Iranians divided over Raisi's legacy as funerals begin

President and former prosecutor remembered for persecution and execution of thousands of political prisoners

A picture of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is seen on his coffin during a funeral held in Tabriz. Reuters
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While Iranian hardliners are mourning the death of President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, many will not lament the demise of a man they associate with some of the darkest periods of Iran's modern history.

Mersdeh Shahinkar, from Tehran, was one of hundreds of people blinded by security forces in the crackdown on the Women, Life, Freedom protests – sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in morality police custody in 2022 – which spread across Iran and called for an end to the four-decade rule of the theocracy.

Forced to flee the country and now living in Europe, Ms Shahinkar was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament.

“Raisi ordered to shoot directly at people in the streets, people who were ready to go on the streets without guns for their basic rights,” she told The National.

'Many were killed, blinded like me, or had to have limbs amputated.”

Ms Shahinkar's reaction is not unique among Iran's general population – about 20,000 of whom were arrested during protests which began in September 2022.

The President, who served for years in Iran's judiciary, was part of what has been described as a “death committee” and presided over the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

On Sunday, he was lauded by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as a “tireless” servant of Iran and has been widely praised in tributes from Iranian officials on state media outlets.

“Ebrahim Raisi was a symbol of judicial impunity for criminals and the entrenched lack of accountability within the Islamic Republic's system,” said Dr Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, head of the Iran Human Rights NGO, who said that “the full extent of his crimes is still not known to the public.”

As in Tehran, fireworks were set off in Ms Amini's Kurdish hometown of Saqqez after news broke of the helicopter crash.

The latest demonstrations ignited long-standing anger against the government and restrictions, which have only heightened under Mr Raisi's three-year rule, including a 10-year prison sentence for women who do not wear the hijab mandated in public spaces.

“Raisi's involvement in the executions in the 1980s, his tenure as head of the judiciary, and his presidency during the Women, Life, Freedom uprising have made his death a particular cause for celebration,” Rebin Rahmati, director of the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, told The National.

Before the protests, Amnesty International called for an investigation into crimes against humanity committed by Mr Raisi during his time in the judiciary, including the enforced disappearance and torture of hundreds of people after protests in 2019.

“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran,” the group said.

On Tuesday, Iran's Co-ordinating Council for Trade Unions said Mr Raisi's rule had marked some of the “darkest spots” in Iran's education history, following the suspected poisoning of hundreds of schoolgirls during the protests.

It also cited the forced dismissal of teachers who criticised Tehran's policies and the killing and beating of teachers during government protests.

Neda Mirzaloo fled Tehran for Canada a decade ago and has worked extensively with maimed protesters and political prisoners.

Her uncle was one of the thousands executed in 1988.

“People will celebrate. Raisi's legacy for Iran is murderous,” she told The National. “Iran now is a security state, there are Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Basijis everywhere. He executed and blinded our people.”

“The IRGC, the Basijis, the army and regime supporters will go to the funeral. But most of Iran will not mourn.”

Protests unlikely – for now

As news of the crash broke, Iranian media outlets published footage of IRGC vehicles deployed ahead of rumours of potential unrest.

Mr Rahmati said fresh protests are unlikely due to “heightened security” still in place since the Mahsa Amini protests largely subsided.

However, a wave of “executions, arrests and detentions” has been recorded in Kurdish provinces and the south-eastern provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan, both of which were particularly hard-hit in the government response to the protests, he said.

Mark Pyruz, an analyst who tracks protests across Iran, says the regime may be nervous about what could emerge in a time of uncertainty.

“There was some evidence on Monday of police and security presence at points in Iran but none of civil disturbance. State funerals will proceed. Then in 50 days, elections. With the previous election, there was a police presence at polling stations and what appeared to be some IRGC street presence. Expect the same level of security for the upcoming election,” he told The National.

“The supreme leader and Guardian Council 'invested' heavily in the Raisi win. Attention now will be on how the upcoming election will be configured by the vetting process. Mass anti-regime protesting relies on a trigger event. In itself, the accident hasn't prompted such, but the election will see heightened security.”

Additional reporting by Robert Tollast.

Updated: May 21, 2024, 3:21 PM