Ebrahim Raisi: The hardline cleric who became Iran president

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Ebrahim Raisi: The hardline cleric who became Iran president
Iranian state media confirm Ebrahim Raisi has died in the copter crash

BBC | Ebrahim Raisi is a hardline cleric close to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose election as president in 2021 consolidated the control of conservatives over every part of the Islamic Republic.

The 63-year-old former judiciary chief succeeded Hassan Rouhani after a landslide victory in a poll which saw many prominent moderate and reformist candidates barred and the majority of voters stay away.

He took power as Iran faced multiple challenges, including acute economic problems, escalating regional tensions, and stalled talks on the revival of a nuclear deal with world powers.

However, his time in office has been dominated by the anti-government protests that swept across Iran in 2022, as well as the current war in Gaza between Israel and the Iran-backed Palestinian group Hamas, during which Iran's shadow war with Israel burst into the open.

He has also faced continuing calls from many Iranians and human rights activists for an investigation into his alleged role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s.

Ebrahim Raisi was born in 1960 in Mashhad, Iran's second biggest city and home to the country's holiest Shia Muslim shrine. His father, who was a cleric, died when he was five years old.

Mr Raisi, who wears a black turban identifying him in Shia tradition as a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, followed his father's footsteps and started attending a seminary in the holy city of Qom at the age of 15.

While a student he took part in protests against the Western-backed Shah, who was eventually toppled in 1979 in an Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

After the revolution he joined the judiciary and served as a prosecutor in several cities while being trained by Ayatollah Khamenei, who became Iran's president in 1981.

Links to Iran's 'death committee'

Mr Raisi became the deputy prosecutor in Tehran when he was only 25.

While in that position he served as one of four judges who sat on secret tribunals set up in 1988 that came to be known as the "Death Committee".

The tribunals "re-tried" thousands of prisoners already serving jail sentences for their political activities. Most were members of the leftist opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People's Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI).

The exact number of those who were sentenced to death by the tribunals is not known, but human rights groups have said about 5,000 men and women were executed and buried in unmarked mass graves in what constituted a crime against humanity.

Leaders of the Islamic Republic do not deny that the executions happened, but they do not discuss details and the legality of the individual cases.

Mr Raisi has repeatedly denied his role in the death sentences. But he has also said they were justified because of a fatwa, or religious ruling, by Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 2016, an audio tape of a 1988 meeting between Mr Raisi, several other members of the judiciary and then Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (1922-2009) was leaked.

In the tape, Montazeri is heard describing the executions as "the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic". A year later Montazeri lost his position as Khomeini's designated successor and Ayatollah Khamenei became the Supreme Leader upon Khomeini's death.

When asked in 2021 about his alleged role in the mass executions, Mr Raisi told reporters: "If a judge, a prosecutor, has defended the security of the people, he should be praised... I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far."

Unlikely presidential ambitions

In 2017, Mr Raisi surprised observers by standing for the presidency.

Mr Rouhani, a fellow cleric, won a second term by a landslide in the election's first round, receiving 57 percent of the vote. Mr Raisi, who presented himself as an anti-corruption fighter but was accused by the president of doing little to tackle graft as deputy judiciary chief, came second with 38 percent.

The loss did not tarnish Mr Raisi's image and in 2019 Ayatollah Khamenei named him to the powerful position of head of the judiciary.

The following week, he was also elected as deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member clerical body responsible for electing the next Supreme Leader.

As judiciary chief, Mr Raisi implemented reforms that led to a reduction in the number of people sentenced to death and executed for drug-related offences in the country. However, Iran continued to put more people to death than any other country apart from China.

The judiciary also continued to work with the security services to crack down on dissent and to prosecute many Iranians with dual nationality or foreign permanent residency on spying charges.

Then-US President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Mr Raisi over his human rights record in 2019. He was accused of having administrative oversight over the execution of individuals who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes, and of being involved in the violent crackdown on the protests by the opposition Green Movement after the disputed presidential election in 2009.

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