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Iran opens presidential elections with Ebrahim Raisi expected to win

Iran's supreme leader opened a presidential election Friday in which ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory over his vetted rivals.

After a lacklustre campaign, turnout is expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that dashed hopes for a brighter future.

The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, cast the first ballot in Tehran and then urged Iran's nearly 60 million eligible voters to follow suit before polls are set to close at midnight (1930 GMT).

'The sooner you perform this task and duty, the better,' the 81-year-old Khamenei said. 'Everything that the Iranian people do today until tonight, by going to the polls and voting, serves to build their future.'

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi greets the media after casting his vote in the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, on June 18 

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his vote during Iranian presidential election in Tehran, on June 18

Raisi greets the media after casting his vote in the presidential elections in Tehran, Iran, 18 June 2021. Iranians head to polls to elect a new president after eight years with Hassan Rouhani as head of state

But enthusiasm has been dampened by the disqualification of many candidates and the deep economic malaise which has sparked spiralling inflation and job losses, the crisis deepened by the Covid pandemic.

'I'm not a politician, I don't know anything about politics,' a Tehran car mechanic who gave his name as Nasrollah told AFP. 'I have no money. All families are now facing economic problems.

'How can we vote for these people who did this to us? It's not right.'

Election placards are relatively sparse in Tehran, dominated by those showing the austere face of frontrunner Raisi, the 60-year-old chief of the judiciary, in his trademark black turban and clerical robe.

Raisi has been named in Iranian media as a possible successor to Khamenei.

Farideh Goudarzi, who was jailed for being part of a banned political group, told MailOnline how Raisi watched guards drop her baby on the floor as part of one brutal interrogation - after she was tortured while pregnant and forced to give birth in jail.  

Meanwhile Mahmoud Royaee, another political prisoner interrogated by Raisi during the execution of up to 30,000 opposition activists in a 1988 purge, said Raisi once handed down a death sentence to an inmate who was in the midst of an epileptic fit.

Abdolnasser Hemmati, a relatively low-profile reformist candidate in Iran's presidential election, flashes the V-sign for victory as he is surrounded by journalists and well-wishers outside a polling station in the capital Tehran, on June 18

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi casts his vote in the presidential elections in Tehran

For the exiled Iranian opposition and rights groups, Raisi's name is indelibly associated with the mass executions of leftists in 1988, when he was deputy prosecutor of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, although he has denied involvement.

The election winner will take over in August as Iran's eighth president from incumbent Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who has served the maximum of two consecutive four-year-terms allowed under the constitution.

Ultimate political power in Iran, since its 1979 revolution toppled the US-backed monarchy, rests with the supreme leader.

But the president, as the top official of the state bureaucracy, also wields significant influence in fields from industrial policy to foreign affairs.

Rouhani's key achievement was the landmark 2015 deal with world powers under which Iran pledged to limit its nuclear programme and refrain from acquiring the atomic bomb in return for sanctions relief.

But high hopes for greater prosperity and a reopening to the world were crushed in 2018 when then-US president Donald Trump withdrew from the accord and launched an economic and diplomatic 'maximum pressure' campaign against Iran.

While Iran has insisted its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only, Trump accused it of secretly seeking the bomb and of destabilising the wider Middle East through armed proxy groups.

As old and new US sanctions hit Iran, trade dried up and foreign companies bolted. The economy nosedived and spiralling prices fuelled repeated bouts of social unrest which were put down by security forces.

Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi gestures after casting his vote during presidential elections at a polling station in Tehran, on June 18

Iran's ultraconservative camp - which deeply distrusts the United States, labelled the 'Great Satan' or the 'Global Arrogance' in the Islamic republic - attacked Rouhani over the failing deal.

Despite this, there is broad agreement among all the election candidates that the country of 83 million must seek an end to the painful US sanctions in ongoing talks in Vienna aiming to revive the nuclear deal.

Out of an initial field of almost 600 hopefuls for the presidency, only seven - all men - were approved to run by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 clerics and jurists.

Among the prominent figures disqualified were conservative former parliament speaker Ali Larijani and populist former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Then, two days before the election, three of the seven approved candidates dropped out of the race.

The only reformist still running is low-profile former central bank chief Abdolnaser Hemmati, who has promised to revive the economy and, unusually in Iran, heavily involved his wife in campaigning.

'For the first time since the foundation of the Islamic republic, the election of the president will take place without any real competition,' wrote former French ambassador Michel Duclos in a commentary for Paris think-tank the Institut Montaigne.

Tehran blacksmith Abolfazl told AFP of his disappointment as a patriot who took part in the 1979 revolution.

'I am over 60 years old, and in my youth I revolted against the shah of Iran,' he said. 'I took part in a revolution to choose for myself, not so others can choose for me.

