Sitting on a Saw: unanswered questions over the grim death of Gholamreza Mansouri
Romanian authorities must investigate the sudden death of Gholamreza Mansouri in Bucharest on Friday 19th June 2020. His body was found after apparently falling from an upper floor of his hotel.
Mansouri had many enemies: he was a fugitive, on the run. A former Iranian judge accused of bribery and corruption, he fled to Germany last year. A high-profile criminal trial is underway in Iran, with nine alleged co-conspirators, including Mansouri. In early June, he left Germany for Romania, where, after visiting the Iranian embassy, he was arrested on Iran’s request for extradition. He was released by the Bucharest court under judicial restrictions and police surveillance, pending an extradition hearing.
In death, Mansouri dodged extradition to a state with an appalling human rights record. He also evaded justice for alleged crimes against humanity. I was working on this case with Matthew Jury of McCue and Partners LLP, and human rights campaigner and academic lawyer Kaveh Moussavi, as part of our ‘Ending Impunity’ project. Our representations to the German Federal Prosecutor urged immediate investigation into allegations of grave crimes including torture, and for Mansouri’s return to Germany to face prosecution.
Hopes of justice for the victims evaporated, with news of Mansouri’s death.
It is vanishingly unlikely Mansouri would have been extradited to Iran. Due process is largely absent from the Iranian justice system. There is no functional separation between investigators, prosecutors and judges, especially in the parallel system of Revolutionary Courts. Torture is rife, and cruel and inhuman punishments are routinely dispensed, including the death penalty. Mansouri would have known this: he worked in the notorious Revolutionary Court system, as an investigator, prosecutor and judge in the media and cybercrimes court, part of the machinery of oppression and censorship of the Iranian regime. This ‘court’ is said to work closely with the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). Last year, the USA designated IRGC a terrorist organisation. The judicial system has reportedly been heavily infiltrated by the IRGC, with explicit approval of the head of the judiciary, Larijani. Mansouri was believed to have been a close associate of Larijani. Allegedly working hand in glove with IRGC operatives, Mansouri was accused of systematic and widespread arbitrary detention and torture of scores of journalists and dissidents. Many victims fled Iran, seeking asylum elsewhere. NGOs, including the International Federation of Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders, had called for him to face justice in Germany.
These allegations concern individual culpability, and systemic, state-sanctioned torture and crimes against humanity within the Iranian judicial system, as an instrument of repression. Mansouri would have been well aware of the likely implications for the Iranian judiciary, had he faced trial in Germany. His was not the first such case. In November 2019, on our representations to the Swedish War Crimes Unit, Hamid Noury, another Iranian national accused of grave crimes against humanity, including torture, was arrested at Arlanda airport on entering Sweden. Noury, like Mansouri, was a ‘judicial’ officer. He worked as a ‘prosecutor’ in Evin and Gohardasht Prisons. He was allegedly involved in the notorious ‘prison massacres’ in 1988, when thousands of political prisoners were brutally tortured and summarily executed. Noury’s arrest sent a powerful message that Europe is not a safe haven for suspects of heinous international crimes.
Under international law, and universal jurisdiction principles, states must investigate and prosecute, or extradite, suspects of war crimes and crimes against humanity, wherever the crimes occurred. Judicial officers have civilian superior ‘command and control’ functions. Abuse of judicial power to condemn individuals to illegal detention and torture, and failure to intervene to stop torture, are international crimes. Any judge working within a system pervaded with torture and crimes against humanity risks arrest, investigation and prosecution when travelling to other states, particularly in Europe.
Mansouri's death is deeply regrettable. Any preventable loss of life is a tragedy. And with Mansouri’s demise, the victims will feel cheated of justice. There are many unanswered questions for the Romanian authorities. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights requires an investigation into his death, in possibly suspicious circumstances, whilst under judicial restrictions and police surveillance. Forensic examination will need to determine the cause of death. Did he die from natural causes, an accident, suicide or murder? Secondly, there must be an inquiry into the immediate circumstances of his fall, and wider factors. Was Mansouri at risk of assassination? Was he assessed for suicide risk? Should he have been held on remand pending the extradition hearing? Was police surveillance effective? Might Romanian authorities have taken other measures to protect his life and prevent his death?
Mansouri must have felt trapped in an impossible dilemma: he was ‘sitting on a saw’, to use a Farsi expression. He could have argued convincingly that he should not be extradited to Iran, because of the systemic risk of torture, the death penalty, and unfair trials. In doing so, he would have been ‘ratting’ on the very system of which he was a part, potentially undermining his defence in any criminal trial in Europe on the torture allegations against him. He would no doubt have been well aware of the likely wider implications too.
Solicitor-advocate and barrister; consultant at McCue & Partners LLP
23 June 2020