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Iranian parliamentary corruption scandal implicates notorious figure

A report implicating Iranian parliament members and newspaper editors singles out Saeed Mortazavi, a notorious figure within the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Tehran Prosecutor General Saeed Mortazavi speaks to journalists during a news conference in Tehran April 19, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi  (IRAN POLITICS) - RTXE4TP

According to the Iranian parliamentary report, corruption was widespread in the Social Security Organization during the administration of Tehran's former Prosecutor-General Saeed Mortazavi. It included, among other officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a notable number of members of parliament (MPs) and several editors of Reformist newspapers.

The 84-page report by the Special Parliamentary Probe Committee includes 37 cases of bribery and illegal handouts. One such case entails 1.335 billion rials "taken from the internal budget of the organization after being authorized by the head of the organization, and was given to 37 MPs [report included code numbers but no actual names] as gift cards [on April and May] of this year."

As expected, parliament has not named the MPs who received these gift cards. A political observer in Tehran told Al-Monitor that this is “a disaster,” given the number of MPs it potentially implicates. “Even if we assume that no other MP has received bribes, the number mentioned in the report is high enough. It means that one out of every seven MPs has been bribed by Mortazavi," said the observer. Iran’s parliament has 290 members.

Mortazavi has a long and controversial career in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In March 2012, in a controversial move, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Mortazavi as the head of the Social Security Organization, a subset of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. After the Iranian New Year in early April, 20 MPs, upset by this decision, reacted by proposing the impeachment of Minister of Labor Reza Sheykholeslam. On April 16, 19 MPs withdrew their support for the impeachment.

Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, an influential Principlist MP and a relative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, mediated and asked the MPs to stop the impeachment process with the promise that Mortazavi would step down. It was said at the time that Mortazavi had sworn to leave the Social Security Organization. However, he did not deliver on his promise, and with the support of Ahmadinejad, he maintained his position.

A political observer, who requested to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor via email, "The MPs were all bribed in the month of Ordibehesht [April/May]. This is very important because it means that just as Mortazavi was double-crossing a group of the MPs, another group was receiving money from him."

The appointment of Mortazavi as the head of the Social Security Organization was criticized by both the Reformist and the Principlists for a number of reasons.

In late 1990s when President Mohammad Khatami's administration took office, there was an increase in the number of Reformist newspapers supportive of his policies. Mortazavi, who was a high-ranked judge at the time, closed down many Reformist newspapers, so much so that he earned the nickname of “butcher of the press” by his critics.

Mortazavi is also tied to the case of  the Iranian-Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, who was killed shortly after she was arrested outside of Evin Prison in 2003. MPs, dominated by the Reformists at the time, created a committee to review Kazemi's case. In the report published by this committee, Mortazavi was introduced as the main figure responsible for her death, and some of the MPs asked him to resign. Mohsen Armin, a member of this committee, reported that after two days of interrogation, Mortazavi transferred Kazemi to the care of the Law Enforcement Forces. She later told them that during her interrogation sessions she had been beaten in the head. In spite of the strong pressure exerted by the Canadian government, the government of Iran continued to support Mortazavi, who remained prosecutor-general of Tehran from 2002 until 2009.

Soon after the prisoner abuse scandal at Kahrizak detention center, where three individuals died in a location where Mortazavi was in charge, he was finally replaced by Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi. He did not stay out of a job for long, however. Almost immediately, Mortazavi was appointed by Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani as deputy prosecutor-general, and later by Ahmadinejad as the head of Iran's Task Force Against Smuggling. In August 2010, Mortazavi was suspended from his posts and lost his judicial immunity.

The bribery scandal has not deterred Mortazavi. After parliament published its report, Mortazavi first reacted by denouncing the report and labeling it political. He later revealed the name of another 180 MPs who had repeatedly received money or gift cards from the Social Security Organization. He detailed this in a document that he included as part of his letter to the parliament's Article 90 Commission.

Deputy speaker Mohammad-Reza Bahonar tried to dismiss the accusations against the Principlist MPs and claimed that no law was broken. Talking to ISNA News Agency, he said, "It is not unusual for 37, 150 or even all 290 members of parliament to receive ... gift cards for specialized stores or other similar organizations. The MPs collect these gifts and distribute them among their constituents."

Ahmad Tavakoli, a veteran Principlist MP, criticized the distribution of these gift cards and has called it an attempt at "corrupting the officials" and "recruiting partisans." He said, "Even if everything was later redistributed among low income constituents, it is still illegal."

Oddly, Principlist MPs are not the only ones accused of corruption in the Mortazavi scandal. According to a document recently published online, including four Reformist online newspapers, have also received money from Mortazavi in exchange for writing positive reports about the Social Security Organization.

A journalist, formerly with Etemaad newspaper, told Al-Monitor wasn’t shocked by the accusations. “Some of the editors-in-chief of these Reformist newspapers have close ties with the government officials,” the journalist said. “It has been like this for years. However, accepting money from Mortazavi, who was called the 'butcher of the press,' is particularly shameful. It shows that these newspapers have all turned into profit-making agencies.”

Despite the accusations, he said, journalists would continue to work at these publications, given the limited space to work for a Reformist publication. “For the most part, we do not have any option other than to continue working for these newspapers,” he said. “There are not that many independent journals in Iran, and naturally the journalists do not have many choices."

As far as the readers are concerned, he does not believe that this scandal will affect them much. "First, the audience of these publications is quite limited. These Reformist publications are no longer popular the way they were back in 1999 to 2001. Second, they have kept it under wraps. Even those journalists who do not work for these newspapers still have friends and colleagues who do. They feel sorry for them and do not want them to suffer because of the greed of their superiors. Therefore, they have kept silent."

In spite of all the pressure on Mortazavi, he does not seem to be backing down. Two weeks ago, he filed complaints against Alireza Mahjoub, head of the Special Parliamentary Probe Committee; Ali Rabei, minister of labor under current President Hassan Rouhani; and eight newspapers, claiming they published slander and wrongfully accused him. It appears that eliminating Mortazavi completely, or putting him on trial, will not be easily accomplished.

“Saeed Mortazavi knows a lot of secrets. He has been leading the government crackdowns for 16 years. He knows all about political and economic corruption in the government,” said a political observer in Tehran. “Given the circumstances, do you really think that the judiciary will dare imprison him?”

More from A correspondent in Tehran

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