The recent release of a short video featuring Revolutionary Court Judge Abolghasem Salavati offers a rare glimpse of Iran’s corrupt judiciary in practice.
The clip, showing the second trial session of the head of an anti-government Telegram channel, reveals the ignorance of the notorious judge, and shows a defendant ill prepared to respond to the accusations against him.
Salavati is seen ruling on the case of Ruhollah Zam, the founder and operator of Amad News Telegram Channel, which became famous for publishing sensational news and exposés against the government of the Islamic Republic. In October 2019, the Revolutionary Guards announced that they had arrested Zam. Before his arrest he lived in France and his wife told IranWire that he was abducted while he was on a trip to Iraq.
In the video, which is 59 seconds long, Judge Salavati tells Zam: “One of the charges against you is collaboration with the belligerent government of the USA. Explain this.” Zam answers: “But the American government is not considered belligerent.” Salavati then replies, “from the point of view of the Islamic Republic and the judiciary, the American government is both belligerent and terrorist. They martyred our beloved commander [General Ghasem Soleimani]. By Trump’s order they martyred a senior military officer who had arrived in Iraq as a guest.”
At that point Zam changes the subject, stating: “I met with an American representative of the National Security Agency (NSA) to Homeland Security, who was to arrange my immigration to the US.”
But how accurate is Salavati? Is the US government, as Judge Salavati says, a “belligerent government” according to Iran? From a legal point of view, a “belligerent state” is one that is engaged in an all-out war in a conventional military sense against another country. For example, from September 22, 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran, until August 20, 1988, when Iran accepted a ceasefire, the government of Saddam Hussein was considered a belligerent government vis-à-vis Iran. Aside from this, the Islamic Republic of Iran has announced that, except for Israel, it does not consider any state to be belligerent.
In the Islamic Republic, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has the authority to declare a government as belligerent, and, therefore, a judge has no legal standing to declare that the judiciary considers the US to be a belligerent nation. To ascertain whether a state is a belligerent one, the judiciary must refer to the legal department of the foreign ministry and act based on their response, whatever it might be. In response to the last inquiry by the judiciary in 2013, the foreign ministry confirmed that no country was “belligerent,” and since then nothing has changed.
A state labeled as belligerent is a matter of law and one would expect a presiding judge at a judiciary court to know both this and the authority responsible for making such a declaration. However, the statements made by Abolghasem Salavati in this 59-second video show that he has no idea of the legal implications of what he is talking about.
The Judiciary Contradicts the Iranian Government
Salavati says that the killing of General Soleimani in Iraq proves that the US is both a belligerent state and a terrorist one. But this is a contradiction in terms. If a state of war exists between Iran and the US, then Soleimani, as a senior military commander, was a legitimate target in a time of war, and killing him was a an act of war, not an act of terrorism. In other words, legally speaking, the killing of General Soleimani cannot be called both an act of war by a belligerent country and an act of terror. Besides, the government of the Islamic Republic has called the killing of Soleimani an act of terror and, in a letter to the United Nation’s secretary general and the Security Council, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations urged the council to condemn what he labeled “a criminal act” of “state terrorism” by the United States. This letter confirms that, contrary to the assertion by Judge Salavati, Iran and the US are not in a state of war and the situation has not changed since 2013, when the judiciary appealed to the foreign ministry to answer its question in that regard.
But, contrary to the official position of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian judiciary has sentenced defendants to prison terms or even to death on the charge of “collaborating with the belligerent government of the United States.” According to the Islamic Penal Code, collaboration with a belligerent government can be considered moharebeh, or “war against god,” a crime that is punishable by death.
It was based on this law that Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist, was charged with “collaborating with the belligerent government of the US” and was executed in August of 2016 as a mohareb, a “warrior against god.” The punishment for such collaboration, if it does not rise to the level of moharebeh, is 10 years in prison, and this was the punishment that was handed down to father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi.
Contrary to the position of the Iranian government, the Islamic Republic’s judiciary believes that there is a state of belligerency between Iran and the US and, by issuing such verdicts that strongly violate human rights, both the judiciary and the Iranian Supreme Court, which upholds these verdicts, show that they are not qualified or knowledgeable enough to carry out their responsibilities.
Helping the US to Justify its Actions
In addition to the horrifying results of Iranian judges ignoring the law, such verdicts pose another grave danger. By declaring the US a belligerent nation at such a critical moment, they make it easier for the United States to justify its actions and raise the chances of a real military confrontation between the two countries. In other words, convicting defendants on grounds of collaborating with “the belligerent government of the United States” is tantamount to a segment of the Iranian state declaring belligerency between the two countries. The judiciary might not be the authority responsible for declaring a state of belligerency, but the US government can present the verdicts issued by the Iranian judiciary to the UN to justify its actions. Wars have often started using similar justifications.
In the video of his trial, Ruhollah Zam claims to have met an American who was “NSA’s representative at Homeland Security.” Whatever the nature of the meeting, it could not have taken place as Zam describes. The NSA is part of the United States Department of Defense and its primary mission is to protect the US from external threats, while the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for the domestic security of the country.
Zam, however, rejected Judge Salavati’s claim that the US is a belligerent nation. This shows that, although he might be ignorant of many facts, he knows more than the presiding judge in this regard.
In photographs published from the trial, the faces of intelligence and security agents who were present at the court are blurred. Zam’s trial is very likely to end in his conviction — even though the presiding judge is not aware of the possible consequences of his statements and the defendant is clueless about what he is talking about.
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