TEHRAN, IRAN—A senior Iranian government official and former Tehran prosecutor general linked to the death of a Canadian journalist has been arrested, two years after a parliamentary probe found him responsible for deaths by torture of at least three jailed anti-government protesters, state media reported.
Saeed Mortazavi — a close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — was taken to Tehran’s Evin prison late Monday night, according to the reports, which gave few details on the arrest.
Mortazavi has been at the centre of a growing confrontation between Ahmadinejad and the president’s conservative rivals in parliament ahead of the June presidential election.
Ahmadinejad cannot run a third time because of term limits and many of his allies have either been arrested or pushed to the political margins because of the president’s attempt to extend his powers.
Mortazavi’s detention came a day after Ahmadinejad displayed in parliament a barely audible video showing Fazel Larijani, brother of parliament speaker Ali Larijani, meeting with Mortazavi and allegedly seeking a bribe in return for ensuring his brother’s support for the president. Ali Larijani denied any links to the video.
Ahmadinejad strongly denounced Mortazavi’s arrest, accusing the judiciary of being run as a “family institution” — a reference to the Larijanis. Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, another brother of Ali Larijani, is Iran’s judiciary chief.
“The judiciary should be the judiciary of the nation and not one special family’s private organization,” said Ahmadinejad in remarks posted on the president’s website.
“This is very ugly. It’s not appropriate for the people of the Islamic Republic and the judiciary,” Ahmadinejad said before leaving Tuesday for Egypt, to attend a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. “I’ll definitely pursue this matter seriously when I return.”
Mortazavi was Tehran city prosecutor in 2009, during massive protests in the wake of Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election. At the time, he was responsible for Kahrizak prison in the Iranian capital, where at least three anti-government protesters were tortured to death. He now heads the country’s social security fund.
Mortazavi has also been linked to the death of Montreal photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. An Iranian-born Canadian, the 54-year-old Kazemi was arrested in June 2003 for taking photographs outside Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
Kazemi was tortured and beaten in custody and later died in hospital.
Kazemi’s family have accused Mortazavi of obstruction of justice after her death.
Iran’s reformists have openly criticized Mortazavi during his years in the judiciary. He was even dubbed “butcher of the press” for the closures of more than 120 newspapers and the imprisonment of dozens of journalists and political activists over the past 13 years.
The semiofficial Mehr news agency said Mortazavi was detained at midnight Monday while Fars, another semiofficial news agency, said he was detained as he was leaving work and taken to Evin prison, just north of Tehran.
Fars had different takes on why Mortazavi was arrested. In one, it said the authorities have Mortazavi for misappropriation of state funds, while in another, it said the arrest was related to Mortazavi’s role in the 2009 prison deaths of the protesters.
The following year, a parliamentary probe into the case found Mortazavi responsible for what had happened at Kahrizak. He was suspended as Tehran prosecutor general and the case remained open for a judicial investigation, though no further action was taken against Mortazavi.
The judiciary said earlier this year that the prison deaths would again be investigated in March.
The three prisoners, detained in mass street protests against Ahmadinejad, died in Kahrizak a month after their arrest. The case significantly embarrassed the authorities and drew some of the fiercest criticism against Iran’s government and its treatment of those arrested in the turmoil following the election.
On Sunday, Iranian lawmakers impeached the country’s labour minister and another Ahmadinejad ally, Abdolreza Sheikholeslami, for appointing Mortazavi as head of the social security fund.