Iranian presidential candidate cleric Ebrahim Raisi speaks during his campaign rally for the May 19 election at Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, May 16, 2017.
Iranian presidential candidate cleric Ebrahim Raisi speaks during his campaign rally for the May 19 election at Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

The United States and rights activists are criticizing Iran for selecting as its new judiciary chief a conservative cleric allegedly involved in mass executions of dissidents in the 1980s.

An Iranian judiciary spokesman confirmed in a Sunday news conference that Ebrahim Raisi will succeed another conservative cleric, Sadeq Amoli Larijani, as judiciary chief on Friday. Iranian media had predicted the move since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei promoted Larijani to the role of head of Iran’s Expediency Council in December.

The Expediency Council advises the Supreme Leader about whether to approve or reject parliamentary legislation in cases of irreconcilable dispute between lawmakers and the Guardian Council – a panel of 12 unelected jurists tasked with vetting all legislation.

Raisi has served as custodian of one of Iran’s holiest Shi'ite shrines in the northeastern city of Mashhad since 2016, when Khamenei appointed him to the post. The following year, Raisi competed in Iran’s presidential election but came in a distant second to incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.

International rights groups accuse Raisi of involvement in the apparent executions of thousands of Iranian dissidents in 1988, when he served as deputy prosecutor general of Tehran. Iran’s Islamist leaders have ignored or denied the existence of such mass executions.

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U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Palladino sharply criticized Raisi’s appointment. In a Tuesday tweet, Palladino echoed the accusations of Raisi’s role in mass executions and called the cleric’s promotion a disgrace, adding that “Iranians deserve better.”

In Monday interviews with VOA Persian, two exiled Iranian rights activists said they believe a Raisi-led judiciary will do nothing to resolve perceived widespread human rights abuses in Iran. 

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR), said the judicial appointment is a show of defiance by Khamenei toward his international and domestic critics and an effort by him to sustain Iran’s Islamist system. 

Speaking from London, Justice for Iran (JFI) group director Shadi Sadr said that as long as Raisi is judiciary chief, he will be immune from international prosecution in connection with Iran’s 1988 mass executions. But, she said the international community still can label Raisi a human rights violator and ban him from foreign travel. 

“At the very least, the United Nations and other international institutions should condemn the appointment of a man accused of one of Iran’s greatest crimes to the highest judicial post in the country,” Sadr said. 

Several prominent Iranian reformist politicians expressed support for Khamenei’s move.

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?In a Sunday tweet, reformist lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi said many Iranian judges were optimistic about imminent changes in the judiciary’s leadership. “Given the record of the likely next judiciary chief,” he said in reference to Raisi, “there is hope that the General Inspection Organization of Iran (GIO) will recover its necessary place in fighting corruption.” Raisi is a former head of GIO, one of several anti-corruption bodies in Iran’s government. 

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?Reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh posted a Monday tweet saying supporters of Raisi’s two predecessors hope that he will bring the judiciary up to date and make it more efficient. “Iran needs a judiciary that is independent, unbiased and accountable,” Tajzadeh added. 

In a report published Monday, Middle East-focused U.S. news site Al-Monitor said it appears that Iranian reformists are trying to soften some of their past criticisms of Raisi. It said those reformists, who have been struggling to maintain relevance in a conservative-dominated system, would see their political influence further diminished if they opened a new battle against Raisi, one it said they “certainly” would not win. 

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.