Dissidents sue Iran's president in US court, alleging major role in political killings

Ebrahim Raisi, accused of massive human rights abuses, could be served at U.N. General Assembly in New York in September.

Updated: August 31, 2022 - 11:30pm

Iranian dissidents have filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court against Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi for the torture and murder of political prisoners ahead of his expected visit to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where he could be served with the complaint in the case.

"Raisi will be personally served with process when he arrives in New York City in September to attend the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly," Steven Schneebaum, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, said at a press conference in Washington, D.C. last week. "Once he is served, he will have 21 calendar days to respond to the complaint. If he fails to do so, the plaintiffs will seek a default judgment, enforceable against Raisi or his assets."

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks unspecified damages for the torture, murder, and disappearance of political prisoners in Tehran and Karaj, Iran in 1988.

Raisi served as deputy prosecutor of Tehran, the Iranian capital, from 1985 to 1988, when he played a central role in the execution of tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were members of the exiled People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), an Iranian opposition group.

The MEK is the largest partner of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the world's largest Iranian opposition organization, which organized last week's press conference and facilitated the legal complaint against Raisi.

In the summer of 1988, then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the secret executions, and Raisi was part of a so-called "death committee" that carried out and oversaw several of the killings.

The U.S. government, the United Nations, and human rights organizations have documented and condemned Iran for the 1988 atrocities, including Raisi's role.

Iran has never publicly acknowledged that mass executions took place under Khomeini.

Raisi was asked about his alleged involvement in the 1988 mass killings at a news conference in June, 2021.

"If a judge, a prosecutor has defended the security of the people, he should be praised," he said. "I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far."

Two years earlier, an audiotape was released of the late Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the one-time designated successor to Khomeini, lashing out in 1988 at Raisi and others alleged to be complicit in facilitating the mass killings, declaring, "You all will be judged as the biggest criminals in history."

The lawsuit was filed in the names of two people tortured at the time and a third person whose brother was executed — all allegedly on the personal orders of Raisi.

"His orders were crimes against humanity, in violation of the law of nations and of treaties binding both Iran and the United States," the complaint states.

At the press conference announcing the suit, one of the plaintiffs, Ahmad Hassani, said the Iranian regime murdered his brother, Mahmoud, for supporting the MEK but wouldn't tell his family what happened to the body and where it was buried. He added that a government agent said his family couldn't have any kind of memorial ceremony for Mahmoud.

A witness in the case and former Iranian political prisoner, Sheila Neinavaie, described how experiences being imprisoned and abused in Iran still haunt her.

"What I saw and experienced still wakes me up at night, and flashbacks bring tears to my eyes," she said. "Now, every time I hear the name of Ebrahim Raisi, I totally forget about myself and remember the pregnant women who I saw being beaten, when children as young as two years old running around and looking for their mother or crying because they were hungry. I remember the innocent faces of young girls who never made it out of the prison."

This lawsuit marks the first time a court is building a record and investigating the alleged crimes carried out by Raisi, according to the NCRI, which said the Iranian president must be held accountable.

Raisi is being sued as an individual, not as an agent of the regime.

"But the acts he committed were committed in his official capacity as someone exercising powers given him by the government of Iran — indeed, powers he exercised in carrying out a 1988 [order] by the Ayatollah Khomeini himself," said former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who spoke at the press conference.

The judge assigned to the case has scheduled a preliminary hearing for Nov. 15.

The dissidents' case is based on two U.S. statutes: the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allow for the filing of civil claims in U.S. courts against people from foreign nations.

"Although these acts were committed abroad, in the exercise of official powers, there should be little doubt that such acts come within the reach of the statutes cited in this complaint," said Mukasey. "It is Congress that has explicitly granted to federal courts in the United States the jurisdiction to hear such actions and to grant the civil relief they provide for."

It is expected that Raisi will contend that he can't be sued in the U.S. because he's protected by immunity — either diplomatic immunity or personal immunity as a head of state. Schneebaum and Mukasey contend he is ineligible for both claims of immunity.

Regarding the former claim, they argue Raisi is not a diplomat as he is not the head or a member of a diplomatic mission.

Plus, "diplomatic immunity does not mean diplomatic impunity," said Muksaey, who noted a Belgian court last year sentenced an Iranian diplomat to 20 years in prison for plotting to bomb a NCRI rally in a suburb of Paris in 2018. "Even diplomatic immunity has its limits."

Regarding Raisi claiming immunity as a head of state, both Schneebaum and Mukasey noted Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is the ultimate authority in Iran and therefore the true head of state.

Still, the State Department "has authority to decide whether, despite the fact that Ali Khamenei is the supreme leader, Raisi nonetheless should be regarded as head of state, and if it makes that determination and so notifies the court, that determination is binding on the court," according to Mukasey.

Last year, the State Department imposed immigration restrictions on Raisi for being involved in "the commission of serious human rights abuses."

However, Mukasey added, the Biden administration is eager to reach a nuclear deal with Iran and therefore may "not wish to offend Iran by agreeing that Raisi is subject to being sued while here attending the U.N. General Assembly"

Raisi hasn't just been tied to human rights abuses in 1988. In December 2019, the U.S. government confirmed that the Iranian regime killed about 1,500 anti-government protesters as part of a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations the prior month.

The Treasury Department sanctioned Raisi, who was judiciary chief at the time and had a direct role in the suppression effort, for "advancing" the Iranian regime's "domestic and foreign oppression."

More recently, since Raisi became president in August 2021, there have been 582 executions, including 22 women and eight juvenile offenders, double the number of executions of the previous year, according to the NCRI.

But Raisi's role in the 1988 killings is the main reason why the Biden administration is coming under intense, bipartisan pressure to ban Raisi from entering the U.S. next month by denying him an entry visa.

"It is our contention and that of many others that instead of hosting Raisi, the United Nations must hold him accountable for crimes against humanity and genocide," said Soona Samsami, a U.S. representative for the NCRI. "Anything less would be an affront to the very principles and values that constitute the foundation and the charter of the U.N."

The push to ban Raisi comes amid a wave of attempted assassinations against American citizens on U.S. soil allegedly planned by the Iranian government.

Iran has denied involvement in attempts to harm or kill those allegedly targeted, including former U.S. officials.

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