Forensic investigators carry the body of Iranian judge Gholamreza Mansour, who died after falling from a hotel atrium in Bucharest on June 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/Octav Ganea

RASHT – Iran has been rocked over the past week by the shocking death of a fugitive judge, raising the stakes in a high-profile corruption trial that has put the top echelons of the Islamic Republic under the microscope.

The former judge, Gholamreza Mansouri, was found dead on June 19 after falling from a window of the Duke Hotel in Bucharest, Romania, taking with him potentially explosive information in the trial of the influential Akbar Tabari.

Tabari, the former deputy head of administrative affairs at Iran’s Ministry of Justice, is being indicted along with 21 associates for creating a “criminal group” within his office.

Prosecutors allege Tabari obstructed justice and received massive bribes in the form of land, villas and luxury apartments. He is also accused of furtively swaying legal cases and judicial procedures.

Of the defendants implicated in the case, four are believed to be overseas. They have been summoned by the court and are legally obliged to show up for the proceedings. Mansouri, though, will never be able to testify.

The cleric and former judge of the Culture and Media Court of Tehran were found dead in the Romanian capital on Saturday. He had fled Iran in July last year and the Islamic Republic was demanding his extradition.

His death has ignited a fierce debate on Iranian social media over the information he may have taken to the grave.

Mansouri stood accused of taking €500,000 (US$562,300) as a bribe from Tabari. He was also accused of human rights violations, including the handing down of several harsh verdicts to journalists and political activists in the 2000s and 2010s. Shargh, the foremost pro-reform newspaper in Iran, was temporarily shut down by Mansouri in October 2012.

Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group, had filed its own lawsuit against Mansouri for his role in detaining journalists and cracking down on free speech. The organization wanted the judge to be put on trial in Europe over human rights violations.

On June 8, Mansouri published a video from a location he alleged was Germany, pledging allegiance to the Islamic Republic, saying he would appear before the Iranian Embassy in Berlin to make preparations to fly back to Iran “within the next day” so he could attend the court session.

He said he had faith in Iran’s judicial system, was a “soldier of the Supreme Leader” and was delayed in flying back to Iran only because the coronavirus pandemic had grounded international flights.

The German Foreign Ministry denied issuing a visa for Mansouri and said it was not informed of his whereabouts. The cleric also owned a residential property in Turkey.

Mansouri never made an appointment with the Iranian Embassy in Berlin. On June 13, according to the Iranian judiciary, Interpol located Mansouri in Romania, but the fugitive judge was never arrested.

One week later, he was found dead.

Friends in high places

The suspicious death of Mansouri has put renewed attention on the man at the center of the trial, Akbar Tabari.

Tabari was the deputy head of Iran’s judiciary from 2009 to 2019 under Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli-Larijani, Iran’s former chief justice, who was replaced by a hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, in March last year. Tabari, who served two moderate administrations, was dismissed from his post only seven days after Raisi started his term.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Raisi as chief justice two years after he failed to win a presidential race against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. The Khamenei protege – who once oversaw Iran’s Astan Quds Razavi, one of the wealthiest, non-taxpaying charities in the Muslim world – with fighting corruption.

Since assuming office, Raisi has initiated several inquiries into large-scale scandals involving judiciary employees and parliament members. In May, the judiciary announced that two former MPs, Fereydoun Ahmadi and Mohammad Azizi, were sentenced to a total of 61 months in jail on charges of “disrupting the country’s car market.”

According to the prosecutor, the value of the bribe taken is believed to exceed 2,000 billion rials, a massive $11 million in a country under US sanctions. During the proceedings, it was revealed that Tabari’s bachelor’s degree, submitted as part of his qualifications to the judiciary, appeared to have been fabricated.

In the second court hearing, when asked to defend himself, Tabari attributed his wealth to “friends” who would give him 8,000 billion rials ($45 million) if he asked, and are prepared to register “the entire Lavasan district and its factories” under his name.

Lavasan is a well-off district in Tehran Province inhabited by nearly 30,000 people and known for its deluxe apartments and well-off residents.

“This is called friendship. If you don’t have such friends, it is not my problem,” he told the court.

Local news sources and social media users interpreted Tabari’s remarks as contempt of court, claiming he was spurning the bribery charges by bragging about his generous friends who were ready to make sacrifices for him when needed.

According to the prosecutor’s representative, his dossier amounts to 16,000 pages, which consists of 96 volumes of information that took nine months of “day and night work” to put together.

Gone with the wind

While Akbari is on trial in Iran, other high ranking former officials managed to flee abroad after embezzling huge sums of money.

They have mostly settled in Canada or EU countries, drawing the ire of Iranian human rights activists who believe Western states are blindly providing shelter to corrupt white-collar employees and government authorities.

Mahmoud Reza Khavari, a top-ranking Iranian banker who was the chairman of Bank Sepah’s board of directors from 2003 to 2005 and the chairman of state-owned Bank Melli Iran after that, was involved in the country’s most notorious embezzlement case of $2.6 billion, which unraveled in 2011. The fiasco shook the office of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after it became public.

One of Khavari’s transgressions was the use of spurious documents to gain access to credit from eight Iranian banks to purchase state-owned companies.

After becoming a Canadian citizen in 2005, he fled to Toronto in 2011 and has resided there ever since. Iran has urged the Canadian government to extradite him to serve a 30-year prison term, but Canadian officials have refused, citing the absence of a bilateral extradition arrangement with the Islamic Republic.

In February 2013, Interpol placed him on its red notice wanted list. The designation was removed in October 2016.

The Khavari family is said to own five restaurants in Toronto. The household also owns a $660,000 home on Hollywood Avenue in North York, which is registered with Khavari’s wife. On October 7, 2011, the financier and his wife cleared the mortgage for their $3 million Toronto house and bestowed it on their daughter, Parandis Khavari, for a token $2.

In August 2019, local media reported that Salar Aghakhan, a 28-year-old executive at the Central Bank of Iran, had left the country and arrived in the UK after the veil was lifted on his financial misconduct. He was involved in large-scale smuggling of foreign currency valued at $159,800,000 and 20,500,000 Euros, as well as paying bribes totaling $118,000.

Earlier this summer, the Hamshahri daily published a list of 34 famed bankers, oil and petrochemical industries managers, business magnates and former officials who have amassed sizable wealth and left the country. Lawsuits are still pending in courts on the accusations.

Whether these individuals will face justice depends greatly on the determination of the judiciary, which critics say has nurtured corruption and nepotism in its very structure. It is also a matter of holding anyone, at any end of the political spectrum, accountable.