The Impact of late President Ebrahim Raisi’s Death on Human Rights and Accountability in Iran

00:21 - 31 May 2024

Today on Thursday, May 30th, a number of members of the UN General Assembly expressed their condolences to late President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in an helicopter accident on May 19th. The tribute took place in the UN Assembly Hall in New York, the same room that recently saw the adoption of a resolution condemning Iranian authorities for grave human rights violations.

A number of senior UN officials and State representatives delivered statements. Many remained silent; some were absent. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres extended his condolences and assured “that the United Nations stands in solidarity with the Iranian people in the quest for peace, development and fundamental freedoms.”

For the past couple of weeks, the international media has been abuzz with extensive coverage of President Ebrahim Raisi’s sudden death, analyzing the ramifications for regional stability and geopolitical dynamics. The following analysis, however, delves into crucial questions on the fate of justice and accountability for state-sponsored human rights violations and crimes under international law, now that the Government executive’s figurehead has died, and its implications for the situation of human rights in Iran.

The President’s role in Iran’s system of Governance and Repression

While Iran’s president has considerable latitude in domestic matters, and is the most visible member of Iran’s political inner circle on the world stage, his power remains secondary to the Supreme Leader.

Officially the highest elected office in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s bureaucracy, the president remains subordinate to the Supreme Leader. Article 113 of the constitution explicitly stipulates that executive power is subservient to “the office of Leadership.”  The Supreme Leader serves as the final arbiter on foreign policy, media, military and national security and intelligence. The Supreme Leader appoints the head of the judiciary, the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (“IRGC”), the supreme commander of the national army and the commander in chief of the national police. Iran’s president can propose pieces of legislation and policies and is responsible for executing laws, managing government operations, and shaping Iran’s international image. However, their role is more about implementing the Supreme Leader’s vision than crafting independent policy.

In fact, the presidential cabinet announced that Raisi’s death would not cause “the slightest disturbance in the administration” of the country. Mohammad Mokhber, interim President (until new elections are held next month), hails from the ranks of those loyal to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Prior to being Vice-President to Raisi, Mokhber headed a charitable trust that essentially controls assets seized largely from political dissidents. Mokhber addressed Iran’s Parliament for the first time on Monday May 27th, praising Raisi’s legacy and the Supreme Leader’s “guidance,” signaling the maintenance of the current course in Iran’s political affairs unchanged until the presidential elections.

The presidential election process has been repeatedly decried by human rights experts and civil society as unfair, unfree and opaque. Presidential candidates must be vetted and then confirmed by the Guardian Council, an unelected body mandated to ensure that Iran’s legislation, policies and practices align with the Islamic Republic’s ideology, which systematically disqualifies major challengers who may threaten victory of those most loyal to the Supreme Leader. As a result, presidential elections have little to do with the will of the people, as seen in the low turnout rates in election races.

In short, Iran’s compliance with its legal obligations under international human rights law is not solely dependent on the face of its presidential office, although the President still bears considerable responsibility for the actions perpetrated by and under his administration’s authority. The documented severe human rights violations, some amounting to crimes under international law, since the inception of the Islamic Republic, and more recently since the onset of the protests following the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, highlighted that the system of state institutions and actors involved in devising and implementing state repression is convoluted and opaque, and extends much beyond the Government’s executive branch, encompassing  numerous mechanisms and individuals operating with overlapping mandates, yet all answering to the Supreme Leader and sharing the ultimate goal of safeguarding the Islamic Republic at all costs.

For instance, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (“IRGC”) is perhaps the most emblematic example of a state-sponsored institution of repression that has grown to operate quasi autonomously without any governmental check, except from the Supreme Leader. The IRGC is systematically involved in violent and deadly repression of protests and expression of dissents. Its hierarchy and internal functioning is particularly opaquely maintained, hindering the identification of the chain of command, and in turn, facilitating impunity.

Similarly, as described by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, “the judiciary acts as a repressive organ instead of an independent body towards which individuals can seek recourse.” Indeed, the head of the judiciary and the appointment of judges rely on applicants demonstrating unconditional allegiance to the Supreme Leader. In turn, judges and other judiciary representatives actively facilitate arbitrary arrests and detention, unfair trial and the perpetration of torture and ill-treatment of protesters and political opponents.

These examples further demonstrate that the actors involved in the perpetration of severe human rights violations in Iran have much more to do with the Supreme Leader’s ideology and the longevity of the Islamic Republic, than with the individual approach of the President and the executive branch.

What does Raisi’s death mean for justice for human rights violations and crimes under international law perpetrated under his authority?

Many placed Raisi near the top of the list of officials they wished to see brought to justice for the government’s gravest human rights violations and crimes.

