By Aida Ghajar
September 25, 2021
Documents received by IranWire has show that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, provided the Intelligence Unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-IU) with no fewer than 23 parcels of land and property in the Iranian capital to be used as “safe houses”.
The project, codenamed “Martyr Shateri”, involved the IRGC-IU’s acquisition of sites that were likely used for torture and the extraction of forced confessions from political detainees.
The name of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, himself a former IRGC commander and now Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, has long been associated with corruption, financial malpractice and state brutality: from “astronomical” and unaccountable land deals to working with General Ghasem Soleimani to suppress the 1999 student protests. Thus far, not only has he come out of these scandals intact, but he has worn them as a badge of honor.
The document received by IranWire is a record of financial transactions between Tehran Municipality and the Revolutionary Guards between 2015 and 2017. During Ghalibaf’s tenure as mayor, at least 23 separate properties – variously identified as “public parking lot”, “vacant lot”, “unused confiscated land” or “residential unit” – were transferred to the IRGC-IU as part of a project called “Martyr Shateri”.
Designations such as “unused confiscated land” are stark reminders of the countless properties confiscated by the Islamic Republic for political reasons the 1979 revolution. After dispatching political opponents and other undesirables, the regime seized their assets and divided them up between the ruling class and the security apparatus.
Hiding in Plain Sight
The 23 properties Ghalibaf transferred to the IRGC-IU are now “safe houses”: anonymous off-grid locations used for many purposes, from bases of operations to sites of torture. Many Iranian political detainees have no idea where they were taken after being arrested. Such prisoners are generally blindfolded, then placed in cars that drive around the city, changing direction until such a time as their captives lose their sense of direction.
There is a strong chance that for those in Tehran, the ultimate destination was one or other of these properties. Many of those arrested in the aftermath of the 2009, 2017, 2018 and November 2019 later testified that they were taken to anonymous locations in the city, from villas to warehouses to apartment blocks.
Sold: District 6, seven residential floors, Tavanir Street, Shahid Abbaspour Street. Price: 61 billion and 500 million rials (US$2,385,551)
Nominally these so-called “safe houses”, whether they belong to the Revolutionary Guards, the Intelligence Ministry, the security police or the armed forces’ intelligence service, are under the control of the judiciary. But in practice, judiciary and the Ministry of Justice have no control over what goes on inside.
Political prisoners are not allowed to choose their own lawyers. If anything, they will be allowed to pick from a list of tame attorney approved by the judiciary. Instead of defending their clients, these lawyers are tasked with working with security agencies to frame them. What’s more, under the laws of the Islamic Republic so-called “security” cases are only afforded a lawyer after their interrogation.
Sold: District 4, unfinished commercial complex, Kerman Avenue, Musayi Street. Price: 39 billion rials ($1,512,788)
The total value of the 23 sites gifted to the IRGC-IU under Ghalibaf’s tenure as mayor was estimated at more than 645 billion rials, or close to US$15.6 million. They will not be the only ones. For a full and detailed list of the documented properties, please see the longer Persian version of this article.
Tehran Was Not the Limit
According to several real estate agents in Tehran, even by 2015 evaluation standards, the properties were sold to the IRGC-IU at a bargain price. Besides these 23 locations, IranWire has also received reports that Ghalibaf provided the IRGC-IU with locations in other cities to be used for the same purposes.
Political prisoners have recently testified that the IRGC-IU is much more brutal in its treatment of detainees than other security agencies, including the Intelligence Ministry. IRGC-IU agents are not accountable to any other authority, and they have the last word in how they treat their detainees.
Sold: District 5, unused multi-level parking, West Ferdows Boulevard. Price: 78 billion and 829 million rials ($3,057,734)
In May this year, Tehran City Council launched fresh investigations into historic contracts drawn up between the municipality and an IRGC-owned company by the name of Resa Tejarat. The probe related to the transfer of properties for a set of projects called “Three Martyrs”. A report presented to the council revealed that around $4 billion in outstanding payments was owed to the municipality by entities belonging to the Revolutionary Guards. In 2018, IranWire had received two documents that showed the IRGC had illegally and forcibly occupied a 40-hectare property belonging to Tehran Municipality.
The schedule for investigations was originally approved in November 2019. The council planned to take those responsible to court, but the case came to nothing. One key takeaway, however, was that then-Mayor Ghalibaf had illicitly signed contracts with the IRGC worth more than 500 billion rials, or $15 million at the 2015 exchange rate. No further details about the Three Martyrs project were ever made public.
One of the “Three”, however, was Martyr Shateri. It was within the framework of this covert scheme that Ghalibaf transferred the 23 properties to the Revolutionary Guards.
