‘Slipped the net’: Iranian judge’s mysterious death angers activists

Fugitive Iranian judge Gholamreza Mansouri plunged to his death from a top floor of his hotel in Bucharest last week. Above, forensic investigators work at the scene. (AFP)
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Updated 26 June 2020

‘Slipped the net’: Iranian judge’s mysterious death angers activists

  • Gholamreza Mansouri was wanted by Tehran on accusations he took a $560,000 bribe
  • He was initially arrested by Romanian authorities for extradition but then allowed to go free under judicial supervision

PARIS: The unexplained death of a fugitive Iranian judge, who plunged from a top floor of his hotel in Bucharest last week, has infuriated activists who say a rare chance has been missed to bring a senior Iranian official to justice over alleged rights violations.
Gholamreza Mansouri’s body was found by Romanian police on June 19, with the possibility of suicide so far their only lead, according to a police source.
But activists are furious that such a significant figure had not been held in custody to face eventual justice — and for his own protection.
Mansouri, 52, was wanted by Tehran on accusations he took a $560,000 bribe, part of a high-profile case that has seen 22 people go on trial, including former senior judiciary official Akbar Tabari.
Mansouri had fled Iran last year, first going to Germany and then moving on to Romania, and was the subject of an Iranian arrest warrant.
He was initially arrested by Romanian authorities for extradition but then allowed to go free under judicial supervision.
But activists in Europe also wanted him investigated for rights violations while in his post, which focused on culture and media cases.
The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) filed a complaint against him with prosecutors in Germany on June 11 — and then two days later in Romania, when he moved there — alleging he was responsible for the persecution, detention and torture of Iranian journalists in a notorious 2013 crackdown.
“The facts against him were massive,” said Antoine Bernard, senior adviser on international strategic litigation with RSF, adding that there was a strong basis in both German and Romanian law to file the complaints.
He said the group had the testimony of 20 Iranian journalists accusing Mansouri of arbitrary arrest and detention, and treatment that was “at the very least inhumane and degrading and involved torture.”
He said that RSF was “outraged” by his death as well as the decision of the Romanian authorities not to detain Mansouri “for the sake of his own protection against any Iranian threat and against himself.”
The Justice for Iran NGO said it had made an appeal for witnesses to come forward after it emerged that Mansouri was in Europe.
It had already collected testimony from eight people who said they were the judge’s victims.
“Beyond reasonable doubt, I can confirm that Mansouri was responsible for several arbitrary arrests and detention, usually in solitary confinement, the closing down of online businesses and start-ups, and the persecution of the families of journalists and media activists,” the group’s executive director Shadi Sadr said.
But she said it had not received evidence he was responsible for torture or other crimes that could see him face trial in Germany or Romania under universal jurisdiction, where one state prosecutes a defendant for a crime committed on another foreign territory.
This, Sadr said, highlighted the difficulties faced by victims hoping to find justice abroad, “where there is little room for criminal prosecution.”
Kaveh Moussavi, a British lawyer who played an instrumental role in the arrest of a former Iranian prosecutor in Sweden last year on charges of involvement in the mass executions of prisoners in the late 1980s, said it was “extremely frustrating that he (Mansouri) slipped the net.”
Moussavi had been building a case against Mansouri based on charges he had “held hostage” in prison the family of Saeed Karimian, founder of the Istanbul-based Persian satellite television network Gem TV, who was gunned down in the Turkish city in 2017.
“Had we been able to bring him back and put him on trial... I am pretty sure we would have convicted him,” Moussavi said.
“If we had convicted this man, not a single member of the Iranian judiciary would have been able to step into the EU after that,” he said.
“We lost the chance of putting the entire Iranian judicial system on trial.”
The principle of universal jurisdiction has gained prominence in recent years, in particular with the civil war in Syria that has resulted in both oppressors and victims becoming refugees in Europe.
Two alleged former Syrian intelligence officers went on trial in Germany in April on charges of crimes against humanity in the first-ever court case over claims of state-sponsored torture by President Bashar Assad’s government.
RSF vowed that Mansouri’s death — whatever its cause — would not deter the group from pursuing other alleged rights violators from Iran and elsewhere.
“We urge prosecutors to move much faster when such situations do occur,” Bernard said.
For Sadr, the biggest loss from Mansouri’s death was the chance to hear how Iran’s system works from a figure who was at its heart.
“If he had remained in Europe and spoken out, Mansouri would have become someone whose confessions would have had a massive domino effect on other perpetrators to disclose information in response,” she said.

