November 8, 2019 — The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) is a theocratic republic, with a governing system unlike any other country, not even other Islamic countries — including a separate judicial system for clerics known as the Special Clerical Court.
It might seem that Shi’a clergies have absolute power in the Islamic Republic. The Twelver Shi’a clergies, the mainstream Islamic scholars in Iran, start attending the seminaries even before entering high school to study Islamic texts, traditions and most of all jurisprudence. They make their way up studying in various schools within the seminaries to reach the level of Ijtihad, independent reasoning and ability to rule within the laws of jurisprudence.
Within the clerical establishment of IRI, there are clerical groups, factions and other individual clergies with various levels of knowledge and expertise who fall outside of the circle of power.
Over the last four decades, the IRI has attempted to manage, discipline and punish those individuals who enter the seminaries to become clergies. This has been done through various mechanisms, all of them carried out in a low profile and secretive manner. This is the story of an exceptional court, which is known as “the Special Clerical Court” (SCC).
The Special Case of a Special Clerical Court
The idea of a court for clerics goes back to the first years after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, however, “the special Clerical court” was established formally twice once in 1987 and then in 1990. It works outside the regular judicial framework and is overseen directly by the supreme leader. It deals with crimes committed by the clergies — including political dissident Islamic scholars who part ways from the mainstream.
The Supreme Court of Iran has no jurisdiction to review cases seen by the SCC, and appeals are heard by another chamber of the Clerical Court.
Several decades after the establishment of the SCC, the structure, activities, and procedures of this body are still unclear.
SCC was established to deal with the crimes committed by the clergy. But there have been a few examples where other citizens were summoned or tried in the court.
There are reports of non-clerics who were put on trial in SCC for pretending to be clergies, and their cases were also reviewed in this court.
There have been also cases of a few clerics who were defrocked and put under house arrest without going through the court system at all.
The crimes that are reviewed by SCC includes a wide range, from adultery to corruption and fraud. The initial purpose of such a court was to punish the dissidents and those who harm the image of the clerics.
SCC’s First Phase: Establishment after the Revolution
A few months after the 1979 revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the IRI, ordered inauguration of a court for “corrupt clerics.” He said the court was not there to defend the clerics, but “to defend Islam.”
On May 22, 1979, Khomeini, in a message to the people of Iran, ordered the creation of a court. He wrote: “In Islam, everyone is equal in front of the law, but the criminals who infiltrated by wearing the clergy attire should be punished.”
Khomeini ordered a committee to set up a Special Clerical Court in each city consisting of three individuals. These committees should review the cases of the clerics and preachers. After the charges had been approved, the criminals should be punished under the supervision of the Islamic Revolutionary Court.
The initial clerical court that Khomeini ordered, did not last long.
Mohsen Kadivar, a research professor of Islamic studies at the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University, explains to Zamaneh that there is not much we know of the judicial mechanisms of the initial clerical court that were established post-1979 revolution:
“We don’t know that much about it. What we know is that Ahmad Azari Qomi was its prosecutor. Hussein-Ali Montazeri has mentioned this in his memoir. Montazeri wrote that the first Special Court, that was run by Azari, had done some radical acts.”
According to Kadivar, we do not have what happened in that period of the court and how the court dealt with cases, and how long did it last. What we do know is that Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who at the time had much influence because he was a high ranking theologian, one of the leaders of the revolution and a successor to the revolution’s founding Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, intervened to terminate the court.
Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, an Islamic scholar, says that in the radical and chaotic atmosphere after the revolution, several clerics were arrested with charges like ties to the former Shah’s Regime. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran who was overthrown by the 1979 Revolution kept good relations with some of the Shi’a clergies.
“Revolutionary Courts and General Courts did not know what it should be done regarding these clerics and their charges; there was not any specific law. It was an unprecedented situation. It was said that it is better to review these charges in a limited and specific place to save the dignity of the clergy institution,” Eshkevari told Zamaneh
SCC’s Second Phase: Prosecuting Mehdi Hashemi
Mehdi Hashemi was a revolutionary cleric and a close ally of both Ayatollah Khomeini and Montazeri. After the 1979 revolution, he was appointed to start a Revolutionary Guard Force. In 1986, he was arrested on several charges including murder and corruption on earth. A special clerical court prosecuted him as a cleric, defrocked and executed him in 1987 during what is known as the second phase of the Clerical court.
