The trial of Akbar Tabari, a deputy head of Iran’s judiciary, and associates began on June 7 and follows a massive corruption probe last year. The case is unprecedented in terms of the number of defendants with backgrounds in the judiciary, and has dragged in the names of a so-called powerful and corrupt group in the judiciary known as the “Mazandarani Security Ring”: senior figures who are natives of Mazandaran province.
The fact that this is happening is regarded by some as evidence of a battle between the Chief Justice Ebrahim Raeesi, who was appointed in March last year, and his deposed predecessor, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, over which of them might be the future Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Arresting one’s rival – and if not them, their former associates – has been a method regularly deployed by Iranian political officials to get rid of their competitors.
In the latest skirmish to take place outside the courtroom, Tehran University’s Society of Students for Justice sent a letter to Sadegh Larijani, demanding his resignation from the chairmanship of the influential Expediency Council so that he could be arrested and tried himself.
This student union declares itself to be non-partisan and believes it has a duty to question and criticize government officials and institutions and hold them accountable. Its reason for the demand is that earlier last year, after leaving the judiciary, Larijani’s office had announced that charges against Tabari “have been investigated and proven to be false.” The statement went on to ask, “If the accusers claim there are other charges [against Tabari] then why did they not bring it to the attention of the judiciary chief?”
Political figures have not supported Tabari and believe he is guilty. But there is a burning question being asked: why now, after so many years, has Tabari’s case been reopened?
According to the indictment read by the assistant prosecutor in court, the alleged offences took place five years ago. Ebrahim Raeesi was appointed Chief Justice last March. There are those who view the timing as a final strike against Sadegh Larijani. But irrespective of how and why it has come about, the revelations heard in the courtroom this week have been jaw-dropping.
The “Mazandarani Security Ring”
The trial of Akbar Tabari has once again brought to the fore the name of a so-called powerful and corrupt group within the Iranian judiciary. The group is thought to have has existed for at least 20 years and as such, predates the tenure of Sadegh Larijani as chief justice.
Akbar Tabari is from Mazandaran, as is Sadegh Larijani, but he held top positions in the judiciary long before Larijani. Under Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, for instance, who served as chief justice from 1999 until 2009, Tabari was director-general of the judiciary’s financial affairs.
Before Tabari the role was held by Elias Mahmoudi, also from Mazandaran, who was also implicated in corruption cases. Under Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, Elias Mahmoudi served as head of the judiciary’s security department and was removed from his job after Shahram Jazayeri, an Iranian businessman convicted of corruption and financial crimes, escaped from prison in 2007. Mahmoudi was accused of accepting a bribe to facilitate his escape as well as being implicated in other corruption cases.
In 2010, the MP Elias Naderian reported that Mahmoudi had been arrested but Mahmoudi himself denied this. Naderian also said that Mahmoudi was implicated in a high-profile embezzlement case at the government-owned Iran Insurance Co. along with President Ahmadinejad’s first vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi, who was sentenced to prison in 2015 for illegal acquisition of illicit property and taking bribes.
Tabari is also accused of taking bribes from other prominent would-be convicts with links to the area. In 2011, it has been claimed, Tabari helped to hush up a criminal case against Mostafa Niaz Azari, who was charged with economic corruption and “disrupting the country's economy”. Azari’s case was swept under the rug and he was able to flee Iran in exchange for a bribe of 15,000 square meters (161,000 sq. feet) of land and three villas with a value of 42 billion rials. Kiumars Niaz Azari, Mostafa’s father, was the director-general of Mazandaran’s Intelligence Bureau for 13 years.
Also indicted is Bijan Ghasemzadeh, a judge whose name was in the news when, in 2017, he issued a ruling to block Telegram, the most popular social media platform in Iran. Like Tabari and Azari he is a native of Mazandaran and, like them, he has been charged with taking bribes.
Luxury Villas as Bribes
As of now, Tabari’s trial has focused on events surrounding the Klok and Busty Hills villa complexes near Tehran. It is alleged that Gholamreza Mansouri, an ex-prosecutor judge in the court of Lavasan near Tehran, who is responsible for the arbitrary arrests of many journalists, fled to Germany after allegedly taking a 500,000-euro bribe in Iran to allow the illegal construction of these 2,000-square-meter luxury villas in Lavasan.
