Judge under U.S. sanctions set to take over Iran presidency

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Millions of Iranians voted on Friday in a contest set to hand the presidency to a hardline judge who is subject to U.S. sanctions, though anger over economic hardship means many will heed calls for a boycott.

Senior officials appealed for a large turnout in an election widely seen as a referendum on their handling of the economy, including rising prices and unemployment and a collapse in the value of its currency.

“I urge everyone with any political view to vote,” judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi, the front-runner in the contest, said after casting his ballot.

“Our people’s grievances over shortcomings are real, but if it is the reason for not participating, then it is wrong.”

While state television showed long queues at polling stations in several cities, the semi-official Fars news agency reported 22 million or 37% of voters had cast ballots by 7:30 pm (1500 GMT), citing its own reporter. The interior ministry said it could not confirm turnout figures.

After voting in the capital Tehran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians follow suit, saying “each vote counts … come and vote and choose your president”.

Raisi, 60, is backed by security hawks in his bid to succeed Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist prevented under the constitution from serving a third four-year term in the post, which runs the government day-to-day and reports to Khamenei.

Supported by the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps, Raisi, a close Khamenei ally who vows to fight corruption, is under U.S. sanctions for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners decades ago.

Voters reached by Reuters expressed mixed views.

Maryam, 52, a hairdresser in Karaj near Tehran, said she would not vote because “I have lost confidence in the system.”

“Every time I voted in the past, I had hope that my living standard would improve. But I lost hope when I saw the highest official in the country wasn’t brave enough to resign when he couldn’t make things better,” she said, referring to Rouhani.

Asked which candidate he preferred, Mohammad, 32, at a polling station in a hamlet in southern Iran, replied: “To be honest none of them, but our representative in parliament says we should vote for Raisi so that everything will improve.”


“My vote is a big NO to the Islamic Republic,” said Farzaneh, 58, from the central city of Yazd, referring to the country’s system of clerical rule. She said contrary to what state TV reported, “the polling stations are almost empty here”.

Mohammad, 40, an engineer, said he would not vote because “the results are known beforehand and more important, if Mr. Raisi was serious about tackling corruption he should have done so by now”.

While hundreds of Iranians, including relatives of dissidents killed since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and political prisoners, have called for an election boycott, the establishment’s religiously devout core supporters are expected to vote for Raisi.

More than 59 million Iranians can vote. Polls close at 1930 GMT but can be extended for two hours. Results are expected around midday on Saturday.

A win for Raisi would confirm the political demise of pragmatist politicians like Rouhani, weakened by the U.S. decision to quit the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.

The new sanctions slashed oil exports from 2.8 million barrels per day in 2018 to as low as an estimated 200,000 bpd in some months of 2020, although volumes have since crept up. Iran’s currency, the rial, has lost 70% in value since 2018.

With inflation and joblessness at about 39% and 11% respectively, the clerical leadership needs a high vote count to boost its legitimacy, damaged after a series of protests against poverty and political curbs since 2017.

Official opinion polls suggest turnout could be as low as 44%, well below 73.3% in 2017.

Khamenei, not the president, has the final say on Iran’s nuclear and foreign policies, so a Raisi win would not disrupt Iran’s bid to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement and break free of sanctions.


Raisi’s record as a hardline judge accused of abuses could worry Washington and liberal Iranians, analysts said, especially given President Joe Biden’s focus on human rights.

Raisi was appointed by Khamenei to the job of judiciary chief in 2019. A few months later, Washington sanctioned him for alleged abuses including what rights groups say was his role in the executions of political prisoners in 1980s and the suppression of unrest in 2009.

Iran has never acknowledged the mass executions, and Raisi has never publicly addressed allegations about his role.

Raisi’s main rival is the moderate former central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati, who says a win for any hardliner will mean more sanctions.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean, Giles Elgood, Philippa Fletcher)

U.N. ‘appalled’ at mass hangings in Iraq, concerned more may follow

GENEVA (Reuters) – The top U.N. human rights official said on Wednesday he was “appalled” that Iraq had hanged 42 men on Sunday, almost certainly without a fair trial, and that he feared more would follow.

The executed prisoners had been convicted of terrorism charges ranging from killing members of the security forces to detonating car bombs.

“I am appalled to learn of the execution of 42 prisoners in a single day,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement.

“We are extremely concerned at reports that Iraq may be planning to expedite the process of executing prisoners already sentenced to death, and that this could result in more large-scale executions in the coming weeks.”

Zeid said it was “extremely doubtful” that strict due process and fair trial guarantees, including the men’s rights to effective legal assistance and a full appeals process as well as to seek pardon or commutation of their sentence, had been met in every one of the 42 individual cases.

The hangings came after Sunni suicide attacks killed at least 60 people near the southern city of Nassiriya, a Shi’ite area, on Sept. 14, prompting Shi’ite demands for tougher judicial action.

Iraqi officials have said that about 1,200 of the estimated 6,000 prisoners held in Nassiriya have been sentenced to death, the statement said.

Zeid said Iraq’s use of the death penalty raised “massive concerns” and he called on the government to establish an immediate moratorium on its use.

Members of terrorist groups who were proven to have committed serious crimes should be held fully accountable, he said.

“However, Iraq’s use of anti-terrorism legislation to impose the death penalty for a wide range of acts does not appear to meet the strict threshold of ‘most serious crimes’.”

