Meanwhile, Inside Iran: Khamenei Consolidates His Power

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Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

Said Mortazavi, at a 2009 news conference in Tehran, is being summoned to court for a hearing on his role in torture and human-rights abuses at a prison in Tehran

Said Mortazavi made a name for himself as the strong arm of Iran's judiciary, first as a prosecutor at the Islamic Revolutionary Court and later as the prosecutor general of Tehran. His hard-line approach earned him nicknames like the Torturer of Tehran and the Butcher of the Press. Now it looks like Mortazavi may be getting a taste of his own revolutionary justice: last week, the Tehran judiciary announced that Mortazavi would be summoned to court for a hearing on his role in torture and human-rights abuses at the Kahrizak prison after the controversial 2009 presidential election.

If Mortazavi gets sentenced, it would be a stunning turnaround for a man who appeared to be operating above the law for years. Perhaps more important, Mortazavi's fall from grace is a sign of the bitter infighting between Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has long supported Mortazavi. With the presidential election scheduled to take place next year, Khamenei appears to have given the green light to go after Mortazavi as a way of distancing the regime from the worst of the abuses that took place after the 2009 election. "There's a lot of shadowboxing going on between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei," says Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University. "The attempt to distance the regime from Mortazavi, the attempt to link him to Ahmadinejad and the attempt by Khamenei to distance himself from Ahmadinejad — all of these are efforts by Khamenei to show that he's beginning to hear the message of the people."

Mortazavi has long been dogged by controversy. In 2003, journalist Zahra Kazemi died while in custody at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Mortazavi, who was spearheading a crackdown against Iran's reformist press at the time, claimed she had died of natural causes. Even after a parliamentary commission investigating Kazemi's death concluded that she had died of a severe blow to the head, Mortazavi refused to back down. And so did his supporters. In 2006, Ahmadinejad sent Mortazavi to Geneva as part of a delegation representing Iran at the opening session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, a move that infuriated Iranian human-rights activists.

The Kahrizak controversy couldn't be whitewashed as easily. In the immediate aftermath of the 2009 election, dozens of protesters were reportedly tortured at the facility, and some were raped. At least three people appear to have died from physical abuse while detained at Kahrizak. The incidents were so out of hand that Khamenei demanded that the prison be shut down in July 2009. A governmental committee investigating the abuses pointed the finger at Mortazavi for sending many of the protesters to the facility. He was removed from the judiciary but Ahmadinejad shuffled him into other top posts, most recently as the head of the social-security fund. It became quickly apparent how radioactive Mortazavi has become when the parliament initiated a motion to impeach the Minister of Labor when he announced Mortazavi's appointment to the new job last month.

It's unlikely that Ahmadinejad will be able to help Mortazavi this time, and the pressure is ramping up. Last week, one of Mortazavi's former aides was arrested in Isfahan province after he pulled out a pistol at a gas station and began firing in the air after a dispute with other patrons, according to a report on the Tabnak website. It was a clear message: the days of operating with impunity are over for Mortazavi and his cohorts. It may only be a matter of time before Mortazavi is staring at the inside of a prison cell where he sent hundreds of others.