The reason that a special clerical court was created for the prosecution of Hashemi is that handling of the case would have been difficult within the frameworks of the Revolutionary Courts — according to Kadivar.
“The judiciary chief in that period was Mousavi Ardebili, and he did not agree to revive the case of Mehdi Hashemi. Because of this, the Khomeini’s office decided to arrange a separate procedure and called it Special Clerical Court. Ali Fallahian was the general attorney of this court, and Ali Razini was the judge. These two individuals executed Hashemi,” Kadivar tells Zamaneh.
Mehdi Hashemi was the brother of Ayatollah Montazeri’s son in law, the designated successor to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini — a role that does not exist anymore in the Islamic Republic.
Hashemi was criticial of the Iran–Contra Affair, and his charges include sedition, treason, and murder.
The Special Clerical Court in the second phase was dismantled a couple of years after the Execution of Hashemi.
SCC’s Third Phase: The Death of Khomeini and start of The Khamenei’s era
In July 1990, almost a year after Khomeini’s death, the Special Clerical Court was created by order of the new and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In a letter that was sent from Khamenei’s office to Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, as the chief prosecutor of the SCC the frameworks, procedural methods, organization, and the structure of the court were determined.
It was the first time that the Special Clerical Court found a legal basis.
“The Special Clerical Court has been active for about 30 years now, and it is known to everyone. This SCC is a large institution and is operating outside the jurisdiction of the Iranian Judiciary system,” Eshkevari tells Zamaneh.
What do we know about the Clerical Court’s cases? The cases and procedures before the SCC are generally secret and confidential.
As Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, tells Zamaneh, “this court system, which hears cases related to the clergy, is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader, who appoints the prosecutor general and the judge of the top branch.”
“Like all kangaroo courts, it has wide discretion to prosecute people based on arbitrary interpretations of the law, in this case, Sharia, as well as perceived and alleged threats to the state,” Ghaemi adds.
Due to the secrecy associated with the SCC, we do not have any information about how many people have been put on trial by this court. Neither do we know much about the charges brought against individuals by the SCC and the carried sentences. Sporadically we hear about the execution and prison sentence and defrocking the clerics.
According to Eshkevari, there is no official or inclusive data on this court.
“The court is not accountable to any institution. For the simple reason that the SCC operates under the Supreme Leader. No other institution is allowed to review its performance or the budget,” Eashkevari explained.
According to Ghaemi, since SCC only answers to the supreme leader and has zero parliamentary checks or balances, it can be used as a tool of repression to silence clerics who oppose state policies or carry out vendettas against dissident individuals:
“Any grievances related to the clergy must be heard at this court system, meaning that if a member of the clergy commits a crime against a non-clergy member, that individual’s only means of recourse is through this system. But the odds are stacked against the non-clergy member, who cannot choose their counsel (they must instead use counsel from a list approved by this court) and who must bring their case to a completely biased system that was set up to protect state-approved clergy”.
Discussions on the Legitimacy of SCC
One of the issues regarding the SCC is its legitimacy. The existence of this court has not been mentioned in the Iranian constitution. Some scholars and lawyers even believe that it contradicts the Constitution.
Eshkevari believes that SCC “is clearly discrimination against the justice and contradicts the modern law system.”
Article 19 of the Iranian Constitution states: “The people of Iran enjoy equal rights, regardless of the tribe or ethnic group to which they belong. Color, race, language, and other such considerations shall not be grounds for special privileges.”
Kadivar also believes that the SCC is a violation of articles 57, 177, 110, 172, and 19 of the IRI’s constitution.
He adds that in articles 57, 177, and 110 of the Constitution of Iran, no reference has been made to a court such as the SCC to function under the authrity of the Supreme Leader.
According to Kadivar, “the only way to legalize this court is by reviewing the Iranian constitution and adding a new article (amendment) to it. It is also required that all the aforementioned articles be changed.”
“Without any doubt, the Special Clerical Court is illegal at this moment. It has always been illegal,” Kadivar further emphasizes.
Political, Criminal or an Inquisitorial Court?