No information about those hanged on Sunday has been released, such as their names, places of residence, crimes, trials, or date of sentencing, the statement said. Iraqi officials have said all their appeals processes had been exhausted, the statement said.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Anger grows in Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite areas after executions

By Angus McDowall

RIYADH (Reuters) – Since Saturday’s execution of four Shi’ite Muslims in Saudi Arabia, hundreds or thousands of the minority sect have marched nightly in protest, and their anger could herald wider unrest.

The execution of one of them, dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr, caused an international crisis as Shi’ite Iran and its allies responded angrily, but it also caused upset in his home district of Qatif, where many saw his death as unjustified.

“People are angry. And they are surprised, because there were positive signals in the past months that the executions would not take place. People listen to his speeches and there’s no direct proof he was being violent,” a Qatif community leader said by phone.

The protests in Qatif, an almost entirely Shi’ite district of about a million people in the oil-producing Eastern Province, have been mostly peaceful, though a fatal shooting and gun attacks on armored security vehicles have also taken place.

Qatif is located near major oil facilities and many of its residents work for the state energy company, Saudi Aramco. Past incidents of unrest have not led to attacks on the oil industry, but a bus used by Aramco to transport employees was torched after a protest on Tuesday night.

Footage of marchers shouting “down with the Al Saud” and other anti-government slogans, corroborated by witnesses contacted by Reuters, is circulating on social media along with video clips showing shots fired at armored cars.

“I did not hear shooting last night, but I heard it a lot on the two nights before,” a resident of Nimr’s home village, al-Awamiya, told Reuters by phone. Like others Reuters spoke to in Qatif, he asked that his name be withheld.

Saudi Arabia only permits foreign news media, including Reuters, to visit Qatif if accompanied by government officials, which it says is to ensure journalists’ safety.

Whether the protests – and sporadic attacks on police – escalate may depend on whether the security forces continue an unspoken policy of allowing peaceful demonstrations until they die down, or crack down with force, say locals.

Government supporters say it depends rather on whether Tehran uses links to local activists, which both Iran and many Qatif residents deny exist, to stage attacks in retaliation for Nimr’s execution and Riyadh’s cutting of diplomatic ties.


The security forces believe they can quash any mass protests in Qatif, like those that began during the 2011 Arab Spring when Nimr became a figurehead, or the 1979 uprising inspired by Iran’s revolution, analysts say.

Qatif is almost entirely populated by Shi’ites and can be physically isolated by the government. Checkpoints stand at its main street entrances.

“The security forces are very confident. The Shi’ite population is confined in certain places. They are a small minority compared to a big majority. They think they have the capability to control them,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with close ties to the Interior Ministry.

Shi’ites have long complained they face entrenched discrimination in a country where the semi-official Wahhabi Sunni school regards their sect’s beliefs as heretical. They say they face abuse from Wahhabi clerics, rarely get permits for places of worship and seldom get senior public sector jobs.

Those basic complaints have over the years been aggravated by what Qatif residents call a heavy security hand against their community, accusing the authorities of unfair detentions and punishments, shooting unarmed protesters and torturing suspects.

Reuters has met several Saudi Shi’ites detained after the 2011 protests who said they were repeatedly beaten and deprived of sleep to extract confessions of rioting.

The government denies discrimination against Shi’ites and bias or brutality on the part of its security services. Its supporters point to the blind eye police show frequent protests by Shi’ites in Qatif, which would be quickly crushed in any Sunni area, as evidence of leniency.


Riyadh’s relations with the Shi’ite minority are complicated by its rivalry with Iran, and by its own reliance on a largely Wahhabi population for support.

Analysts say the government sometimes uses a tough stance towards Saudi Shi’ites to mobilize its Wahhabi power base, while perceived weakness in acceding to any demands made by the minority can prompt anger that Sunni militants seek to exploit.

A series of Islamic State attacks in Saudi Arabia since November 2014 has mainly targeted the kingdom’s Shi’ites as part of an apparent strategy to leverage the sectarian divide as a way of building support among conservative Sunnis.

Such divisions are easier to aggravate because of the wider struggle between the kingdom and Iran, with many Saudis, and their government, seeing Tehran as using ties with Shi’ites across the Middle East to seek dominance and persecute Sunnis.

“The Iranians and their allies have been pushing and promoting terrorism and recruiting people, inciting and providing weapons and explosives to people, and Nimr al-Nimr was one of them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters in an interview this week.

During and after the 2011 protests, eight policemen and seven civilians were killed in attacks by Shi’ites that were connected to Iran and carried out by people linked to Nimr, Riyadh says.

Iran denies all those charges and Nimr’s family say he advocated peaceful change, took no part in violence and had no links to Tehran.

The police said Nimr was arrested when he fired on them with an assault rifle, injuring two, while trying to prevent the capture of another suspect, the act which most swayed judges to pass the death sentence on him, Alani said.

Nimr and the three other Shi’tes were executed on Saturday along with 43 Sunni al Qaeda convicts.

More young Shi’ites detained over the 2011 protests and subsequent attacks have been sentenced to execution. Others are also on trial and facing possible death sentences.

“I think people are worried. It might get worse. There is a feeling things might get complicated,” said a Shi’ite in Dammam, the capital of Eastern Province.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)