TEHRAN, Iran – In recent months, Iran’s powerful judiciary has found itself under pressure from an usual source — conservatives. In addition to former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his aides, who kicked off a campaign against the judicial system in August, a small but influential university student group also now has the judiciary in its crosshairs.
One member of the Justice-Seeker Student Movement told Al-Monitor, “We are revolutionaries who defend the causes of the Islamic Republic in the framework set by the former and current supreme leaders. We have always been against [and beyond] the Principlist-Reformist dichotomy.”
Despite the group's claims of not being partisan, it appears to be well anchored in the conservative camp. In December, the movement organized two meetings with judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani as well as Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, first deputy and spokesman.
On Dec. 11, Ejei’s appearance at Sharif Technical University raised eyebrows as a poet-turned-activist associated with the hard-liners stood before the powerful official and unleashed a direct attack against the conservative-dominated judicial system as a whole, that is, the courts, judges, lawyers and legal experts. Mansour Nazari, known in religious and conservative circles for his poems in praise of Iranian forces fighting in Syria, spoke of rampant, systematic corruption within the judiciary, including bribery, land grabbing and even drug-related crimes. Directly addressing Ejei, Nazari insisted that he had evidence for all of his accusations.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Nazari spoke about his personal ordeal, which began in 2006 in the central city of Esfahan, where he became mired in a court case related to a work dispute while employed as a contractor. During the legal process, he encountered a “corrupt band,” but refused to back down. His efforts bore fruit when the judiciary’s own intelligence wing got involved. Yet, he said that at the end of the day, “judges, experts, lawyers, deal-makers and anyone who was involved in one of the band’s several bribery cases were only fined, and a judge was sacked.”
For Nazari, the battle was not over yet. While pursuing his own dossier, he said that he had met with “a group of very desperate people who had been caught in court cases against members of the judiciary.” He decided to help them by collecting evidence against a second “band” active in the western province of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari.
“I collected enough documents and handed them to the office of then-Attorney General Mohseni Ejei,” Nazari told Al-Monitor. “The dossier was [surprisingly] sent back to Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari and the people who were accused of corruption [in the documents].”
Nazari was first threatened and told to withdraw his claims, but when he dug in his heels, he was charged with involvement in a third-party legal case between local judiciary officials and citizens. “I was found guilty by the same corrupt people, and sentenced to one year in jail in addition to 70 lashes,” he said.
In 2016, Abdollah Mousavi, head of the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari judiciary, told the media, “Nazari was found guilty for his false accusations. … It was not such a big deal to make it public, and he is not a justice-seeking hero.”
Following his release from prison in September 2017, Nazari moved to Tehran, where his activities alongside the Justice-Seeker Movement finally landed him the opportunity to confront Ejei.
When asked by Al-Monitor about the judiciary spokesman’s reaction, Nazari said, “He had no response and knew almost nothing about the case. Instead, he tried to falsify [whitewash] my accusations [against the judiciary].”
While the video of Nazari’s fiery speech circulated online, media outlets — Reformist and Principlist alike — seemingly excluded it from their coverage of Ejei’s meetings with the activists. Asked about the apparent media boycott of his remarks, Nazari told Al-Monitor, “The judiciary is their red line because of the climate of fear it has created. Reformist media are fearful since it can easily crush them. Conservatives are not independent and are banned from covering such topics.”
Al-Monitor also spoke to Saeed Zibakalam, an activist and professor of philosophy at the University of Tehran. He expressed regret, stating, “Academics and members of the [theological] seminaries have remained silent on corruption in general, and in particular the judiciary, over the past 39 years.”
Zibakalam is one of the “very few” well-known figures who has spoken against judicial procedures and graft in recent years. Without distinguishing between Principlist and Reformist politicians, he said, “Some are benefiting from privileges they obtain from the centers of power, some have an eye to higher positions, and some have left politics. Considering the cost it could incur for them, they prefer not to speak against corruption [or the judiciary]. Media outlets linked to the two political factions share the same situation.”
Zibakalam has written several open letters to top officials, including the judiciary chief, concerning a number of arrests and trials. He feels that student campaigns, protests, letters and calls for justice have brought about some change in the judiciary’s attitude toward criticism.
“Since last year, there seems to be a sort of openness from the part of the judiciary, as if they are learning to listen to grievances,” Zibakalam told Al-Monitor. “This is a parallel trend. The more society opens, the more non-political factions [such as student groups] get encouraged to call for justice and accountability.”
Zibakalam couched this perceived shift as a positive outcome. “Ordinary citizens and students gradually learn to practice their right to monitor, question and challenge officials,” he said. “Those who are in positions of power also learn to be more careful, respect the law and know that they are under the watchful eye of the public.”
Nazari disagrees. “Judiciary officials are still so arrogant that they can’t even imagine being wrong or apologize for their mistakes,” he told Al-Monitor.
On Dec. 12, the day after the controversy at Sharif University, Larijani met with a group of students, but this time behind closed doors. He reportedly dismissed Nazari’s accusations, calling him a “liar” and charging, “He poked his nose into a case that had nothing to do with him. Corruption [in the judiciary] is neither Nazari’s nor ordinary people’s business.”
Nazari told Al-Monitor, “Larijani has threatened to press charges against me for spreading lies.” He added, “I am determined to press ahead and even plan to release the evidence I gathered against them and then we’ll see who the liar is.”
Of note, on Dec. 24 Ejei denied that Larijani would file a lawsuit against Nazari, but indicated that the judiciary would pursue the case if judges or lawyers decided to make a complaint.
While careful to make clear that he bears no animosity toward the Islamic Republic, Nazari concluded, “Seeking justice was the main cause of the people who revolted against the former regime of the shah. Four decades on, ‘justice’ is still the missing word in the lexicon of Iranian politicians and officials.”