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Special Features

'May the Mavericks Cut My Head Off': The Lawyer Who Took On Khamenei

November 2, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi
8 min read
Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi, an ex-MP, lawyer and university professor, was arrested in 2003 and brutally beaten in Evin Prison over a critical letter sent to Ayatollah Khamenei
Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi, an ex-MP, lawyer and university professor, was arrested in 2003 and brutally beaten in Evin Prison over a critical letter sent to Ayatollah Khamenei
"It was my sense of honor that did not allow me to remain silent in the face of your insults"
"It was my sense of honor that did not allow me to remain silent in the face of your insults"

Recently we covered the stories of Ali Akbar Saeedi Sinjani and Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, two firebrand intellectuals who paid a terrible price for writing scathing letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. To this growing list of condemned correspondents can be added the name of Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi: a former MP, no less, who was initially jailed over a single letter he sent to Iran’s criticism-averse head of state.


Sholeh-Saadi was something of a prodigy. He studied law in Iran and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he went to France with his family to continue his education. He received his PhD in political science from the University of Paris. Then in 1981 he received a permit to practice as an attorney-at-law and founded the Iranian Office of International Law Services in Europe. At the same time, he was also made deputy head of Iran’s international law office in the Hague, where the International Court of Justice is based.

From 1988 to 1996 Sholeh-Saadi served as a member of parliament for Shiraz. After these two terms, however, the Guardian Council disqualified him as a candidate in the 5th parliamentary elections of the Islamic Republic, and in every subsequent round.

Then in 2002, Sholeh-Saadi wrote a disgruntled open letter to the Supreme Leader in which he told Khamenei he was “unqualified for leadership”, claiming his foreign and domestic policies ran contrary to Iran’s national interests.

In the same letter, he also addressed Khamenei as “Hojatoleslam”: an honorific title for Shia clergy members, but one lower than “Ayatollah”, the rank Khamenei had been at pains to secure for himself since taking office. Sholeh-Saadi held that Khamenei was not a religious authority and had accepted his position as the Supreme Leader in violation of the Iranian constitution.

Khamenei had previously called advocates of bilateral talks with United States “dishonorable”, “idiots”, “intimidated” and “ignorant” of the fundamentals of politics. In response to these characterizations, Sholeh-Saadi wrote in his letter: “As far as I’m concerned, not only I have worked in politics for more than 30 years but I also hold the highest academic qualification in politics, and this should be enough for me to understand the basics. As far as my honor is concerned, my whole being is filled with a sense of honor... It was my sense of honor that did not allow me to remain silent in the face of your insults, even though I anticipate serious danger to me if these lines displease you, in which case the mavericks [in the Intelligence Ministry] may cut my head off.”

“You Have Lost the Trust of the Iranian People”

In the same letter, Sholeh-Saadi reminded Khamenei that a recent survey had shown just six percent of Iranians claimed to support him and his office, while the other 94 percent wanted to see fundamental change. “If it is true that Your Excellency has lost the trust of the Iranian people, at least after May 23, 1997 [the date of the presidential election won by the reformist Mohammad Khatami], isn’t the continuation of your rule contrary to how Imam Ali [the first Shia Imam] lived his life?” He also harshly criticized Khamenei’s interference in the legislative process and ongoing opposition to the reformist movement.

Earlier that year, in May 2002, Jihad Ahmed Jibril, son of the militant Palestinian leader Ahmed Jibril, had been killed by a car bomb.Ayatollah Khamenei offered his condolences to his father. In reference to this, Sholeh-Saadi asked: “Is it too much to ask for your condolences to the families of the martyrs of the chain murders [a well-documented series of 1988–98 murders and disappearances of intellectuals and artists between 1988 and 1998] carried out by maverick circles who are, in any case, members of official Islamic Republic institutions, which are ultimately your responsibility?”

Doubling Down

Sholeh-Saadi had received a residency permit from France several years before, and regularly visited Paris. In late 2002, the day after his letter was published, he flew back to the French capital. In a subsequent interview, he defended his comments, saying that in his view one of the reasons that modern Iran had reached an “impasse” was the performance of the Supreme Leader. The Islamic Republic could have prospered, he said, but with Khamenei at the helm, the reformists had been left “inept”.

Sometime after Sholeh-Saadi’s arrival in Paris, he received a call from the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Officials invited him to a meeting with a representative of the Intelligence Ministry and two others who had arrived in France from Tehran.

