Abolqasem Salavati: The Judge of Death

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Abolqasem Salavati is an Iranian judge infamous for violating the human rights of defendants and sentencing them to death or long prison terms on trumped-up charges. He is nicknamed “The Hanging Judge” and “The Judge of Death.”

Salavati is the chief judge of Branch 15 of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The Islamic Republic’s first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, created the Islamic Revolutionary Court system by decree during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 to eliminate real or imagined opponents of the new regime. The Courts reportedly condemned over 16,000 Iranians to death in the first ten years after the revolution. The tribunals operate as kangaroo courts, denying defendants due process and holding closed, sham trials where a conviction is de facto predetermined.

The Iranian regime has used the Revolutionary Courts to persecute political dissidents, activists, and journalists, as well as to punish real or purported smugglers and drug traffickers. The Courts, and Salavati in particular, have also tried, convicted, and imposed harsh sentences on Americans and other Westerners held hostage by the Iranian regime. Branch 15 of the Court in Tehran handles cases involving political prisoners, journalists, internet users, and members of ethnic- and religious-minority communities.

Salavati’s Background

Few details about Salavati’s background have been published. It is unknown whether he has a law degree or even if Abolqasem Salavati is his real name (according to Iran expert and academic Faraz Sanei, some Revolutionary Court judges use aliases). Rod Sanjabi, former executive director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, commented, “Even within that context [the Revolutionary Court], he has a reputation of being a hanging judge with no apparent legal knowledge.”

The NGO United for Iran claims that Salavati served in the Basij, a paramilitary force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), during the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq War and was wounded. In 1987, he joined Iran’s judicial police in Kurdistan province. He then became a prosecutor and judge in 1991 in Kurdistan’s provincial capital, Sanandaj.

Initial Prominent Cases

As a judge, Salavati first attained notoriety in 2006, when he presided over the trial of two Iranians accused of assassinating fellow judge Hassan Ahmadi Moghadas, a serial oppressor of political dissidents. Salavati sentenced the two, Majid Kavousifar and his nephew, Hossein Kavousifar, to death, and they were hanged the following year.

In 2009, Salavati was appointed to the Revolutionary Court, reportedly with the support of Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, then Iran’s attorney general and formerly intelligence minister. That same year, he oversaw the trial of four persons—Dr. Arash Alaei; his brother, Dr. Kamiar Alaei; Silva Harotonian; and Mohammad Ehsani—who ran programs for HIV/AIDS prevention. The four were accused and convicted of colluding with an enemy government (in this case, the United States) to overthrow the Iranian regime—even though such purported collusion consisted of publicly partnering with an American NGO and participating in a medical conference run by the Aspen Institute think-tank and funded in part by the U.S. State Department.

Salavati, as he often does, cited as evidence a report from the intelligence ministry and “confessions” repudiated by the defendants. He sentenced Arash Alaei to six years in prison and the others to three years each.

2009 Election-Protests Trials

Salavati became famous by presiding over the public show trials of demonstrators who took to the streets after Iran’s 2009 presidential election to protest incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dubious victory. The defendants included not only grassroots-level protesters but also former government officials like former vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, former deputy speaker of the Majlis Behzad Nabavi, and former government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh. Salavati handed out lengthy prison sentences to over a hundred demonstrators and condemned at least six to death.

Methods

Salavati has trampled on defendants’ rights in myriad ways. In many of his cases, the accused are jailed in hellholes like Evin Prison for months or years without being charged. While in detention, defendants are often subjected to physical and psychological torture, including beatings and tasings; threats of being killed or of family members being arrested or killed; threats of being injected with hallucinogenic drugs; and extended solitary confinement. They may be denied medical treatment for serious illnesses, including cancer, severe heart conditions, and cataracts. Family visits or phone calls are frequently not permitted. Salavati reportedly even threatened to execute journalist Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American hostage, before Rezaian’s trial.

Not only has Salavati not intervened to prevent or end such abuses, but he has also guaranteed that they will happen by routinely denying bail to defendants or deliberately setting it too high for them to pay. Iranian-American hostages Karan Vafadari and Afarin Niasari, for example, sought to be released pending their appeal, but Salavati imposed bail equivalent to $13.5 million for each of them. When Vafadari’s family tried to post bail for Niasari, the judge reportedly refused, saying, “If I wanted her free, I wouldn’t have set [the bail] so high.”

Salavati also deprives defendants of due process before their trials. He frequently denies the accused access to their chosen attorneys or to any legal counsel, and has even sat in on meetings between defendants and their lawyers. Often, defendants are not told of the charges against them and the purported evidence of their crimes until trial or shortly beforehand. For example, Salavati refused to provide any evidence of wrongdoing to attorneys for imprisoned Iranian-British-American environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and his colleagues before trial and did not allow the accused to see the full indictments and evidence before they were convicted and sentenced. Some defendants also have not been provided with translators.

At trials Salavati presides over, the fix is in against defendants and he doesn’t try to hide it. On the first day of the trial of Iranian-Swedish doctor Ahmadreza Djalali, according to Djalali, Salavati read him the indictment and said, “Your sentence is death and it won’t change at the end of the trial.”