'I love my country, but I do not accept these candidates.'

Iran has often pointed to voter participation for democratic legitimacy - but polls signal the turnout may drop below the 43 percent of last year's parliamentary election.

Results are expected around noon Saturday. If no clear winner emerges, a runoff will be held a week later.

'He watched as guards threw my baby on the floor': How 'Butcher' Ebrahim Raisi oversaw brutal interrogations, torture and the execution of 30,000 political prisoners - as Iran prepares to make him president

Chris Pleasance for MailOnline 

Iranian political prisoners who were interrogated, tortured and sentenced to die by Ebrahim Raisi have told of their horrifying experiences as Iran prepares to make him the country's next president.

Farideh Goudarzi, who was jailed for being part of a banned political group, told MailOnline how Raisi watched guards drop her baby on the floor as part of one brutal interrogation - after she was tortured while pregnant and forced to give birth in jail.  

Meanwhile Mahmoud Royaee, another political prisoner interrogated by Raisi during the execution of up to 30,000 opposition activists in a 1988 purge, said Raisi once handed down a death sentence to an inmate who was in the midst of an epileptic fit.

On Friday, the 60-year-old hardliner is expected to be named Iran's next president following an 'election' that saw moderate candidates purged from voting lists.

Both Goudarzi and Royaee said Raisi's appointment is intended to send a message to Iranians - following a series of large protests in recent years - that dissent will no longer be tolerated.

'Raisi is being brought to power to massacre these people,' Goudarzi said.

Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline head of Iran's judiciary, is expected to become the country's next president following elections on Friday that saw moderates barred from running

Raisi is known as 'The Butcher' for his involvement in the 1988 Death Commissions which sent up to 30,000 Iranian political prisoners to the gallows (file image)

'So the message to the people of my country is detention, torture, and execution.

'The message of for the rest of the world is the propagation and export of terrorism. There is no other message.'

Goudarzi explained that she was first arrested in 1983 for being part of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, a left-wing pro-democracy organisation and militant group.

At the time of her arrest she was 21 years old and eight months pregnant by her husband who was arrested two days before her, alongside her brother.

Despite being heavily pregnant, she said she was taken to torture chambers beneath the courthouse in the city of Hamedan - into a small, bloodstained room where she says she was tied down to a bed and beaten by guards.

There, guards asked her to give up the names and addresses of other members of the Mujahedin, which Goudarzi said she refused to do - leading them to torture her.  

'In the corner of the room I saw a number of cables of different sizes and different widths, on the floor next to the bed was a lot of blood,' she said.

'It was clear that before me another prisoner had been tortured there.

'They put me on the bed and would slap and strike my face, with the cable they flogged my hands.'

Goudarzi said there were seven or eight people in the room, one of whom was Raisi - overseeing the interrogation in his position as the prosecutor of Hamedan.

After two weeks in detention she said she gave birth to a son, but was sent immediately to solitary confinement with her infant child. 

The interrogations did not stop even after she gave birth, she claims, saying she was taken to torture chambers virtually every day and asked for information.

When that failed to yield results, Goudarzi says the guards began to use her son as part of the torture regime.

'When my son was only 38 days old, one night about 1am, a number of guards and interrogators raided the cell looking for documents.

'They banged the door open and several came in. They grabbed my child and from a distance of 2ft they threw him on the ground. 

'I was screaming "what do you want" but nobody was paying attention. My son woke up and was screaming.

Mahmoud Royaee (let) and Farideh Goudarzi (right) were both personally interrogated by Raisi during their time as political prisoners in Iran

'The guards ripped his clothes off... They were looking for documents or information, but they didn't specify what exactly

'The next day me and my child we were blindfolded and taken to the Hamedan court.

'From 8am until 2pm I was interrogated, in all that time my child was hungry and crying of hunger. 

'One of the guards grabbed him and in front of my eyes hit him on the back, and the entire time I could hear the cries of my child.

'Standing there and witnessing the whole thing was Raisi.'

Goudarzi said her husband was also tortured - flogged and lashed so severely that he had to spend time in a mental hospital.

After 11 months in detention, in 1984, he was handed a death sentence by Raisi and hanged from a construction crane in the courtyard of the courthouse.

Meanwhile her brother was given 20 years in prison for belonging to a banned group. She was sentenced to five years.

That meant Goudarzi and her brother were still in jail when the regime began purging political prisoners in what became known as the 1988 Death Commission.

It is thought that an order - possible from Ayatollah Khomeinei himself - was sent to prosecutors across Iran ordering them to put all political prisoners on trial for their lives as 'apostates of Islam'. 

The order covered tens of thousands of prisoners who were serving sentences for belonging to opposition groups including the Mujahedin, as well as thousands more who had completed their sentences and were waiting for release.

