Iran's Former Hanging Judge Now Sides With Reformers
By JOHN F. BURNS
The New York Times
October 23, 1999
QUM, Iran, Oct. 18 Much about Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali these days
his simple white smock, his bare feet, his shuffling gait, his concern
for his visitors' well-being -- speaks of an almost penitential gentleness.
Long gone are his days as the chief judge of Iran's revolutionary courts,
when his name was enough to strike terror, his word sufficient to set execution
squads to work with their gallows, their shootings and their stonings.
"Drink your tea; it will get cold; it won't be good for you,"
Ayatollah Khalkhali said, several times, to a visitor who dropped in unannounced
at his home here in the holy city of Shiite Muslims, a two-hour drive across
the desert from Teheran. Once, he hastened away to fetch his wife, saying
she could speak German, then returned apologetically to say she felt unwell.
Later, he bobbed up to fetch copies of his books on Islamic theology, signing
several as mementos.
Twenty years ago, Ayatollah Khalkhali was the Islamic revolution's Robespierre,
the grim avenger who condemned hundreds and possibly thousands of men and
women to death, some after trials that lasted only five minutes, or after
no trials at all. He made his grim mark on the American consciousness in
April 1980, when, in cleric's robes and turban, he was reported to have
poked at the charred bodies of American commandos killed in the failed
attempt to rescue hostages from the United States Embassy.
In this nation of 60 million, struggling now to emerge from the shadows
of the Islamic revolution and build a more magnanimous society, the mere
mention of Ayatollah Khalkhali makes people uneasy, as though summoning
his memory alone might set the tumbrels rolling again. Even the Iranian
Government, caught between a reform faction that wants more democracy and
a rear guard of clerical hard-liners that wants the clock to remain stopped
at 1979, behaves as if it would rather Ayatollah Khalkhali were forgotten.
For Ayatollah Khalkhali, 73, it is a double bind. Conservatives who
want nothing to disturb the power of the ruling clerics regard him as a
liability now better discarded. But he is an embarrassment, too, to reformers,
since he has announced his support for those favoring more democracy, tolerance
and respect for law. Caught between the two views, in a sort of no man's
land, watched around the clock by a police guard that doubles as a cordon
to try and keep visitors away, sits Ayatollah Khalkhali.
It is a life far removed from the days of blood and revolution. His
house is modest and sparsely furnished, and its garden wall scribbled with
graffiti, not for the revolution but for the local soccer club. Ayatollah
Khalkhali said he was in demand as a teacher of Islamic law at the theological
colleges that are clustered in Qum, but a room stacked to the ceiling with
copies of books he has written suggested otherwise. When other leading
ayatollahs in the city were asked where he lived, several professed not
to know. In some ways, his conversion to the reform cause is less astonishing
than it seems. The overwhelming popularity of the reformers, and of the
53-year-old cleric who is their standard-bearer, President Mohammad Khatami,
has caused a wave of surprising political conversions, even if few are
as striking as Ayatollah Khalkhali's. Those urging more accountable government
include former student leaders who seized the American Embassy, as well
as other high-ranking clerics who only a few years ago were counted as
zealots of Islamic rule.
In any case, a two-hour conversation suggested that Ayatollah Khalkhali
is not so much a new man as the old one with a reformed sense of what is
politically correct. Along with his elaborate courtesies, he conveyed the
old revolutionary's sense of a world filled with enemies and plots.
He was with Ayatollah Khatami "100 percent, more or less,"
he said, but not with the "troublemakers" who attached themselves
to the reform cause. "There are always troublemakers, everywhere,"
he said. "Our enemies in the Western world would like nothing better
than for us to fall into chaos, but it won't happen, I can assure you."
When the talk turned to the American rescue raid, he said he wanted
a message passed to former President Carter, who ordered the raid in April
1980 in a bid to free 56 embassy hostages held in Teheran since the previous
November, only to have the mission collapse when an American helicopter
and a C-130 transport plane collided while refueling in the Iranian desert.
