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Murder by decree

The untold story of President Rafsanjani of Iran and the killing of the intellectuals
The Independant
By Robert Fisk,
8 March 2000

They say that up to a hundred men and women were officially murdered between 1987 and 1997, in the 10 years that Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani held the presidency of Iran. There were writers and intellectuals injected with potassium cyanide or knifed to death; a married woman rumoured to have had an affair with a senior Iranian intelligence officer – she was silenced lest her story become public; a priest; a homosexual; and criminals who had made enemies of Iran's leadership. The names of some of the murderers, many linked to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry and printed for the first time in The Independent today, are known to many in Tehran but – even in the astonishing breeze of press freedom that drifts across the city in the aftermath of last month's parliamentary elections – no Iranian journalist has yet revealed their identities.

One of the bravest of Iranian reporters, the investigative journalist Akbar Gangi who writes for Sobi-Emrous, asked ex-president Rafsanjani's influential daughter Faiza if her father knew of the suspected judicial executions. She told Gangi that her father had "no control" over the Intelligence Ministry and "no information" on the murders. Gangi recalls their conversation with a smile. "I told her that if we accepted this argument, then Mr Rafsanjani would be Cardinal Richelieu," he says. "I said it was unacceptable that Hashemi Rafsanjani had no control over the Intelligence Ministry. I wrote in my paper that if Rafsanjani really had no control, then how did he once manage to fire one of Fallahian's deputies – in a case that involved Rafsanjani's family?"

Ali Fallahian was a name uttered with fear only a decade ago in Tehran. As the head of Iranian intelligence, he held the power of life and death over thousands; and in a regime which had hanged perhaps 20,000 – some say 30,000 – of its young male and female opponents in the immediate aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Fallahian was not a man to be crossed. Along with at least six other named officials, some still holding positions in the clerical judiciary in Iran, he is said to have agreed to secret fatwas, ordering the murder of journalists, writers, clerics and crooks.

Gangi's new book, The Dungeon of Ghosts, talks of a secret committee – its members unnamed – that met regularly to decide which of the regime's internal enemies should be liquidated. "They were the ιminence grise, a grey power which approved religious fatwas for killing people," Gangi says. "Everyone knows who they are. A month ago, I wrote an article about this. I mentioned the committee and pointed out that Rafsanjani was president at the time. It exploded like a bomb. But I also wrote in the article that there were some questions about the relationship of Rafsanjani and the members of the committee."

So was Rafsanjani one of the judicial killers during his decade-long presidency of Iran? Was he a man who had only to nod his Hojatolislam's turban – how we in the West loved Rafsanjani, thought he was a moderate chap, a "reformer" before real reformers existed in Iran – for the needle to be filled with poison, the car "accident" arranged, the knife sharpened? And if he did not sign a death warrant, did his silence not give consent? Certainly, he wanted us all to believe that he was a man who controlled events. Was it not Rafsanjani who, in 1988, told Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that the eight-year war with Iraq must end? Did he not reveal the Iran-Contra scandal? Was this not the man who tried to liberalise the economy of Iran?

True, it was he who told Khomeini that the war was lost, that Iraqi tanks were driving through the Iranian lines unhindered, that the Islamic Republic's troops were unable to withdraw their armour for lack of petrol. The old Imam remarked, after listening to Rafsanjani, that he had been forced to "eat poison". And I recall well the glee – pure, unadulterated schoolboy delight – with which Rafsanjani produced photocopies of the Irish passports used by John MacFarlane, Oliver North and the other American super-spooks when they turned up in Tehran to trade anti-aircraft missiles for American hostages in Beirut. Rafsanjani even handed one of the photocopies to me; it was a real passport – Macfarlane used the first name Sean – stolen from the Irish embassy in Athens.

But I remember another Rafsanjani who took exception to a mild biographical profile I wrote of him in 1987. I had concentrated on his origins – his father was a pistachio farmer – and the next time I arrived in Tehran, I was coldly informed that I should not stay long because "some officials from the Islamic Republic would like you to leave". How soon, I asked? And an equally cold man from the Islamic Guidance ministry answered chillingly: "I cannot protect you. But I think I would probably leave tonight." I slunk out of Mehrabad airport a few hours later on a flight to Europe, watched through the window of the departure lounge by the then Irish ambassador to Tehran. A few weeks later, I was back. Whoever it was, they told me, was no longer angered by my article.

In those days, when Rafsanjani was the darling of our Western leaders – we thought he was fighting off the radical clergy, not collaborating with them – all talk of his personal wealth was banished from the headlines. Not a single Western reporter bothered to dig into the story of his friends and relatives. How come his son Yasser worked in the procurement office of the National Iranian Oil Company? Or his nephew Ali was deputy minister of oil? Or his son Mehdi was employed in the main Iranian gas company? Was it true, they are now asking in Tehran, that Rafsanjani had large business interests in Germany, that his family had residence cards in the West?

One of Rafsanjani's close relatives currently controls 47 per cent of an airline link between Iran and Saudi Arabia, 22 per cent of the profits of which would go into his pocket. After one oil-and-gas deal six years ago, an investigation into internal corruption led to the arrest of several close friends of Mehdi Rafsanjani. They were forced to return up to $5m to state coffers. But Mehdi was not questioned about the extent of his involvement, let alone arrested. Did no one dare to tangle with the family of Cardinal Richelieu?

Iranian journalists who question Rafsanjani's presidential role are regularly threatened – by fax or telephone – while at least one insists that Western journalists must formally sign documents promising to send all of his interview quotations for approval before publication; The Independent declined to do so. Gangi himself admits that he does not wish to get close to the private life of Rafsanjani, although he notes that it was the former president who personally set the exchange rates between the US dollar and the Iranian riyal when he claimed to be introducing a market economy to Iran.

Gangi's theory is that a key must be found and a light shone into the "Dungeon of Ghosts" to find out who sat inside, who issued the fatwas and who approved them. Gangi does not identify them but The Independent's investigation has discovered that Fallahian, Ali Razini (who is currently a member of the Special Clerical Court in Tehran), Mustafa Pourmahamadi (the former deputy intelligence minister for international affairs) and Ruhollah Hosseinian (the head of Iran's "documentation centre"), all sat in that dark room. Said Emami, another former intelligence ministry operative, was among them, too; though he – and readers must here stifle all cynical remarks – "committed suicide" last year while awaiting a murder trial. Was he going to name Rafsanjani?

Or – and here we reach the darkest of all questions – was he going to name other, even higher figures in the regime? Was Emami's evidence of the Dungeon of Ghosts going to call into question the very practice of clerical rule, the leadership whom Iranians have been forced to follow unquestioningly for so many years? The election of "reformers" last month appears to have placed President Mohamed Khatami in an unchallenged position and his brother Reza, leader of the largest winning reformist party, is now speaking of investigations into the murders of Rafsanjani's decade of power.

No wonder, then, that Akbar Gangi is a frightened man. "Sources I trust told me that at a meeting it was approved that I should be murdered with a knife," he told me in his Tehran office. "There was a plan to kill me if I went to make a speech in a city outside Tehran." Other journalists share these fears. They may be looking for the key to the Dungeon of Ghosts. But the ghosts may still be ready to murder their enemies.