In Sholeh-Saadi’s own subsequent telling, one of the participants a person by the name of Mokhtar, an Iraqi Shia, who in the 1980s had often attended gatherings of the Iranian Islamic Society in Paris. What surprised him more than anything else was that Mokhtar was now an Iranian Intelligence Ministry official who had apparently been dispatched to Paris to meet with him personally. Sholeh-Saadi told those present that he would be returning to Iran, but would not be taking back his words.

On February 24, 2003, Sholeh-Saadi was duly arrested on arrival at Tehran airport. After a few hours of being transported around Tehran, he was taken to a police detention center and then transferred to Evin Prison’s Ward 209 the next day. He was held on this ward for two weeks, then transferred to Ward 2A – now Ward 325 – which is run by the Revolutionary Guards.

During the drive to the detention center, Sholeh-Saadi later said, one of the agents told him they needed to blindfold him, but didn’t have a blindfold with them. Instead, they threw a jacket over his head and pushed him down so hard that his spinal column was injured. Later, when he was allowed to call his wife and let her know on the call that he was on Ward 325, one of the agents was so incensed that he cut off the phone. On the way back to his cell, they kicked him in the back so hard that he fell to the ground. Later he was also beaten up in the prison yard.

Sholeh-Saadi’s neck and back have been damaged ever since, and he has lost the feeling in his left arm. Doctors at the prison clinic consulted X-Rays and warned him that he might even end up paralyzed. Nevertheless, the interrogations continued; at one stage, he was held upright by two guards in order to get into the interrogation room.

The ex-MP was released in April, after 36 days in custody. But the case against him progressed and in the end, he was sentenced by Tehran Revolutionary Court to a year and a half in prison on charges of “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “propaganda against the regime”.

Two More Years for “Insulting the Supreme Leader”

With his prison sentence completed, Sholeh-Saadi returned to France and continued to work as a lawyer and professor. But in the spring of 2011 he came back to Iran, whereupon he was arrested again and taken to Evin Prison on fresh charges of “insulting the Supreme Leader”. This time he was issued with a two-year custodial sentence by Judge Mohammad Moghiseh of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court.

Sholeh-Saadi tried to declare his candidacy in two presidential elections. The first was in 2009, prior to his re-arrest, and the second was in 2013, while he was still in prison. The Guardian Council disqualified him both times, prompting him to write another letter of complaint to Khamenei in which he said the Guardian Council “seems to have no mission but to reject capable and qualified people, and to approve those who have been rejected by the people – or, at best, those who have been accused of deviancy, treason, lack of judgement and sedition.”

In January 2018, a 19-minute video of a 1987 session of the Assembly of Experts was posted online. It showed then-Assembly members deliberating on who would be the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and in turn raised questions about Khamenei’s legitimacy as Supreme Leader.

After the video made the news, Sholeh-Saadi published an indictment against the Supreme Leader, writing: “Even if the accused were the lawful and legitimate ruler, he would still be responsible for the tragic situation in Iran. The country has come to this disastrous state of affairs as a result of policies that were devised by him, and carried out under his supervision.”

He was then arrested again on August 18, 2018 after holding a protest in front of the parliament building in Tehran. He was released on bail in late autumn that year, but several cases against him are still open.

A few years ago Sholeh-Saadi launched a movement called the Third Way. Undeterred by the threat of more jail time, he and his organization have published more than 30  statements in support of regime change in Iran, some addressed to Khamenei personally. One of them called the Supreme Leader “Engineer Khamenei”: a reference to electoral engineering in Iran, seemingly carried out with Khamenei's blessing.


Related coverage:

The Journalist Jailed for 13 Years for Furious Letters to Khamenei

Poisoned Letters: The Firebrand Killed in Prison for Writing to Khamenei

Iranian Lawyers, Activists Discuss Suing the Supreme Leader

Imprisoned Lawyers: Why We Planned to Sue the Supreme Leader

Khamenei’s War on Democracy and Civil Society

The Overnight Ayatollah: Khamenei's Fight to Become a Spiritual Leader

Why is Khamenei Still Trying to Prove his Legitimacy as Leader?

Weekly Khamenei Report: A Spider Caught in its Own Web

Weekly Khamenei Report: Against Freedom of Expression, For Holocaust Denial

Weekly Khamenei Report: Love for Vigilantes and Hatred of Peace with Israel

People Have Left the Reformists Behind: An Interview with Ghasem Sholeh-Saadi



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