Many had been students when they were initially arrested, including some who were as young as 15 or 16. 

One of those men was Mahmoud Royaee, who told MailOnline that he was originally arrested aged 18 in 1981 and taken to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran where he was tortured and then handed a death sentence for belonging to the Mujahedin.

His sentence was reduced to 10 years after his father paid money to the court, and until 1988 he was moved between three jails before ending up in Gohardasht prison, some 20 miles from Tehran, as the Death Commission got underway.

Royaee told MailOnline that he was hauled to court in Karaj, where Raisi was also a prosecutor, and told to sign a piece of paper denouncing the Mujahedin and requesting amnesty from Khomeinei.

When he refused, he said Raisi and another prosecutor threw him out of court - unbeknownst to him, they had ordered his execution.

But, thanks to well-connected family members who knew people at the court, Royaee was not immediately hanged and was instead sent back in front of prosecutors - clutching a piece of paper on which he had written a short statement saying he was not in contact with any opposition groups.

Royaee said he was thrown out a second time and sent to a 'death corridor' where people waiting to be executed were sat - although they didn't know this at the time.

Mahmoud was being held at Gohardasht prison (pictured) when he was hauled before Raisi and sentenced to death for refusing to sign a forced confession - a fate he ultimately escaped

But his name was never called by the executioners - he believes because the handwritten appeal was never resolved by prosecutors, meaning his name was not added to the death lists and he survived.

Others were not so lucky.

'One of my friends who was a prisoner was suffering from heavy epilepsy. More than 50 per cent of his body was disabled, he couldn't move it,' Royaee said.

'Also his prison term had expired and was finished, he was waiting to be released. They still took him to the death commission. 

'When they brought him to the [court] he had a seizure. The other prisoners there, although they were blindfolded, they tried to help him to stop him from striking his head on the ground

'In that condition he was summoned by Raisi and his death sentence was signed - a person whose prison sentence was finished.

'He was suffering epilepsy, he was half paralyzed, he had lost some of his memory. Even to him, they showed no mercy.

'If Raisi was not on the death commission, he would still be alive. Nobody else would have given that sentence.'

The man's death was just one of many that took place in five bloody months in the summer of 1988.

While exact numbers of the dead are unknown, it is thought that at least several thousand and possibly more than 30,000 people were put to death - hanged by construction cranes in batches of 10.

Among them was Goudarzi's brother, who was still serving his 20-year sentence for being part of the Mujahedin.

She was also taken back to solitary confinement and tortured for three months to try and extract more information, but ultimately escaped the death penalty thanks to the pleadings of a senior cleric.  

Fortunately, by that time her son had been allowed to leave prison and go to live with her family so he escaped the torture.

She was finally released from jail in the autumn of 1988, just a few months after the Death Commission ended. Royaee was forced to serve out the remaining three years of his sentence before he was also released. 

Four years later Royaee fled Iran with the help of friends who live outside the country, and he now lives in Albania.

Goudarzi remained in Iran for the next 28 years, but decided to flee the country when her son was arrested for belonging to the Mujahedin - just as she was.

Fearing that he would suffer the same fate as his father and uncle, the pair fled the country before also making their way to Albania.

Raisi is the favourite of the regime to win the election, and is also ahead with voters according to polling - though only after moderates were banned from running

Royaee and Goudarzi say that Raisi is being brought to power to send a message to Iranians that dissent will no longer be tolerated 

But while the pair may have left their old lives behind, both said that Raisi is a figure that will never leave their minds.

Royaee said: 'He had no humanity, he was very vicious towards the prisoners.

'The hatred that he was filled with against the prisoners - I have seen very few people like that.

'It's intolerable for me, for the families of the victims and for the nation of Iran to even contemplate such a man having the presidency

'His place is in court, on the defendant's chair.'

Goudarzi added: 'In my opinion Raisi is the murdered of the children of Iran, he is a criminal.'

Both have called on western governments to oppose Raisi's appointment and to put pressure on the regime by refusing to deal with it - a pointed reference to nuclear negotiations that Biden has pledged to resume. 

Iranians do get to vote in the presidential election with the ballot held on Friday, but candidates have to be vetted and approved by the regime ahead of time - with Raisi their clear favourite.

Raisi - currently the head of the Iranian judiciary who has been responsible for the detention of foreign nations and crushing protests in Iran - is also the current frontrunner with voters, according to polling. 

Hassan Rouhani, a religious moderate who has been president since 2013, is barred from running again due to term limits - while other members of his political faction have been purged from the candidate lists.

While the country Supreme Leader - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - has the final say on all matters to do with the state, the president sets domestic policy and is also responsible for setting the tone in which Iran interacts with the world.

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