“A political stick wielded over Ahmadinejad”
Frud Bezhan writes for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, with input from EA:
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was no stranger to controversy during his two terms as Iran’s president. Now he faces possible sentencing for his alleged mishandling of billions of dollars during his time in office.
But following news that multiple verdicts have been issued against the former President, analysts looking at the murky legal process suggest that the development is intended as a warning for Ahmadinejad to rein in his criticism of the country’s clerical establishment.
“This is not simply a legal procedure but a political stick that can be wielded over Ahmadinejad to say, ‘If you really challenge the system, then we have complete control and can take away your freedom,'” says Scott Lucas, an Iran specialist at the University of Birmingham in Britain and editor of the EA WorldView website.
Fayaz Shojaie, the public prosecutor at Iran’s Supreme Audit Court, told the Etemaad newspaper in an interview published on July 30 that the court had issued seven verdicts against Ahmadinejad. The Supreme Audit Court falls under the supervision of Parliament, and it is unclear if Ahmadinejad was formally tried by the court and is now facing sentencing or whether the verdicts should be viewed as recommendations to be followed up by Parliament, which would be more in keeping with the court’s role.
Ahmadinejad, who served as President from 2005 to 2013, has clashed with and fallen out of favor with the establishment since leaving office. His administration is frequently tied to allegations of corruption and is accused by detractors of mismanaging the economy.
He registered to run in the May presidential election against the wishes of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was eventually disqualified by the powerful Guardians Council, half of whose members are chosen directly by the supreme leader.
His former vice president and close aide, Hamid Baghaei, was sent to prison in 2015 on unidentified charges. Baghaei was again behind bars over corruption allegations from July 9 of this year until his release on bail on July 26.
In unprecedented criticism of the authorities, Baghaei accused the judiciary of being “liars” and condemned the treatment of inmates in Iranian prisoners. The judiciary, backed by the Supreme Leader, is an all-powerful institution, often acting against opponents and critics of the establishment.
Ahmadinejad, who greeted Baghaei outside the prison, described his close ally’s detention as “illegal” and a “great cruelty.”
Lucas says the timing of the court’s verdicts against Ahmadinejad were not a coincidence, and that the comments from his former vice president, Baghaei, had “crossed a red line”.
“Ahmadinejad is more of an annoyance than a threat,” Lucas says, although he notes the former leader’s criticism has taken on “greater significance” in the current fractious political scene.
Iran’s hard-line conservative camp, with which Ahmadinejad used to be allied, are deeply divided and were beaten convincingly by reformists and moderates in the 2016 parliamentary elections and May’s Presidential vote. Ahmadinejad’s criticism and his political ambitions are complicating efforts to unite the hard-line camp, Lucas says.
Ahmadinejad has long been dogged by claims of corruption and economic mismanagement. The Judiciary claims that it has a pending case against him, but details have never been released and no court proceedings have taken place.
The Supreme Audit Court issued seven verdicts against Ahmadinejad, five of them related to revenues from oil, the country’s main export. The two other verdicts were not disclosed.
The court said it was up to parliament to decide whether to bring charges against Ahmadinejad and sentence him.
In one case, Ahmadinejad was found guilty of illegally allocating around $2 billion from the national treasury earmarked for paying cash subsidies to citizens. The government replaced food and fuel subsidies with cash payments in 2010, a move credited with compounding the economic crisis in the Islamic republic.
The court also found Ahmadinejad guilty of spending millions of dollars on gasoline subsidies, saying the move was unlawful because it only benefitted a segment of society.
Ahmadinejad was also found guilty of unlawfully allocating funds to the Iranian Red Crescent, a Tehran-based NGO that has been accused of smuggling intelligence agents and weapons to other countries.
Another charge, which was not explained, issued a verdict against Ahmadinejad over the case of Babak Zanjani, one of Iran’s richest men, who was arrested in 2013 and is accused of stealing more than $2 billion from the government through crooked oil sales he made during Ahmadinejad’s time in office. He was convicted of massive embezzlement and sentenced to death in 2015.
During Ahmadinejad’s time in office Zanjani was considered something of a hero because of his ability to help Iran evade international sanctions and sell its oil abroad. But he was arrested soon after current President Hassan Rohani assumed office.