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Iran's Former Hanging Judge Now Sides With Reformers

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 and violent.

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 United States.

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".


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