Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi, aka the Butcher of Tehran, could finally face justice after deciding to go to US for UN General Assembly meeting – Struan Stevenson

Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, who arrived in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, is known as the “Butcher of Tehran” for good reason.

People step on a poster of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as they protest outside the United Nations building in New York City (Picture: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
People step on a poster of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as they protest outside the United Nations building in New York City (Picture: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

He has a history soaked in blood. Raisi is on the US sanctions list for serial human rights violations. He is a murderer and perpetrator of genocide, who has openly boasted of his role as a member of the ‘death commission’ which oversaw the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988, most of whom were members or supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) democratic opposition movement.

According to eye-witness survivors, Raisi often supervised the torture of men and women and then personally attended their execution. Since he became president in August 2021, he has enhanced his reputation as an executioner, presiding over 582 executions, including 22 women and eight juvenile offenders, double the number of executions of the previous year. Sixty-seven people have been executed in the past three weeks alone.

Agnès Callamard, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, has called for Raisi to be investigated for crimes against humanity and for his involvement in murder, enforced disappearance and torture.

And Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement: “As head of Iran’s repressive judiciary, Raisi oversaw some of the most heinous crimes in Iran’s recent history, which deserve investigation and accountability rather than election to high office."

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Raisi was head of the Iranian regime’s judiciary when orders were given to shoot dead protesters during a nationwide uprising in November 2019. More than 1,500 people were killed and thousands injured.

Many of the injured were dragged from their hospital beds by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), then imprisoned and tortured. Several were subsequently executed on Raisi’s orders.

Raisi was placed on the US Treasury blacklist in November 2019, for these and other serial human rights violations and, in 2021, the State Department imposed immigration restrictions on him, based on a finding that he was a senior Iranian official involved in the commission of serious human rights abuses.

However, the Butcher of Tehran is now strutting around the UN General Assembly in New York, ignoring US sanctions and holding meetings with other despots and dictators. How can he be held accountable for his crimes?

When Raisi declared his intention to attend the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow last November, survivors of the 1988 massacre and relatives of some of the victims lodged a 110-page dossier of evidence with both the Metropolitan Police in London and Police Scotland, calling for his arrest for crimes against humanity and genocide under universal jurisdiction, the legal principle that enables states or even international organisations to claim criminal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the alleged crimes were committed and regardless of the person’s nationality.

Raisi hurriedly changed his travel plans and stated that he had never intended coming to Glasgow in the first place.

Universal jurisdiction is not established under the American justice system, but in late August, several individual political prisoners who survived the 1988 massacre and the families of loved ones who were murdered submitted a formal complaint to the United States court for the southern district of New York, under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act against Raisi, for crimes against humanity and genocide.

The plaintiffs’ case outlined how a fatwa (a religious edict) issued by Iran’s then supreme leader – Ruhollah Khomeini, in the summer of 1988, resulted in some 30,000 political prisoners, being hanged, and others tortured.

‘Death Commissions’ established by the clerical regime across the country to carry out the fatwa, decided which prisoners would live and which would be executed, after interrogations lasting only minutes.

Serving as deputy prosecutor, Raisi was a member of the Death Commission in Evin Prison in Tehran and Gohardasht Prison in the city of Karaj, west of the capital. He was personally responsible for sending thousands of MEK prisoners to the gallows.

Raisi will be in New York until the UN General Assembly ends on Monday. During this period, he can be formally served with the complaint lodged with the federal court in Manhattan.

He cannot claim diplomatic immunity as a head of state because, under the Iranian constitution, the head of state is the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Raisi is not a diplomat and is not eligible for the privileges extended to diplomats under the Vienna Convention. Nor can diplomatic immunity be used as a guarantee of diplomatic impunity, as a recent case in Belgium clearly demonstrated. Assadollah Assadi, an Iranian diplomat from the regime’s embassy in Vienna, was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for his central role in a terrorist plot to bomb an Iranian opposition rally in Paris in June 2018.

The plaintiffs in the civil case in New York are citizens of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Switzerland. They allege that Raisi was personally responsible for committing several offenses under international law, including torture, extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity and genocide and he is therefore personally liable to his victims and their survivors.

On August 28, Jesse M Furman, a judge of the Southern District of New York, where the complaint was filed, set November 15, 2022, for the pretrial hearing on the complaints against Raisi and, according to the court procedure in civil cases, ordered the lawyers of all the parties to participate in the conference on that date. It will be an historic occasion, as Raisi’s crimes will be heard in a court of justice for the first time.

Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.

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