In his first press conference as president-elect of the Islamic Republic of Iran, outgoing chief justice Ebrahim Raisi spoke of making the necessary provisions for his fellow "dear Iranians" to return to the country.
The comments were met with widespread revulsion. Among the “dear Iranians” Raisi invoked were journalists, information activists, artists, political dissidents, and tens of thousands of ordinary people who fled the country precisely due to the violent repression, social constraints and material hardship Raisi and others had helped bring about. Many of these absentees do long to return to their homeland – as Raisi put it, “their ancestral homeland” – but not in the current conditions.
Ebrahim Raisi’s Empty Promises to Iranians Forced Out
In Monday’s press conference, speaking into the microphones of domestic and international media from the IRIB and PressTV to AP, Reuters and Ruptly, Ebrahim Raisi promised that his government would facilitate the homecoming of their fellow "dear Iranians".
“They are Iranians and we have a responsibility toward them,” he said. “Therefore, the re-entry of Iranians should be facilitated through all relevant departments."
He followed this up by preposterously declaring that Iranians with investments abroad should bring these back inside Iran, on the basis that Iran was the world’s “safest” country in which to invest. The speech was also peppered with keywords like “security” and “responsibility”: terms that have been invoked by previous presidents when drawing on the same theme.
In this case, though, the words rang especially hollow. Before last Friday’s election, Ebrahim Raisi had spent more than 14 years occupying some of the highest positions in the Iranian judiciary: as deputy head, Attorney General, and Chief Justice as of March 2019.
From this vantage point, he has overseen the execution by hanging of more than 500 Iranian citizens, amputations for petty crimes, the banning of newspapers, multiple brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests, clampdowns on women for non-observance of hijab, and the kidnapping, torture and detention of Iranians of all walks of life who dared to stand up to the regime.
Lawyers and Reporters Without Borders: We Don’t Need an Invitation
Abdolkarim Lahiji is an Iranian-born lawyer and activist who has served as president of the International Federation for Human Rights since 2013. He left Iran for Europe in the early 1980s due to the political pressures.
"Ebrahim Raisi’s promise to create a safe environment for Iranians re-entering the country is neither surprising nor new,” he told IranWire. “All his words betray is the extent of his own rudeness and impudence, which has no limits. Lying and projection are the hallmarks of the Islamic Republic and authoritarian regimes all over the world."
Reza Moini, head of the Iran-Afghanistan office of Reporters Without Borders, told IranWire his organization is aware of at least 25 journalists and citizen journalists who are currently languishing in Iranian prisons. "Any return is near-impossible as long as the law allows for the imprisonment of journalists,” he said. “Past experience has shown that those who did go back faced many difficulties.
“Another point to make is that Raisi’s words are not a concession to us. We are Iranians, Iran is our country, and no one can deprive us of our nationality. As much as Raisi, Rouhani, Khamenei and the rest are Iranians, we are Iranians. Were the regime to stop acting illegally and uphold international human rights, Iranians would no longer need to be invited back. We would return ourselves because Iran is our country."
From Kiomars Marzban to Ruhollah Zam: The Fate of Iranians who Returned
Kiomars Marzban, a young Iranian-born satirist living in Malaysia, travelled home to Iran in the summer of 2017 to visit his ailing grandmother. He was arrested by Revolutionary Guards in September 2018 and later tried by the Revolutionary Court on security-related charges, including "links to hostile states."
Marzban was eventually sentenced to 23 years and nine months in prison, a two-year ban on leaving the country, and two-year bans on using social networks and any form of media activity. This took place in September 2019, six months after Ebrahim Raisi took over the judiciary.
Kianoush Sanjari, a human rights activist and former reporter for Voice of America, came to Iran in December 2016 to visit his family after 10 years’ estrangement. He was arrested on arrival and hit with an 11-year custodial sentence by Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court, and a two-year travel ban, again on security-related charges.
In June 2019 Sanjari was placed on medical leave due to worsening mental ill-health. The young reporter, who had come back to Iran of his own free will, had been admitted under false pretences to the psychiatric ward of Aminabad Hospital and injected with a cocktail of unknown drugs, which he said left him “paralyzed for 24 hours”.
These Iranians had returned to the country voluntarily. Others did not have the choice. Last December the Iranian judiciary hanged Ruhollah Zam, a father-of-two and founder of the anti-regime Telegram channel Amad News.
Zam had been living in Paris for years when he was lured to Baghdad in October 2019 on the false promise of an interview. There he was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Guards, held in Syria for months and finally transferred back to Iran, where he was tortured for months and finally sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court.
Absentees Unconvinced; Lawyer Explains How to Read Ebrahim Raeesi
The idea of creating a safe environment for Iranians’ return was brought up on multiple occasions under Hassan Rouhani’s government. Deputy foreign minister Hassan Qashghavi even promised to set up a “committee” to facilitate returns, with the help of representatives from the Intelligence and Foreign Ministries. “In my opinion,” he once opined, “the fear of many Iranians abroad about returning is a self-imposed one and has no real basis.”
The presence of so many dual nationals in Evin Prison suggests otherwise. In May 2020, Raisi himself signed a judicial communique declaring that Iranian citizens in prison would no longer be deprived of consular services. If this was intended as an incentive for at-risk dual nationals to come back home, it does not appear to have worked.
During Raisi’s tenure in the judiciary, even more journalists have also been put off coming back to Iran. Time and again, reporters at BBC Persian, Iran International and Radio Farda have reported both threats and harassment against themselves, and the repeated summoning and interrogation of their family members in Iran.
Perhaps the difference between Raisi’s early approach and that of his predecessors was that at the same time as calling for Iranians to return home, at his very first press conference, he referred to his involvement in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners a “human rights”-related move, while trying to paint himself as worthy of praise.
After the press conference aired, Abdolkarim Lahiji told IranWire his memories of living in the fledgling Islamic Republic as a young man. “I was still living in secret in Iran in the early 1980s, and I remember very well that Khomeini's speeches were broadcast on television every few days.
“Addressing the mothers and fathers whose children belonged to various political groups, Khomeini said they were obligated by their religion to expose their children. Then he said their repentance might not be accepted and they might be executed, but at least by doing so, parents would have bought their children life in the hereafter. Such was the degree of cruelty then, and Raisi and others are graduates of the same school of thought.
“In yet another of his speeches, Khomeini said regime members were ‘gardeners’ tasked with ‘trimming the weeds’ so they would not damage the other plants. They do not consider their opponents to be human beings.
"When Raisi says he acted according to human rights, he means that he eliminated those who harmed the system of the Islamic Republic so that its supporters could continue in their own lives. This same vision justifies any the arrest of Iranian who returns to the country."