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

Updated 50 min 4 sec ago

American G20 ‘sherpa’ Chris Olson lauds strong, long-standing Riyadh-Houston links

  • Chris Olson: It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange – a lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home
  • Olson: I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward

One of the aims of the U20 — the urban track of the G20 organization that formally opens on Thursday in Riyadh — is to bring together cities of diverse backgrounds and cultures to explore common interests and challenges, rather than focusing on what makes them different.

In the case of Riyadh and Houston, Texas, that process of familiarization has been underway for decades.

Christopher Olson, director of international affairs and global trade at the offices of the city of Houston, told Arab News: “There has been a long-standing and strong relationship between Houston and Riyadh, indeed the whole of Saudi Arabia, for a very long time.”

Olson reports to the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, but for the past year or so has been the US “sherpa” at the G20, under Saudi presidency this year.

The Riyadh-Houston affinity was based, naturally, on the oil and gas industry, with both cities owing much of their economic dynamism and growth to the energy business. Saudis and Texans share a unique heritage as pioneers of the crude business, and those links have grown and diversified over the decades.

“It began with oil but developed into a cultural and economic exchange. A lot of Saudis ended up calling Houston home,” Olson said.

Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom’s energy giant, has a big facility in the Texan city, and owns the Motiva refinery complex a short distance away on the Gulf of Mexico coast.

Until the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Saudis would travel in droves each year to the CERAWeek energy forum in Houston, the “oil man’s Davos,” not least to keep tabs on what their rivals were doing in the Texas shale industry.

Saudis also attend Texas universities in big numbers, and the Texas Medical Center — which Olson pointed out was the biggest medical facility in the world — treats Saudi patients in increasing numbers.

Oil and medicine came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Aramco gifted medical supplies and equipment to Houston. “We were incredibly fortunate in that. We got almost 1 million masks from benefactors, and Aramco made up a big proportion of that. It really was incredibly generous,” Olson added.

The virus outbreak led to the cancellation of CERAWeek this year, but the city hoped organizers would add some physical element to the planned virtual event in 2021, Olson said.

The city managed to avoid most of the early virulence of the pandemic that hit US cities such as New York and Los Angeles, but relaxed early restrictions, along with several American cities, in May, and suffered a resulting spike in infections, the official added. “Now the numbers are moving in the right direction — downwards. But as schools and economic activity restarts, there is the potential for a second wave.”

One of the major themes of the U20 is how big urban centers, such as Houston and Riyadh, can overcome the health and economic ravages of the pandemic. Some experts have forecast mass migration from big cities, partly to avoid infection, but also as working and social habits adapt to whatever post-pandemic “normality” emerges. There has even been talk of “the end of urbanization.”

Olson said: “We’re all going to have to adapt. For example, are we as cities still going to invest in big infrastructure projects to encourage mass transit systems? That is the thing to do from a sustainability viewpoint, but it creates a health challenge.”

The working environment also faces enforced change. “There may have been a reticence in the past about tele-meetings, but now they are ubiquitous. It’s going to fundamentally change the way business is conducted.”

Increased dependence on technology brings other challenges, which the U20 will also consider. The digital divide between those who have access to efficient communications, especially in education, has been brought into sharp relief during the global health crisis, and even impacted on affluent urban hubs such as Houston.

“But I believe the city as a concept will endure. We are urban and social animals. People will adapt, but the general concept of the urban environment will not change,” Olson added.

He said it had been “fantastic” working with his counterparts at the U20 in Saudi Arabia.

“I’ve been impressed by how Riyadh has taken the U20 concept and moved it forward. The U20 is still only in its third year, but Riyadh has solidified it as an engagement group, and created a format for an exchange of thought and ideas. This will help us come up with evidence-based proposals and solutions,” he added.

The climax of the U20 comes on Friday, when mayors from all the big cities come together virtually to approve a 27-point communique for delivery to the G20 leadership. That statement is still under wraps, but Olson said it was a “well-crafted” document that reflected the good relationships that had developed between the sherpas over the past year.

He would like to see the U20 track elevated within G20 proceedings in the future, especially in the way it addresses issues of more concern to younger people, and believes that Saudi Arabia, with its very young demographic, will assist that elevation process.

“The amazing work of Riyadh has built on what was achieved in Tokyo and Buenos Aires and has carried it forward.

“It’s the cities of the world that face the biggest challenges — such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. But the cities are also coming up with the solutions. That is where the opportunity lies,” Olson said.