Mr. Carter excoriated Ayatollah Khalkhali after news reports described
the cleric as having poked the bodies of eight American servicemen killed
in the raid, and having held up one of the skulls.
He said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's paramount leader, had sent
him to the crash site at Tabas, in the desert 400 miles southeast of Teheran,
with instructions to see that the Americans' bodies were properly looked
after. What the reporters had seen, he said, was not him poking or cutting
the bodies, but using a penknife to cut the knots on the Americans' death
shrouds, which were dirty and made of plastic, so they could be replaced
with the clean white muslin shrouds prescribed by Islam.
"How crazy can a man be, saying I was cutting up bodies, calling
me a monster?" he said, referring to Mr. Carter. "The truth is,
I felt sorry for the Americans, especially those who were black, because
Ayatollah Khomeini had told me to treat them with dignity. My attitude
was, when they came here to kill us, they were our enemies, but after they
died, their care was entrusted to us by God. It was God who saved us, because
it was He who sent the sandstorm that caused the American helicopters to
have problems, even before the crash."
When the talk turned to the executions, Ayatollah Khalkhali became animated
again, gripping the arms of his chair and saying there was nothing -- "absolutely
nothing!" -- to regret. Contrary to Western reports, he said, he had
only directly ordered the execution of "100 or so" people, leaving
others to be sentenced by judges under his command. In any case, he said,
moving to a bookcase to pull down a copy of the decree by Ayatollah Khomeini
appointing him to head the revolutionary courts, "everything I did,
I did under the holy authority of the Imam -- I did only what he wanted."
Accounts from the period describe Ayatollah Khalkhali as the ultimate
hanging judge, roaming Iran in pursuit of new victims, presiding over secret
trials that ended with the execution of hundreds of officials and military
officers who had served Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, Iran's ousted ruler,
even eating ice cream outside a prison where executions had taken place.
Later, as head of a special anti-narcotics force known as the "hit
squad," he condemned still more people. Other victims included scores
of Kurds who were caught up in rebellions in Iran's Kurdish-majority regions.
Eventually, he proved too harsh even for Ayatollah Khomeini. In December
1980, after a blood bath that lasted nearly two years, Ayatollah Khomeini
bowed to the demands of moderate elements in the new Government who had
protested the widespread use of torture and execution in the anti-narcotics
drive, and dismissed Ayatollah Khalkhali. But by then, his actions had
helped to mold an image of the Islamic takeover as unremittingly vengeful
Asked if it was true that he had said he would execute all of his victims
a second time if they were "to walk the earth again," he replied:
"Well, they're not going to walk the earth again, are they? But if
they did, the answer is yes, yes, absolutely, I'd execute them again, especially
Hoveyda; he sold Iran to America." The reference was to Amir Abbas
Hoveyda, Prime Minister in the Shah's Government for 12 years until 1977.
Mr. Hoveyda was widely credited with policies that brought wider prosperity
and educational opportunity to Iran, as well as a close alliance with the
Mr. Hoveyda was executed by firing squad in April 1979, after Ayatollah
Khalkhali dismissed his pleas at a cursory trial. One common account in
Teheran is that Mr. Hoveyda was awaiting appeal of his sentence when he
was called away from writing a defense document and summarily shot.
When some in the revolutionary Government challenged his methods, Ayatollah
Khalkhali asked whether they had in mind Western or Islamic legal principles,
and added: "Under Western principles, criminals have top lawyers and
other matters to escape the law. Yes, it's true, I never paid attention
to these principles." After years of reflection in Qum, Ayatollah
Khalkhali said he was more sure than ever that his methods were correct.
"Remember, it was a revolution, and there was no time for reflection,"
he said. "If we hadn't executed them, they would have executed us
the next day. In any case, didn't you Westerners hold a trial at Nuremberg,
and execute the Nazis? I don't see the difference."
In afterthought, he added: "When I stand before God, I have complete
confidence that I will be judged favorably for what I have done. There
will be no questions about the executions, not a single one".