Executive Summary

This report presents the findings of the Stolen Lands database, created by Justice for Iran. It focuses on privately owned properties in Iran that were unlawfully confiscated and were put on sale by an entity called Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam – The Executive Headquarters of Imam Khomeini’s Order, (Setad or EIKO).

Since the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has been systematically engaging in the unlawful confiscation of tens of thousands of private properties, wealth and assets of individuals. This has been carried out through Revolutionary courts in accordance with the IRI Constitution and the decrees of the IRI Supreme Leader.

In April 1986, the first Supreme Leader of Iran Khomeini issued a decree and appointed three representatives to oversee the confiscation, management, and sale of any property put at the disposal of the Supreme Leader. This laid the foundation for the formation of EIKO which was exclusively controlled by the Supreme Leader and only accountable to him. With this form of power and authority, the control of enormous amounts of assets gained freely from the confiscation and sale of private properties, protection from democratic scrutiny, and exemptions from tax and public duties, EIKO has grown into one of the country’s largest economic actors.

The focus of this report has been the examination of more than 23 thousand confiscated properties that were put on sale by EIKO between 1997 and 2019. These properties are located in 30 provinces and 266 cities across Iran and include plots of land, houses, apartments, farms, warehouses, and other types of properties. The public auctioning of these properties were advertised in national and widely circulating newspapers inviting public bidding sometimes up to seven adverts in the same year. In total, more than 90 adverts were published by EIKO within the said period each enlisting up to more than a thousand properties.

According to our findings, the biggest category amongst the various types of properties, with nearly two-thirds of the properties, is made up of plots of land. Throughout the country, a total of 580 million square metre of confiscated land has been auctioned by EIKO with the largest plot of land being more than 33 million square metres in the Isfahan province. The provinces with the highest confiscated properties are Tehran, Alborz,Mazandaran and Fars.

Furthermore, the combined value of the minimum bid for these properties amounts to 135.2 trillion Iranian Rials ($5.7 billion based on the corresponding exchange rate of the day).

Despite many challenges, this research also identified tens of the victims whose properties were unlawfully confiscated. These victims are mostly from religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i community. This research found that some of the targeted communities were the residents of small villages across Iran who were forcibly displaced and their properties confiscated and subsequently sold off by EIKO. JFI has identified some of these properties all of which belonged to Baha’i citizens, among others, in Korus village in Semnan, Kerogan village in Markazi, Matnagh village in East Azerbaijan, and Ivel village in Mazandaran. Additionally, JFI identified the property of some individuals such as the Vahdat-e Hagh family whose properties were confiscated and subsequently auctioned by EIKO.

The documentation and examination of the confiscated properties formed part of our inquiry into serious violations of human rights by major enterprises in Iran. Article 49 of the constitution permitting the confiscation of illegitimate assets by the government is given as the primary legal basis for these confiscations. However, evidence gathered by JFI shows that many of the confiscated properties were legitimately owned and were confiscated on arbitrary and discriminatory grounds. Countless documents and credible evidence suggest that these confiscations are unlawful and did not follow any due process. They were carried out in violation of international human rights standards, including the owners’ right to fair trial and remedy.

The disproportionate and overwhelming number of victims among religious minorities particularly Baha’is, especially the high number of cases where entire communities of Baha’i citizens were displaced and forced out of their villages, strongly suggests that such confiscations are directed at and used as a means of persecution of religious minorities. The wide-spread and systematically implemented nature of such confiscations, which are often carried out together with a range of other abuses and atrocities, also suggest that the confiscations may potentially amount to crimes against humanity under article 7 of the Rome Statute.

JFI’s findings show that this unlawful practice has never stopped since 1979 and EIKO continues to engage in handling confiscated properties and the number of victims keeps increasing. This should put at rest the general perception and myth that confiscation of property in Iran was a past practice and only happened in the heat of the post-revolution days.

There is no accountability for EIKO and its actions and it continues to operate with full impunity under the protection and control of the IRI Supreme Leader.

Background

Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam – The Executive Headquarters of Imam Khomeini’s Order, (Setad or EIKO) was established on 26 April 1989 by the order of the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ruhollah Khomeini. From its inception, EIKO has been involved in the still ongoing, systemic and unlawful practice of confiscating properties which began with the 1979 Revolution.

On 30 March 1979, one month after the 1979 Revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini the Supreme Leader of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran issued a decree to the Revolutionary Council ordering the confiscation of all assets and properties of the Pahlavi dynasty, and their associates who had obtained wealth throughout the time they were in power. Such properties were said to be confiscated in favour of the poor and workers in order to create housing and employment, etc.

In December 1979, the Constitution of the Islamic Republic was adopted. Article 49 of the Constitution prescribed the authority and duty of the state to confiscate certain properties. In accordance with this constitutional principle, the government is obliged to seize the proceeds of usury, usurpation, bribery, embezzlement, theft, gambling, misuse of endowments, misuse of government contracts, establishment of illegitimate places and so on. The Government has to return such properties to their rightful owners, or if the rightful owners cannot be identified, they shall be transferred to bait-ul-mal (public funds controlled by the IRI Supreme Leader).

