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Covert Terror: Iran’s Parallel Intelligence Apparatus

High-level officials of the armed forces and the Judiciary continue to disavow any knowledge of the existence of parallel intelligence structures within their agencies, and little official documentation exists regarding the actual composition and identity of these organizations. As a result, it is difficult to establish a precise chain of command implicating high-level government officials in connection with the detention and torture of political dissidents. It appears, however, that those staffing PIA units were not rogue elements operating completely outside the purview of high-level officials.

Indeed, it can be stated with confidence that senior members of the Judiciary were deeply involved in the systematic human rights abuses perpetrated by PIA agents. The Judiciary was not only unwilling to check those abuses, but also played an active role in denying victims fair hearings pursuant to Iranian and international law. Detainees interviewed by IHRDC singled out three high-ranking Judiciary officials as being heavily involved in the PIA’s extrajudicial activities: Ja’far Saberi Zafarqandi, presiding judge of Branch 1610 of the Special Court of Mehrabad; Saeed Mortazavi, the public prosecutor of Tehran; and Judge Hassan Zare Dehnavi, also known as Hassan Haddad, head of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court.

In 2004 the head of the Judiciary, Shahroudi, issued a directive in what is believed to be a response to a sharp increase in complaints regarding arbitrary arrests and detentions perpetrated by plainclothes agents allegedly linked to PIA units. The directive reemphasized civil rights and protections already codified in Iran’s Constitution and Criminal Code of Procedure, including explicit prohibitions against the use of arbitrary surveillance, arrests, detentions, interrogations and torture by government agents.

The directive also enumerated a host of due process safeguards, including access to legal representation and respect for the rule of law. In May of that year the directive was formally approved by the Majlis and confirmed by the Guardian Council. The new law, passed during the final year of Khatami’s presidency, is known as the “Law Respecting Legitimate Freedoms and Protecting Citizen Rights,” or Citizen Rights Law. Enactment of this law was widely seen as the first public acknowledgment of the practice of torture in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Despite the passage of the 2004 law, however, conservative factions loyal to the supreme leader continued to consolidate power within the armed forces and the Judiciary. A later report to Shahroudi by Hojjatoleslam Abbas-Ali Alizadeh, head of the Judiciary of Tehran Province and at the time interim director of its Civil Rights Inspectorate, indicated that allegations continued to be made of PIA activities well after the law was passed.


There is little, if any, documentation on the criteria used by PIA agents to select their targets. According to some analysts and witnesses interviewed by IHRDC, there were decision-making boards charged with setting the network’s agenda. A review of the individuals targeted and eventually detained suggests that they were chosen due to the nature of their political activities, their occupations and their location of activity, among other details of their personal lives.

Interviews conducted by IHRDC indicate that while PIA operatives targeted activists dedicated to the peaceful promotion of democratic ideals, they generally refrained from targeting high-profile political activists. This pattern suggests that PIA agents selected missions that were logistically feasible, and targets that would allow them to maximize their objectives without risking too much pushback from the reformist camp and the public at large. The targeting and mistreatment of students, journalists and bloggers was particularly harsh, as these individuals had access to decentralized media sources, in particular the blogosphere, and could more effectively be used by PIA operatives to threaten and intimidate reformists and their allies.

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