The embattled Iranian government is increasingly resorting to the most severe punishment — execution — as it tries to tamp down a wave of financial crimes amid an economic downturn fueled in part by tough U.S. sanctions, according to activists and human rights groups.
Newly formed “corruption courts” have overseen high-profile executions, including the hanging of a notorious smuggler whom Tehran’s police labeled the “Sultan of Coins” and his alleged accomplice. Vahid Mazloumin and Mohammad Ismail Ghasemi were put to death last month after their convictions on charges of manipulating gold prices and “spreading corruption.”
Iranian officials insist the moves are required to control a surge of black-market activity that has thrived amid the Islamic republic’s economic troubles. The downturn has been accelerated by the Trump administration’s reimposition of a near-total embargo on Iran after Washington withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal this year.
But leading rights activists view the anti-corruption drive with deep skepticism. They dismiss the legal proceedings as little more than “kangaroo courts” that violate international law.
“This is an effort to distract Iranians from seeing how much poorer they are now than they were a year ago,” said Shirin Nariman, a spokeswoman for the Organization of Iranian American Communities.
Ms. Nariman, who was imprisoned in Iran at age 17, told The Washington Times that the anti-corruption proceedings are acts of a desperate regime pursuing low-level and often innocent suspects so they can show ordinary Iranians that something is being done in a time of growing economic hardship and isolation.
The surging pace of capital punishment, she and other leading activists say, is a sign that the Trump administration’s program of economic pressure is bearing fruit.
In the crosshairs
Reports of rising corruption and economic disruption have put key Iranian officials and institutions in the crosshairs.
The Central Bank of Iran has a long history of criminal activity. In 2012, Obama administration officials sanctioned it for attempting to sidestep global sanctions slapped on Iran before the 2015 nuclear deal was signed.
Much of the incompetence, analysts say, centered around Central Bank Governor Valiollah Seif, who was fired in July after five years at the helm. Critics blamed Mr. Seif’s ouster on his mismanagement of Iran’s monetary policy, especially failing to foresee that Washington would withdraw from the nuclear accord.
Treasury Department officials in May also sanctioned Mr. Seif for laundering money to Tehran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah militia and the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ special forces unit. Washington has designated Hezbollah and the Quds Force as terrorist organizations.
At the time, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said it was “appalling, but not surprising, that Iran’s senior-most banking official would conspire” with Hezbollah and the Quds Force and that such activities undermined “any credibility [Mr. Seif] could claim in protecting the integrity of the institution as a central bank governor.”
After his dismissal, Mr. Seif briefly served as an adviser to President Hassan Rouhani but has since been given a lifetime ban from holding public office in Iran.
Economists blame his faulty policies for accelerating Iran’s financial collapse, especially his efforts to stop capital flight before the U.S. sanctions kicked in. With that decision, the central bank lifted an $11,500 cap on how much foreign cash and gold Iranians could bring into the country.
The resulting scramble injected hard currency into the country — just as Washington sanctioned Iranian purchases of U.S. dollars and gold trading — and set the conditions for an explosion of black-market activity that has wreaked havoc on the prices of essential goods, including medicine and food.
By August, the unrest spiraled into angry protests over rising unemployment and high prices, leading to some predictions that the Islamic republic might collapse. The value of the national currency, the rial, fell to a record low.
That month, the parliament fired Labor Minister Ali Rabiei, who predicted that the country would lose 1 million jobs because of the U.S. sanctions. To combat black markets, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, created the anti-corruption courts.
According to the London-based rights group Amnesty International, Iran has one of the highest execution rates in the world, as well as a long record of killing former officials and leading business figures found guilty of corruption. The regime staged at least 31 public executions last year.
“With these abhorrent executions, the Iranian authorities have flagrantly violated international law,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa research director.
“These men were convicted after a grossly unfair show trial that was broadcast on state television,” he said.
He noted that international legal conventions forbid the death penalty for nonlethal crimes.
The anti-corruption courts have sped up the process, activists say. The latest figures show at least seven new death sentences, with many of the trials broadcast live on national TV. Critics say the proceedings lack due process and feature quick rulings that are often based on confessions extracted under duress.
Some point to the “Sultan of Coins” case as a glaring example of injustice.
Mr. Mazloumin and Mr. Ghasemi, activists say, were executed not for breaking any laws but for running afoul of the gold market operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC sees itself as the defender of the 1979 Islamic Revolution but also has established its own business empire that includes engineering services, construction, and oil and gas operations.
“These people did not do anything wrong,” Ms. Nariman said. “They bought gold cheap and sold it high.”
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, which tracks prosecutions, has called for an immediate stop to the courts and demanded reviews of all sentences issued thus far.
“The international community must register its forceful condemnation of these kangaroo courts and the executions that are being carried out under their direction,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
After a Nov. 14 trial, Mr. Mazloumin and Mr. Ghassem again denied they had traded gold wrongly, but they were hanged at dawn anyway.