Iran president 'has blood on his hands': Ebrahim Raisi and Iran's prison massacres

First the guards canceled family visits. Then they confiscated the prisoners’ radios. Then came the tribunals.

Within weeks, 10,000 Iranian dissidents were dead.

Sitting in judgment at some of these hastily called “death commissions” was a deputy prosecutor named Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line cleric who in 2021 was elected president of Iran. Raisi, 63, was killed Sunday when his helicopter slammed into a snowy mountainside near the Azerbaijan border.

While the Iranian presidency is considered a relatively weak post when compared to the powers invested in the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, there was a time in the late 1980s when Raisi had direct power over life and death.

He didn’t flinch.

“He definitely has blood on his hands,” said Mohamad Bazzi, director of the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.

As Iran comes to grips with the deaths of Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, the president’s demise highlights the pervasive control of hard-line clerical rulers – and the lingering wounds of Iran’s Islamic revolution.

More: Iran President Ebrahim Raisi dies in helicopter crash; US offers condolences

New election, same old clerics

Now that Raisi is confirmed dead, the Iranian Constitution calls for new elections within 50 days. But the outcome won’t matter in a theocratic democracy where candidates for office have to be cleared by the religious establishment, said Afshon Ostovar, an associate professor of national security studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

“Somebody else who the people don’t like, who the regime does like, will be elected,” Ostovar said.

Experts say the airtight dominance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards guarantees that Raisi’s passing won’t bring Iranians any closer to justice for the decades of human rights abuses they’ve endured – including the 1988 prison massacres.

More: Iran launches dozens of drones at Israel, one injured in attack

Revolution, war and mass graves

That summer, Iran was nearing the end of a ruinous eight-year war launched by its neighbor Iraq.

The prisons were packed with young leftists who’d been convicted for having links to an Iraq-based rebel group, the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, or Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. In July 1988, after the group launched an attack on Iran from its base in Iraq, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding cleric, called for all PMOI prisoners to face special tribunals.

Iranians pray for President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Valiasr Square in central Tehran on May 19, 2024. A helicopter in the convoy Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian was involved in "an accident" in East Azerbaijan province in poor weather conditions on May 19, state television reported. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images) ORIG FILE ID: 2153220026

In a secret fatwa, Khomeni ordered officials to “annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately.”

“Suddenly there was word of fly-by-night, hastily conducted panels that lasted seconds, minutes, condemning these people to death,” said Elise Auerbach, an Iran expert at Amnesty International. Analysts believe around 10,000 people were executed in a matter of weeks in prisons across the country, their bodies hidden in unmarked mass graves.

Related: Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi dies in Vietnam-era Bell 212 helicopter crash on mountain

Raisi: A 'proud' achievement

Raisi, working in Tehran, “was certainly one of the people responsible for ordering those executions,” Auerbach said.

The killings were so extreme that Khomeini’s deputy and preferred heir, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, objected, saying the victims had already been legally convicted and sentenced. It made a mockery of the law, Montazeri argued, to impose the death sentence on people who were already serving their time and had committed no new crimes.

Raisi called the killings “one of the proud achievements” of Iran’s government, according to an Amnesty International report. He went on to serve as prosecutor general in Tehran and later as the top prosecutor in the country. More than three decades later, Iran still has not officially acknowledged the massacres, and families of the victims are forbidden to publicly mourn or commemorate their deaths.

In 1989, Montazeri released documents and a secret recording proving Khomeini’s role in the long-denied massacres. He was placed under house arrest. When Khomeini died in 1989, a lower-ranking cleric, Ali Khamenei, was named supreme leader.

Remembered for a 'bloodbath'

Khamenei is now 85, and the question of who might replace him has been complicated by Sunday's crash.

“Raisi headed the list of potential successors,” Bazzi said. “Though it’s a little like papal succession, where the front-runner going in isn’t necessarily the front-runner at the end of the process.”

While Raisi’s presidency was marked by the violent suppression of women’s rights demonstrators, economic turmoil, and spiking conflict with the U.S. and Israel, he’ll probably be  best remembered for one thing, Ostovar said: “This bloodbath of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq War.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sentenced political prisoners to die