The trials frequently take place behind closed doors and run as short as a few hours. Salavati acts as judge, prosecutor, and jury. Sometimes few or no witnesses or pieces of evidence are produced against the defendants. Salavati unquestioningly relies on reports from Iran’s intelligence ministry. He also accepts coerced “confessions” later repudiated by the accused.

Finally, after such trials, and despite the absence of substantiating witnesses or evidence, Salavati frequently sentences defendants to death or long prison terms. Adding insult to injury, some defendants, such as Iranian-British hostage Aras Amiri, have only learned of their convictions and sentences, and of new charges against them, while watching television in prison.

In short, Salavati is not a judge, regardless of his job title. As U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said, “He’s a tool of the regime’s oppression, not an impartial friend of justice.”

Sanctions Incurred

The European Union and the United States have sanctioned Salavati for human rights abuses.

The European Council designated Salavati on April 12, 2011, under Council Decision 2011/235/CFSP, which enacted sanctions against “persons responsible for serious human rights violations in Iran.” Pursuant to that designation, any assets of Salavati’s in EU member states’ jurisdictions must be frozen, and “no funds or economic resources” may be provided to him.

The U.S. only imposed sanctions on Salavati on December 19, 2019, more than eight-and-a-half years after the EU acted. The Treasury Department designated him under Executive Order 13846, freezing any property or property interests of his under U.S. jurisdiction, prohibiting U.S. persons from conducting any transactions with him. The designation also threatens foreign financial institutions that “knowingly facilitate significant transactions for” or foreign persons that “provide material or certain other support to” Salavati with their assets being frozen and with being cut off from the U.S. financial system.

Human Rights Abuses by the Numbers

According to the Iran Prison Atlas of the NGO United for Iran, as of September 15, 2020, Salavati has issued 25 death sentences and sentenced 250 defendants to a combined 1,277 years in prison and 540 lashes. Among other human rights abuses, at least 229 defendants in his cases have been denied access to legal counsel, no fewer than 166 have been put in extended solitary confinement, at least 104 have not been allowed family visits or telephone calls, and no fewer than 46 have been subject to psychological and physical torture.

Hostages

Salavati has been assigned to judge numerous cases of Americans and other Westerners held hostage and used as bargaining chips by the Iranian regime. Salavati has sentenced hostages to death or long prison terms in cases with few or no witnesses or pieces of evidence and where the justice system has denied the defendants’ rights at every turn. These hostages include:

First Name Last Name Nationality Profession Sentence Year Sentenced Status
Amiri Aras Iranian-British U.K. government employee 10 years in prison 2019 Imprisoned
Bauer Shane American Journalist Eight years in prison 2011 Released in 2011 after payment of $500,000 by Sultan of Oman
Djalali Ahmadreza Iranian-Swede Scientist and academic Death 2017 Imprisoned impending execution
Fattal Josh American Student / nonprofit manager Eight years in prison 2011 Released in 2011 after payment of $500,000 by Sultan of Oman
Foroughi Kamal Iranian-British Energy consultant Eight years in prison 2013 Released in 2018, but only allowed to leave Iran in 2020
Hassanpour Sabri Iranian-Dutch Anti-Iranian regime activist N/A N/A Releaesd in 2018
Hekmati Amir Iranian-American Translator and culture/language expert Death, but later resentenced to ten years in prison Initially sentenced in 2012 and resentenced in 2013 Released in 2016 through prisoner swap
Namazi Baquer Iranian-American Former Iranian and U.N. official 10 years in prison 2016 Furloughed for health reasons
Namazi Siamak Iranian-American Businessman and consultant 10 years in prison 2016 Imprisoned
Niasari Afrin Iranian-American Co-owner of art gallery with wife and fellow hostage Karan Vafadari 16 years in prison 2018 Released on bail pending appeal
Rezaian Jason Iranian-American Journalist Undisclosed prison term 2016 Released in 2016 through prisoner swap
Shourd Sarah American Educator N/A (released before trial) 2010 Released in 2010 after payment of $500,000 by Sultan of Oman
Tahbaz Morad Iranian-American-British Environmentalist 10 years in prison 2019 Imprisoned
Vafadari Karan Iranian-American Co-owner of art gallery with wife and fellow hostage Afarin Niasari For one set of charges: 27 years in prison, 124 lashes, a $243, 000 fine, and confiscation of his assets; for another charge set: 18 months in prison, 64 lashes, and a $38,000 fine; for a third set: three years in prison, and a $162,000 fine; and for a fourth set, 15 years in prison 2018 Released on bail pending appeal
Wang Xiyue Chinese-American Graduate student 10 years in prison 2017 Released in 2019 through prisoner swap
Zaghari-Ratcliffe Nazanin Iranian-British Nonprofit manager Five years in prison 2016 Furloughed for health reasons but is being tried on new charges
Zakka Nizar Lebanese-American Information and communication 10 years in prison and a $4.2 million fine 2016 Released in 2019
Zam Ruhollah Iranian citizen and French asylee Media anti-Iranian regime activist Death, as well as life in prison for undisclosed charges 2020 Imprisoned pending execution