Pieces of the Puzzle
The addresses of a few, scattered IRGC-IU safe houses were published in November 2014 for the first time by Saham News: a website that was affiliated with Mehdi Karroubi, who was a key figure in the 2009 Green Movement uprisings and has been under house arrest ever since. Saham reported that 10 months after Hassan Rouhani took over the presidency, the IRGC-IU converted these safe houses into underground bases aiming to sabotage the Rouhani administration.
Sold: District 1, seven apartments in a residential building, Sadr Expressway, Gheytarieh, North Bahar Street. Price: 51 billion and 321 million rials ($1,990,713)
In April 2020, Iran Prison Atlas then revealed the existence of another IRGC-IU safe house by the name of “1A Detention Center”. This base, the website said, had been used for beating up and interrogating street protesters. But it was unable to specify the exact location, saying only that it was somewhere in eastern Tehran.
The existence of the “safe houses” has been an open secret for years. Back in August 2017 Amnesty International had issued a statement calling on the Islamic Republic to release people detained during peaceful protests that summer. It specifically mentioned the human rights defender Nader Afshari, who had been arrested in the city of Karaj, northwest of Tehran: “During a visit to Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court in Karaj, Nader Afshari’s mother was told by the judge that his case was still under investigation and that he was being held in a ‘safe house’. So-called ‘safe houses’ are secret detention centers run by the security and intelligence forces. There is no oversight of these detention centers by the Prisons Organization, and they violate Iran’s own Prisons Regulations, which state that ‘judicial, executive, intelligence, police, or military organs are prohibited from having their own prisons and detention houses.’”
In December last year, Mahdieh Golroo, a women’s rights activists, tweeted a picture of a person she said was called Rauf. According to her, Rauf had interrogated many activists in Tehran in “safe houses” in Saboonchi Street, Niayesh highway and the Basij (Afsariyeh) Expressway.
Mohsen F., who was imprisoned for six years for “espionage” and “connections with hostile governments”, told IranWire that before he was taken to Rajaei Shahr Prison, he was kept in a secret detention center for 40 days and never found where he was/ “No light penetrated the room,” he said. “I was left by myself for hours on end and couldn’t breathe. It was summer, and the room had no ventilator or air-conditioning. For days, nobody would come.”
Thugs’ Recruitment Bases
Apart from managing operations and beating up detainees, the IRGC-IU also uses these safe houses as holding pens for petty criminals – widely termed “thugs” – who are first coerced, then trained to turn on and forcibly break up street protests.
Hossein Hamedani, a Revolutionary Guards commander who later killed in Syria, said on the record of suppressing the 2009 protests: “We identified 5,000 individuals who had participated in the riots but were thugs and hoodlums and had no connection with political parties. We kept them inside the houses, and they weren’t allowed out on the days that a call [for protests] had been issued. Then I made them into battalions. Later, these three battalions proved that if we want to train fighters, we have to bring in people who know about knives and blades.”
Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has been highly active both in politics and the military in the four decades since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Even under the reformist President Mohammad Khatami, he was the head of the Central Headquarters to Fight Drugs and Currency Smuggling. Despite reports of his corrupt deals with drugs and fuel traffickers, he was never investigated himself.
It Takes a Whole Family
Ghalibaf was involved in head-spinning off-the-books property deals while serving as mayor of Tehran. But instead of him it was Yashar Soltani, the journalist who first revealed the pattern of shady deals, who was arrested and prosecuted.
Ghalibaf was also involved in vast illegal transactions at both Iran’s Shahr and Sarmayeh banks. His wife and son have been also involved in corruption. On April 21, 2014, Iranian media first reported that Elias Ghalibaf, his son who also happened to be Tehran Municipality’s media advisor, had been arrested for financial misconduct in connection with an educational institute by the name of Shams al-Shamus. He was held in custody for 24 hours but then released, with reports on the affair later scrubbed from official news sites.
Zahra Moshir, Ghalibaf’s wife, was accused of first-degree corruption by Shargh newspaper in November 2017 for her involvement with the Imam Reza Charitable Institution. This, too, came to nothing.
It seems only appropriate that the Martyr Shateri Project was named after a member of the IRGC who traveled to Afghanistan and Lebanon under the cover of “reconstructing” war-torn regions, in exchange for a handsome profit.
Hasan Shateri, also known as Hessam Khoshnevis, was deputy commander of the expeditionary Quds Force’s engineering arm. He was ultimately assassinated in 2013 on the road from Damascus to Beirut. In 2001, before the fall of the Taliban, he had traveled to Afghanistan and published pictures of his visit.
According to Tasnim news agency, Shateri was there in an official capacity, responsible for building a 120km road between Iran and Afghanistan for “major transportation and trade”. Like most IRGC-backed construction projects, the road likely had just as much to do with drug trafficking and arming allied paramilitary forces in the region.
For whatever reason, Ghalibaf and the IRGC-IU clearly thought it appropriate to name the safe-house enterprise after him. Whether this ends up causing a real scandal for Ghalibaf – or just another line in his already-interminable corrupt CV – remains to be seen.