The West Should Sanction Iran’s New Supreme Court Chief, Top Prosecutor for Rights Abuses

On August 6, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri was named the new head of Iran’s Supreme Court.  Montazeri, formerly Iran’s attorney general, has been sanctioned by the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada for his role in violating the human rights of Iranians. However, the European Union has yet to follow suit. The EU should do so immediately, and all of the above governments should also sanction Montazeri’s successor as attorney general, former judge Mohammad Movahedi Azad. Targeting those two would signal to the Iranian people that the West remains committed to holding Tehran accountable for human rights abuses.

Montazeri richly deserves international sanctions. On his watch as attorney general, the use of the death penalty has skyrocketed, including a 75 percent increase in 2022 alone. Forty-four percent of those executed were convicted of nonviolent, drug-related crimes. As British Foreign Minister James Cleverly stated on January 14, 2023, “Montazeri is at the heart of Iran’s barbaric use of the death penalty for political ends.”

Montazeri has also overseen politically motivated prosecutions, including those of Iranians detained in the past year’s protests against the regime in Tehran. Last September, he directed courts to act “decisively” and impose heavy sentences on protesters, who, on Montazeri’s watch, have been subjected to bogus trials, some of which have used evidence extracted under torture.

For example, Saleh Mirhashemi, Majid Kazemi and Saeed Yaqoubi were executed on May 19, 2023, for “enmity against God” due to their purported role in the deaths of three security forces agents during the ongoing protests. According to Amnesty International, the regime tortured the three men into “confessing.” Kazemi reportedly was held upside down and shown a video of his brother being tortured. The authorities also reportedly put Kazemi through at least 15 mock executions “by standing him on a chair and putting a rope around his neck, only to pull him down at the last moment.” Shortly before his trial, the regime also threatened to kill Kazemi’s brothers if he did not confess and go along with the charges against him. Before Kazemi’s execution, he stated in an audio message from prison that “I swear to God I am innocent. I didn’t have any weapons on me. They [security forces] kept beating me and ordering me to say this weapon is mine… I told them I would say whatever they wanted, just please leave my family alone. I did whatever they wanted because of the torture.”  

That is only one example of Iran’s brutal “justice” system under Montazeri. Indeed, Montazeri’s main complaint about that system is that it isn’t harsh enough. He expressed regret in 2019 that “divine punishments” such as stonings, amputations, and floggings were imposed less frequently due to the regime’s fear of criticism by international organizations.

Montazeri’s successor as attorney general, Movahedi Azad, should likewise be sanctioned. He has previously headed branches of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts, which try and hand out punishment in political cases. As an appeals court judge, he upheld prison sentences against peaceful protesters and members of Iran’s viciously persecuted Baha’i religious minority. As attorney general, Movahedi Azad now will play a leading role in oppressing innocent Iranians. The West should not delay in designating him for human rights abuses.

Going back to Montazeri, the EU’s inaction regarding him reflects the broader failure of Western governments to synchronize their human rights sanctions designations. For example, 146 targets sanctioned by the U.S. have yet to be sanctioned by the EU. Likewise, 153 persons or entities have been designated by the EU but not by the U.S. Those numbers should be zero. It is past time for Washington and Brussels to fill in these gaps, end impunity for abusers like Montazeri, and sanction his successor.