When Raisi began as prosecutor general of Karaj, Alborz province, he handled cases enforcing theocratic laws from the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He quickly rose through the ranks to assume various senior judicial and executive positions. He was a member of the infamous “death commission,” a panel of four people that played a pivotal role in the unlawful killing, enforced disappearance and torture of thousands of protesters and political dissidents in the 1980s. He became known colloquially as “The Butcher of Tehran.” In May 2018, Raisi even publicly defended the mass killings describing the massacres as “one of the proud achievements of the system”.

Between 2019 and 2021, Raisi headed the Judiciary as it subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, grossly unfair trials, and cruel punishments such as flogging, amputation and stoning.

Raisi then became president in 2021, which marked the beginning of a period of heightened restrictions on civil liberties, violent crackdowns on dissent and steep increase in the use of the death penalty. During the 2022 protests after Jina Mahsa Amini’s death, Raisi’s administration oversaw the violent crackdown by security forces on the nationwide protests, through mass arrests and deadly suppression, affecting ethnic and religious minorities disproportionately. Raisi’s government also oversaw the development of the “Hijab and Chastity Bill” and the implementation of increasingly harsh dress restrictions, described by UN experts as “inherently discriminatory and may amount to gender persecution.”

What about justice for the tens of thousands of victims of the policies and practices conducted under Raisi’s watch, now that there is no prospect for a trial for Raisi himself?

While Raisi’s death means he will not face justice in a court of law for his individual responsibility in the Government’s human rights violations and crimes under international law, it does not mark the end of judicial accountability efforts for others involved in these acts. International criminal accountability efforts, including through universal jurisdiction, for those responsible were already conducted while Raisi was in office as president, and will continue after his passing. For instance, in July 2022, a Swedish Court condemned Hamid Nouri to life imprisonment for war crimes and murder for his involvement in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners in Iran in 1988. At the time, Nouri was assistant to the deputy prosecutor at the Gohardasht prison, outside of Theran, and was found by the court to be involved in the mass executions of political prisoners carried out in the prison following a fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader.

In addition, in its first report, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran (“FFMI”) identified specific state institutions and actors responsible for crimes against humanity perpetrated in the context of the protests that began in September 2022. The FFMI is currently pursuing its second year of investigation and will be able to consolidate its findings, particularly to support accountability processes, such as international or internationalized prosecutions, or equivalent proceedings in domestic jurisdictions.

It is important to emphasize that justice is not limited to individual criminal accountability, and that it also encompasses the right to truth and remedy, including reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence. These elements are particularly important in the context of Iran, in light of the entrenched impunity and the absence of genuine opportunities to seek remedy, in addition to the active state harassment and reprisals against victims, their families and lawyers. These crucial elements are integral to the pursuit of justice and accountability.

What now?

The widespread displays of celebration of many Iranians over the death of Raisi and his crew are an indicator of the public’s deep distrust, disappointment, and anger with the repression exercised by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and underscore a deep divide between state and society.

That Raisi died before he could potentially face justice for the human rights violations and the crimes against humanity perpetrated under his authority is emblematic of the entrenched impunity that prevails in Iran. While Raisi’s death may mark a temporary slowdown in Iran’s domestic political affairs, it is unlikely to signify a fundamental shift in the country’s approach to human rights. Unless accountability is pursued domestically and fundamental change is carried out to align state laws, institutions and practices with Iran’s international legal obligations, as recommended countless times by various UN human rights mechanisms over the years, the situation of human rights will continue to worsen.

Raisi bore responsibility for the gravest human rights violations and crimes committed under his leadership. Yet, it is important to recognize that Iran’s repressive machinery goes beyond the power of the president. On May 27th, the FFMI affirmed that “The death of President Raisi on 19 May 2024, must not deny victims of serious human rights violations and crimes under international law found by the FFM on Iran their right to truth, justice, and reparations. Action to hold those responsible for these violations and crimes to account must proceed.” In its first report published in March the FFMI also concluded that given the absence of “effective remedies within the country, legal avenues outside the country at the domestic and international levels constitute the only available options for accountability.” This underscores the urgent need for international support in establishing truth and securing justice for the countless victims of human rights violations in Iran. As Iran prepares to elect a new president, the international community must remain active to ensure that the legacy of impunity does not continue unchallenged, and that genuine pathways to accountability for victims of crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations committed under Raisi’s authority and beyond are established.

 See Impact Iran Coalition Members reaction and analysis on the topic:

Abdorahman Boroumand Center


All Human Rights for All in Iran

Baloch Campaign

Defenders of Human Rights Center

Iran Human Rights Documentation Center

Iran Human Rights NGO

United 4 Iran