The Busty Hills complex has been built to resemble Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, while the Klok complex is still under construction. Between them, they cover 500,000 square meters, with sixty-two 2,000-square-meter villas already built or under construction. According to records posted on Twitter, planning for the construction of these villas began in 2003 but Iran’s High Council of Architecture and Urban Development opposed the proposals in 2007. Despite this, Kamran Daneshjou, Tehran’s governor at the time, issued an order allowing the project to go ahead.
In 2008, the municiplaity of Lavasan refused to issue a permit for the villas’ construction. But Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a former speaker of parliament and then-head of the Supreme Leader’s Inspection office, intervened and a permit was issued. Then Vahid Haghanian, a powerful member of the Supreme Leader’s office, ordered the project be halted. In 2016, then-judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani intervened and ruled that the project could go ahead.
These villas belong to the three brothers, Hasan, Mohsen and Mehdi Najafi. They are thought to be distant relatives of Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri of the Inspection Office. Hasan Najafi is a fugitive now, but Akbar Tabari told the court that Najafi had been “like a brother” to him. Kamran Daneshjou and Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri have yet to be called to give evidence in the trial.
A Defendant Shared by Cases against Tabari and Rouhani’s Brother
Another charge against Tabari is that he received a bribe from Rasoul Danialzadeh, known as Iran’s “King of Steel”. It recently emerged that Danialzadeh owed Iranian banks four trillion tomans (USD $266 million) and last year, judiciary officials announced that Danialzadeh had escaped from Iran, then been “guided back” to the country before being arrested by the Revolutionary Guards.
Tabari is accused of having received a bribe from Danialzadeh in the form of an apartment in the Roma Residence Residential Tower, a luxury highrise in northern Tehran in which the smallest unit is 350 square meters. Separately Danialzadeh’s name has also surfaced in the case against President Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoon, who was arrested in 2017 and was charged with accepting a bribe of 26 billion tomans ($1.74 million) from Danialzadeh.
Another defendant in the case is Hamid Alizadeh, who was the examining magistrate in a so-called “astronomical corruption” case involving the sale of 1,100,000 square meters of property owned by Tehran municipality, including apartments and villas, to various individuals including government officials, sometimes at a 50 percent discount. He is accused of having received a bribe of three billion tomans ($200 thousand) from Rasoul Danialzadeh.
Corruption at Bank Mellat and Parsian Bank
Anonther part of the case against Akbar Tabari is related to corruption at Bank Mellat and Parsian Bank, though this charge has yet to be presented to the court in detail. Mohammad Movahed, the judge presiding over the the trial of the former CEO of Bank Mellat, told the court that Akbar Tabari had tried to pressure the examining magistrate to drop charges.
During the Bank Mellat trial, Ehsan Sakhaei, son-in-law of the Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, was presented as an “agent” of ebezzlement. According to the assistant prosecutor, “$105 million at Bank Mellat and $60 million at Bank Parsian have been embezzled.”
Another part of Tabari’s case involves Babak Zanjani, an Iranian billionaire businessman who was arrested in 2013 on various charges, including owning 2.5 billion euros to the Oil Ministry and Iran’s Central Bank, and sentenced to death in 2016. It has been alleged that the defendants in Tabari’s case worked with Zanjani in bypassing sanctions.
Unprecendented Number of Former Judges on Trial
The number of former judges and senior judiciary officials who have now been indicted in the case is remarkable. Tabari, was a former executive deputy of the Iranian judiciary and Mansouri and Ghasemzadeh were prominent judges who had ruled in high-profile cases.
It is also one of the most labyrinthine corruption cases that has ever gone to court in Iran because the first-degree defendant, Tabari, is accused of aiding and abetting the defendants in other big corruption cases. In other words, Tabari’s alleged corruption was the “mother” of other crimes.
At his trial, however, Tabari has behaved as a plaintiff, not as a defendant. This behavior is common to most corruption cases against officials of the Islamic Republic, who not only do not plead guilty to charges against them but claim that they have been serving the country.
Extensive corruption in Iran’s judiciary has been a fact for at least 15 years, and are forgotten soon enough. Whether this case will put an end to the so-called “Mazandarani Security Ring” or not it is too soon to tell.