A cleric, according to the definition of this court, is the person who wears the cleric dress (a robe and a turban) or is studying in a seminary school (Hoozeh) or even if he has another occupation commonly is known as a cleric.
The special clerical court has been accused of being a tool for punishing the dissident clerics. Many of the critics of this court believe that the court has been used for the purposes of political suppression.
“The truth is a Special clerical Court is a tool for repressing the clerics who are opposing the Supreme Leader of IRI. it suppresses any critic’s voice inside the seminary schools (Hoozeh Elmieh)” According to Eshkevari.
According to Eshkevari, if at the beginning of the 1979 Iranian revolution the SCC was created to save the face and dignity of the religious scholars and clerics, it no longer serves that function.
Some scholars have suggested that there are similarities between the Special Clerical Court and the “Star Chamber.”
Britannica describes the “Court of Star Chamber:” in English law, the court made up of judges and privy councilors that grew out of the medieval king’s council as a supplement to the regular justice of the common-law courts.”
The chamber sessions were held without a jury and were dealing with opponents of the King.
Some suggest the SCC while dealing with political cases, acts like the inquisitional court in medieval times.
“As I stated in my book, from Berlin to Evin: Prison Notes, when I told the judge (Ali Razini) that your questions are considered as inquisition” and referred him to the constitution, he looked down on me and said with a humiliating smile, Mr. Eshkevari! Don’t talk like the human rights activists; we are here for the inquisition,” Eshkevari told Zamaneh.
Eshkevari was convicted at the Special Clerical Court for several charges including “spreading lies and insulting Islamic sanctities”. He was defrocked and served several years in prison.
Kadivar, however, believes that we cannot directly compare the SCCto the inquisitional Courts of the middle ages:
“The inquisitional Courts in the middle ages were not about the clergy but were about religion and beliefs. Those courts reviewed every matter that was related to religion. However, the Special Clerical Court is specifically about the Clergy, not a religion,” Kadivar explains.
Famous Political Cases That Went on Trial on the SCC
Hundreds or thousands of clerics and non-clerics have been put on trial in the Special Clerical Courts. According to Hadi Ghaemi, there is no accurate registry available on the cases of this court.
There are some famous cases of clerics who have been under trial or have been disrobed without trials in the last four decades. These cases got media coverage, and we know more details about them. Cases for Hassan Qomi, Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, Mohammad Sadegh Rouhani, Ahmad Azari Qomi, Hoseinali Monrazeri, Mehdi Karroubi, Arash Honarvar, Hassan Eshkevari, Ali Afsahi, Hadi Ghabel, Hossein Kazemeini Broujerdi, Majid Jafari Tabar, Ahmad Montazeri, Mohammad Reza Nekounam, and Hassan Agha Miri are among those famous cases.
One of the earliest cases for a cleric is related to Abdolreza Hejazi; he was a preacher in Tehran before the revolution. Shortly after the revolution, he was accused of plotting for a coup against the revolution. Hejazi was defrocked and executed in 1983.
The case for Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi got lots of media attention. He was a cleric who called for the separation of church and state (religion and politics) in meetings at his home in Tehran where tens of his followers were gathering. The police eventually raided his home and destroyed it with a bulldozer. A court in September 2007 tried him for “fighting God” and “propagating against the state,” He was defrocked and sentenced to 10 years prison
One recent case of this court in the case of Hassan Aghamiri, Aghamiri, is a social media activist with thousands of followers in Telegram and Instagram. He was defrocked in January 2019 on charges of “undermining clerics’ dignity and insulting sanctities.”
Mohsen Kadivar, a source for this article is a theologian who once argued that religion should be separated from the State. He was charged with disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic and appeared before the SCC in Tehran in 1999. Kadivar was convicted of the charge and served 18 months in prison.
During the time that he served in prison, Kadivar tells Zamaneh, he was kept in a special prison ward for the cleric. Some prisoners in those wards were arrested for drug smuggling, but they were not clergy. They were just wearing the robe as a protection, in order to avoid the attention of the police, Kadivar explains.
He adds that there were prisoners related to embezzlement or second marriage without the approval of their first wives and corruption, too.
According to Kadivar, in the period that he was serving in prison (1999–2000), he and Abdullah Noori (the former Minister of State) were the only political cases