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Why deceased Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was known as ‘The Butcher of Tehran’: An insight into the brutal past of a dictator

While the Iranian leader’s demise may have left a void in the country’s politics, with numerous mourning, a significant section of people also reported to have celebrated and lit fireworks after the death of the “Butcher of Tehran”.

The death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the 19th of May in a helicopter crash in northern Iran sparked an outpour of condolences on the one hand and celebrations on the other. The 63-year-old Islamist hardliner, also dubbed as the “Butcher of Tehran”, was seen as a potential successor to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, his death has added to the ongoing tumult in the Middle East. Last month, Iran, under his presidency, had launched unprecedented drone and missile strikes against Israel in what Iran called “retaliatory” action after Israel allegedly attacked the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria.

Notably, Ebrahim Raisi took over Iran’s presidency in 2021 after winning the presidential election receiving around 62% votes when the voter turnout was 48.8%,  the lowest ever for a presidential election. Raisi had also contested the 2017 presidential elections, however, he lost to Hassan Rouhani.

Following the death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in 2022, a crackdown on historical large rallies and the imposition of a stringent dress code for women tarnished Raisi’s presidency. Thousands of schoolgirls protested in the streets raising what became iconic, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom)” slogans, demanding an end to Iran’s mandatory hijab laws. This came after Amini was arrested and assaulted by the country’s “morality police” for not wearing the hijab resulting in her death. In a brutal crackdown on the anti-Hijab protests, more than 500 people were reported to have been killed under Raisi’s presidency.

The saga of Ebrahim Raisi’s crimes against humanity, however, goes back decades before the Mahsa Amini protests. Raisi received criticism for his brutality long before he was elected President, garnering the notorious moniker “Butcher of Tehran”.

Butcher of Tehran and the “Death Commissions” of Iran

In 2019, the US Treasury Department announced sanctions on Iran while mentioning Ebrahim Raisi’s involvement in a “death commission” that mandated thousands of political detainees be executed without trial. “Previously, as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran, Raisi participated in a so-called “death commission” that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988,” the US Treasury Department said.

Following in his father Seyyed Haji Rais Al-Sadati’s footsteps, Ebrahim Raisi studied under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the fields of theology and Islamic jurisprudence. He became a member of the clergy and took part in demonstrations against the Shah of Iran, which eventually resulted in the Shah’s overthrow.

The Islamic Revolution in 1979 marked the beginning of the Islamist hardliner Raisi’s career. At the age of 20, he was appointed prosecutor general for the provinces of Karaj and Hamadan. He is accused of having been a major player in the persecution of political opponents and minorities, particularly the Baha’is, who make up the largest religious minority in Iran. Numerous Baha’is were tormented and imprisoned, while many were executed on Raisi’s watch.

Iran consented to a ceasefire imposed by the UN in July 1988 to put an end to the eight-year conflict with Iraq. Soon after, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was then the supreme leader, issued a fatwa directing the execution of political prisoners who were already serving their sentences. They were brought before four-person inquisition panels—dubbed “Death Commission” by the prisoners—for questioning, and the sessions lasted just a few minutes. The targeted persons mostly included those associated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI).

Khominei’s Fatwa (Source: Amnesty International)

These inquisitions, which were set up across the Islamic Republic, were led by Islamic judges, prosecutors, and representatives of the intelligence services. Amnesty International reported that in a matter of minutes, the Death Commission rendered decisions regarding the fate of thousands of inmates through arbitrary trials. Reports say that over 5000 prisoners were executed at that time.

“In Tehran province, hundreds of men affiliated with leftist opposition groups were also executed. Their interrogations appeared more like a religious inquisition. They were asked: Are you a Muslim? Do you pray? Did your father pray and read the Qur’an? Those who identified as non-believers and said their fathers prayed were condemned to death for deserting Islam. Others were spared the death penalty but were ordered to be flogged until they agreed to pray,” the Amnesty report titled Blood Soaked Secrets reads.

Pictures of some prisoners summarily executed in Iran in 1988 (Image: Iran International)

The report says that women were also asked similar questions and the “incorrect” answers led to five lashes during each of the namaz performed in a day “until they agreed to pray regularly or die under torture.”

The hatred against “infidels” has been such that the Iranian security forces earlier this year barred the families of 1988 execution victims from visiting the graves of the political prisoners.

In June 2023, Hossein Mortazavi Zanjani, who was the head of Tehran’s notorious Evin prison in 1988, said that he was “ashamed” over the executions. “I’m ashamed, and…I want to express shame… They killed kids, they made families mournful,” he said.

Ebrahim Raisi and a continued legacy of human rights violations

In November 2019, amidst widespread protests over a sudden hike in fuel prices, Raisi oversaw a human rights crackdown while serving as the president of the Iranian judiciary. Raisi’s judiciary allowed security personnel and officials to kill hundreds of men, women, and children while torturing and secretly detaining thousands more. All of this occurred while he was in charge. Reports say that nearly 300 people were killed in the 2019 crackdown.

While the Iranian leader’s demise may have left a void in the country’s politics, with numerous mourning, a significant section of people also reported to have celebrated and lit fireworks after the death of the “Butcher of Tehran”.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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