US should sanction Iran’s notorious ‘hanging judge’


The story is as jarring as it is depressingly familiar.

In mid-May, Iranian judge Abolghassem Salavati told a British-Iranian prisoner to expect a new conviction on fresh charges of “propaganda against the state.” Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whom Salavati first sentenced to five years in prison in 2016 on equally specious espionage allegations, constitutes one of more than a dozen known dual and foreign nationals — including at least seven U.S. citizens and permanent residents — languishing in Iran’s notorious jails for putatively seeking to overthrow the Islamist regime.

{mosads}The Trump administration, as part of its newly announced Iran strategy, has called for their release and pledged to support the Iranian people’s larger struggle for freedom. But while the European Union sanctioned Salavati for his human rights abuses in 2011, Washington has yet to follow suit. A U.S. designation of Salavati, one of the harshest figures in Iran’s judiciary, would mark an important way to increase pressure on the regime for its longstanding repression of Iranians and Americans alike.


Widely known in Iran as the “hanging judge” and the “judge of death,” Salavati has presided over the trials — or, more accurately, the show trials — of numerous Iranian dual and foreign nationals. More infamously, Salavati has imposed draconian sentences, including the death penalty, lashes, and elongated jail terms, on countless political prisoners. For millions of Iranians, Salavati serves as the foremost symbol of Tehran’s domestic repression and the radical Islamist creed that drives it. 

Salavati holds the title of “judge,” but the term, as Bloomberg’s Eli Lake has noted, is a misnomer. Salavati heads the 15th branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which functions primarily to prosecute ideological opponents of the regime. Distinct from Iran’s civil and criminal court system, the Revolutionary Court aims not merely to enforce Iranian law per se, though its routine denial of due process runs roughshod over various Iranian statutes. Rather, the court effectively serves as an agent of Iran’s intelligence ministry and Islamist Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorian guard, which seeks to advance Tehran’s vision of the 1979 revolution both at home and abroad.

Salavati achieved international renown when he presided over televised show trials of hundreds of Iranians who participated in the nationwide protests that began in June 2009. He sentenced several of them to death, including a 20-year-old student who threw three rocks during the uprising. (On appeal, Tehran commuted the sentence to three years in prison.) Other protestors received lengthy prison sentences.

These rulings typify Salavati’s career. In his courtroom, trials often last a few minutes, sentences often occur on the basis of coerced confessions with little or no evidence, Salavati himself frequently serves as prosecutor as well as judge, and defendants receive little or no access to a lawyer. He routinely dismisses or ignores allegations of torture in prison. He habitually accepts sentencing recommendations from the IRGC and the intelligence ministry, undercutting any pretense that his court offers an independent check on the executive branch. In fact, the regime consistently brings him cases when it seeks to make an example of a political prisoner it regards as especially dangerous.

Salavati has displayed particular scorn for captured Americans. In 2011, following a closed-door trial, Salavati imposed eight-year prison sentences on two vacationing U.S. citizens who had been hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and accidentally crossed the border into Iran. The court, without any evidence, accused them of spying. Eventually, thanks in part to intense international pressure, Iran released them after more than two years behind bars.

Since then, Salavati has consigned multiple other Americans to protracted prison terms based on unsubstantiated charges of espionage. In January 2016, the Obama administration secured the freedom of four American prisoners, including former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati and Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, both of whom Salavati sentenced, by releasing seven Iranian sanctions violators, dropping charges on 14 other at-large Iranians suspected of similar offenses, and airlifting $400 million in cash to the regime.

Today, at least five of Iran’s imprisoned American citizens and permanent residents still reside in jail due to Salavati’s exorbitant sentences, including Iranian Americans Siamak Namazi and his elderly father, Bacquer Namazi. The most recent known sentencing of an American occurred in January 2018, when Salavati sentenced art gallery owners Karen Vafadari, an Iranian-American, and his wife, Afarin Niasari, an Iranian national with U.S. permanent residency, to 27 and 16 years in prison respectively for “acts against national security.” Salavati later reduced their sentences to 15 and 10 years respectively.

Tehran is sensitive to international criticism in the realm of human rights: Past global pressure campaigns have resulted in the release of some prisoners, if not an overwhelming number of them. Naming and shaming Salavati, in conjunction with other economic sanctions against Tehran, would amount to a significant first step in extracting American hostages from Iran while demonstrating solidarity with the long-suffering Iranian people.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.

Tags Abolghassem Salavati Abolqasem Salavati Crime in Iran Iranian dissidents Jason Rezaian Women's rights in Iran
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