By Ellise Nicholls
Iranian billionaire businessman Babak Zanjani has been sentenced to death for corruption, justice officials said on Sunday. The 42 year old billionaire, whose fortune is estimated at $14 billion, was arrested back in December 2013 following the election of President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani ordered a crackdown on the corruption that allegedly occurred during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s eight year reign.
Iran has in the past executed a number of wealthy individuals found to be guilty of similar charges. In May 2014, businessman Mahafarid Amir-Khosravi was sentenced to execution, and subsequently hanged following his conviction of embezzling billions of dollars.
Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehi, a Judiciary spokesman broadcast on state TV, said that Zanjani has been charged with “money laundering” amongst other charges. Under the Islamic court, Zanjani and two of his accomplices of embezzlement were sentenced to death, ordering them to repay funds taken from the state’s National Iranian Oil Company. Ejehi said “The court has recognized the three defendants as ‘corruptors on earth’ and sentenced them to death”. The Court also ordered them to pay a fine totalling a quarter of what they had embezzled. The verdict was reached after a five month trial. Zanjani has denied all allegations and the ruling can be appealed.
One of Zanjani’s lawyers, Zohreh Rezalee, said that the verdict was largely politically motivated and that an appeal may be lodged. “We believe that Babak Zanjani in this case is just a debtor,” the lawyer said.
A report from the BBC indicates that Zanjani played an instrumental role in helping Iran evade sanctions that could otherwise have prevented foreign oil sales. Iran’s Oil Ministry has accused Zanjani of withholding oil revenues, channelled through his companies, owing in excess of $2.7 billion.
From Dubai, Zanjani controlled an international network of over 60 companies ranging from cosmetics to banking. After becoming president in 2013, Rouhani accused the billionaire of impropriety after pledging to tackle high-level corruption. Zanjani acknowledged using a web of companies in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Malaysia to sell vast amounts of Iranian oil on the government’s behalf since 2010. Before his arrest, Zanjani had suggested that international sanctions prevented him from being able to hand over the $1.2 billion still owed to the government. But prosecutors at his recent trial have likened the figure to over $2.7 billion in oil revenue.
Zanjani was taken into custody just a day after President Hassan Rouhani had ordered his government to fight “financial corruption”, particularly “privileged figures” who had “taken advantage of economic sanctions” under the previous government. Rouhani targeted Iranian elites who used international sanctions on the Iranian economy for their own profit. Months before his arrest in 2013, Zanjani had been blacklisted from the U.S. and the EU for his role in helping Iran evade oil sanctions.
In January, International sanctions on Iran were lifted after the signing of a landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and six other world powers. According to the BBC, a watchdog confirmed that Iran had complied with the landmark deal that sought to slow the development of Iran’s nuclear program. Lifting the sanctions will unfreeze billions of dollars of assets and allow Iran’s oil to be sold internationally. Critics have argued that dropping sanctions only serves to reward Iran for its increasingly aggressive and assertive behaviour across the Middle East. Last Wednesday the country launched two missiles marked with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out”in Hebrew. As Iran increases its funding of Shia militants across the Middle East calls have been made to reintroduce sanctions to punish Iran for this threatening behaviour.