closed doors and the exact charges were not made public. Human rights activists, the families of this victims and surviving victims have all dismissed the verdict, saying it is meaningless and that justice has not been served. “This can't be considered a positive sign for justice," said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. “These cases, unfortunately, never lead to justice. At the most, [the trial] serves to settle political disputes."

Ebadi and others have hinted that he has been punished for “being in the wrong camp” and not forging the necessary political alliances, not for ordering or allowing the murder of prisoners, repeatedly violating human rights or for any other illegal act.

His zeal for crushing free speech was evident early on in his career, and he developed a reputation for brutality over the course of his tenure. In 2004 Mortazavi ordered the arrest of more than 20 journalists and bloggers in what became known as the “Bloggers and Websites Case”. Detainees were kept at the secret detention center operated by the Intelligence Ministry. They were threatened, tortured, insulted and forced to confess.

After their release, some of the journalists spoke out about their treatment, including Fereshteh Ghazi, Omid Memarian and Shahram Rafizadeh. They reported that their confessions had been obtained by force. Several of them met with the then Judiciary Chief, Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, as well as with the Board of Constitutional Supervision, and gave their account of the ordeal. Though Shahroudi, President Khatami and his vice presidents expressed sympathy and apologized to the journalists, ordering Mortazavi off their cases, no steps were taken to punish the Tehran prosecutor or to remove him from a position of power.

Fereshteh Ghazi, Omid Memarian, Rouzbeh Ebrahimi and Shahram Rafizadeh all currently live outside Iran, where they continue to work as journalists. Their memory of prison life remains clear. And they remember Saeed Mortazavi.


Keeping Up Appearances

“I met with Mortazavi a few times in his office,” says Memarian. “He tried hard to keep up legal appearances; he talked in legalese. But it was not like that at all. We knew very well that in every step of the interrogation, the interrogators received their orders from him. For example, they said things like “the ‘chief’ wants this or does not want that.”

For three consecutive days, Mortazavi summoned journalists Rafizadeh, Memarian and Ebrahimi to his office. On the third day, he demanded that they confess on television.

“We could not believe that Mortazavi had ordered in the TV cameras and we had to confess in front of them,” says Rafizadeh. “He gave each of us a role to play and told me that I had written my books under the influence of the reformists.”

“I had decided to take everything upon myself and not name anybody else,” Memarian remembers. “But Mortazavi wrote a list of names down on a piece of paper and told me I had to include them in the text I was going to read out. I told him I had never met some of these people. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. When you name them, one after another will know what to expect’.”

Before her arrest, Fereshteh Ghazi had attended the Press Court many times as a reporter. She had seen Mortazavi at close range. She knew he was there. “I was blindfolded but I was familiar with Mortazavi’s voice and his expressions,” she says. “I was sure it was him.”

After Ghazi spoke publicly about her treatment following her release, she was summoned to the Court of Administrative Justice. “I went there with my lawyer, Mohammad Seifzadeh. As we approached, we were told that lawyers could not come in. The inspector was a Mr. Hosseini, who told me: ‘you have gone around and said that you have been tortured and humiliated. You must deny it all.’ I refused. [The journalists Issa] Saharkhiz and [Mashallah] Shamsolvaezin had conducted interviews with me about what I had gone through and Mohammad-Ali Abtahi [vice president for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs at the time] wrote about it in his blog. The inspector wanted me to deny what they had written about me but I refused.”

The inspector answered a phone call and then told Ghazi to go downstairs to see Mortazavi. When she did, he told her: “You made a mistake when you gave interviews and libeled our interrogators,” even though Ghazi had talked about the interrogation process in the presence of her lawyer. “You have two choices. Either you deny the accusations and file a complaint against them [the journalists] or we will charge you.”

Ghazi also met with Mortazavi to complain about her interrogator after he had insulted her and broken her nose. “He stood up, pulled his waistband up and said: ‘Insults are just hot air. But go to the forensic doctor for your nose.’ I said that I would go and  that I had the required documents. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You will go right now; our man will take you.’ My lawyer was present. Mortazavi called Dr. Sheikh-Azadi, then director-general of the Legal Medicine Organization in western Tehran.” He then said that Ghazi had had a nose job, but was trying to claim it was broken in prison.

Ghazi’s lawyer objected and accused Mortazavi of influencing what the official said regarding Ghazi’s condition. “You are telling him what to say. You are telling him what to write. I am not going to forensics with my client.” But, according to Ghazi, Mortazavi said, “No. Either she goes to the doctor now or she is under arrest.”

The journalists were summoned to a series of meetings — which often featured threats. Finally, they met with the chief of the judiciary, Ayatollah Shahroudi. After talking with Shahroudi, Memarian says, “it became clear to me that although Mortazavi was way lower in the hierarchy than Shahroudi, he couldn’t care less about what Shahroudi said. Judiciary officials had no say in what he did. He had a lot of sway in his office, much more than a regular prosecutor. Later, through high officials in the judiciary who pursued our case, I learned that Mortazavi took his orders directly from Khamenei’s circle.”

During interrogations, the journalists were accused of immoral behavior and were threatened with rape or told something would happen to their relatives. Mortazavi was always involved, in some way or another. “In one of the meetings, Mortazavi threw my lawyer out of the room,” say Fereshteh Ghazi. “He stepped very close to me, so much so that when he talked I could feel his breath on me. With a smirk he told me that none of the threats were jokes and they could very well happen.”

“What was interesting was that Mortazavi trampled the law very transparently and nobody objected,” says Rafizadeh. “It is so sad that somebody who has committed so many crimes has been a prosecutor, has decided the fate of hundreds of journalists and tens of newspapers and has harassed and hurt journalists and civil activists.”


Order by Intimidation

Memarian believes that Mortazavi’s ideology is similar to that of Saeed Emami, a Deputy Intelligence Minister who was accused of being involved in the assassination of more than 80 dissidents, artists and writers from 1988 to 1998, a terror campaign that came to be known as the “chain murders”. Mortazavi, Memarian says, is “a representative of an extra-judicial relationship among the system’s institutions that want to achieve order in society by intimidation, arrests and imprisonments.” 

He believes that Mortazavi was condemned because the father of Mohsen Rouhalamini, one of the murdered prisoners at Kahrizak Detention Center, has influence in the security apparatus. “The way Mortazavi has been punished is actually a reward because it does not cover the whole range of what he has been involved with,” says Memarian. “Anywhere in the world if a judge is removed for violating the law, all his cases come under review. But not in the case of Mortazavi — because his verdict resulted from a quarrel within a group.”

The verdict against Mortazavi is pathetic, says Shahram Rafizadeh. “It is sad that the regime has reached such a dead end that it cannot punish its own agent who has gone astray and has violated the law. It is a great dishonor.”

A day after the high court upheld Mortazavi’s conviction, Fereshteh Ghazi contacted him to hear his side of story. He remembered his former prisoner. He told her, “You were my own accused. Think a little about yourself: you fell into the trap of foreigners and see where it got you. We live and work here under the Islamic Republic and if we think something illegal has been done, we follow the law. Why are you worried? What are you concerned about?”


Read “My Sex-Mad Interrogator”, an interview with Fereshteh Ghazi, on IranWire.


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