Subsequently, in 1984, the Law on the Implementation of Article 49 was passed, which made the Special Court for Article 49 (Special Branches of the Revolutionary Court) the authoritative body to investigate and decide on cases related to the said Article. The implementation of the Islamic Sharia regarding the properties at the disposal of the Supreme Leader meant that the proceedings within the inherent and legal jurisdiction of the Special Courts for Article 49 would be decided based primarily on the decrees of the IRI Supreme Leader. There is consensus among judges that such decrees are superior to the law of the country due to their issuance by the Supreme Leader, and because abiding by them is mandatory for all officials.

On 26 April 1989, Khomeini wrote a decree and appointed three of his trustees (Habibollah Asgar Oladi, Mehdi Karroubi and Hassan Sanei) as his representatives regarding the funds and properties of unidentifiable owners, properties of heirless deceased persons and ownerless properties, khoms (a type of religious tax), properties of those who had left the protection bond of the Islamic government, and any property that is given to or is at the disposal of the Supreme Leader under Article 49 of the Constitution and other laws. These representatives were given full authority for the sale, maintenance, management and all aspects of such properties. It was also emphasised they should use all revenues in accordance with Islamic Sharia and, as much as possible, for the benefit of Martyrs Foundation, 15 Khordad Foundation, Housing Foundation, Relief Committee, Welfare Organisation, Veterans Foundation and any other organisations they deemed appropriate.

With this decree, EIKO was formed and became the executive arm of the special branches for Article 49 in managing all aspects of sale and maintenance of properties subject to the rulings of these branches. According to a directive by the Head of the Judiciary on EIKO’s competence, EIKO is the only body with authority in relation to properties at the disposal of the Supreme Leader and has full and exclusive authority regarding all of these properties. Due to direct control by the Supreme Leader, EIKO is a state entity but is not controlled by the executive power or other public bodies.

Pursuant to Article 6 of the Regulation on Dealing with Cases Subject to Article 49 of the Constitution, dated 10 March 2000, some of the cases of properties that fall within the jurisdiction of these courts and are part of the properties at the disposal of the Supreme Leader are:

Properties subject to the decree of Khomeini dated 30 March 1979. 

Properties that are given to the Supreme Leader in accordance with Article 49 of the Constitution and other laws.

All funds and properties of unidentified owners, abandoned properties and those belonging to fugitive owners, ownerless properties and properties of heirless deceased persons.

Properties that are taken from religious minorities due to their leaving of the protection bond of the Islamic government and given to the Supreme Leader. 

Properties of individuals who reside abroad and are associated with insurgent groups, ‘Zionists’ and foreign spies or espionage. 

The above grounds have been the basis for the confiscation of the property of many Iranians who have been convicted by the revolutionary courts and special branches for Article 49 in unfair trials, on arbitrary and discriminatory grounds, often based on false claims, and without observing international standards of due process and rights of individuals. Many of these properties are transferred to EIKO by the order of the Revolutionary Courts.

An important point in relation to the grounds used by Special Courts for Article 49 in their rulings on confiscation of the properties of religious minorities is that the victims are said to have left the protection of the Islamic rule. The confiscation of property of many Iranians, especially non-Muslim religious minorities who left the country after the revolution, was based on the same religious grounds and with the justification that they had left the protection bond with the Islamic government. For example, the properties of Jewish citizens Musa and Azizullah Moezinia and their first-degree family members, were confiscated by the Revolutionary Court in 1992, despite the fact that their properties included only residential houses and inherited property. The following was the court’s reasoning for the confiscation:

“Considering that some Jewish individuals by the names of … have left Iran and have left the protection bond of the Islamic government and resided in the land of infidels, their property is no longer respected and the Court issues and announces a decision to confiscate their movable and immovable property to be transferred to the Executive Headquarters of Imam Khomeini.”

Another important point about EIKO and its role in the handling of confiscated properties is that it does not deposit the assets and funds it generates from confiscated properties into the state treasury or return them to public funds. The handling and control of the said properties has been considered under Islamic Shari’a (as adopted and implemented in IRI) to be the exclusive prerogative of the Supreme Leader. This has caused a significant amount of public property to fall outside the scope of public oversight and government accountability, and for the manner and place of spending such assets and funds to remain hidden. These assets, as property at the disposal of the Supreme Leader, are not subject to the scrutiny and inspection of democratic institutions. The main beneficiaries such as EIKO enjoy extensive exemptions for the payment of taxes and public duties. Benefits gained from the above advantages and the huge capital accumulated by EIKO has made this institution one of the largest economic actors in Iran. EIKO has a strong presence in many sectors from oil and energy to telecommunications, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and health products. EIKO owns several holding companies in the fields of energy, agriculture, industry and mining, investment and pharmacy. The total value of EIKO’s assets is estimated at more than $95 billion while no reliable and transparent information is available on the actual amount of assets, areas of investment, or how it spends the profits from its activities including through its vast network of subsidiaries.

The Stolen Lands Dtabase

Stolen Lands is a comprehensive database of confiscated lands and properties in Iran, created by Justice for Iran. It provides a searchable database that documents the details of confiscated lands and properties in Iran including those that were subsequently put on sale by two entities, the Executive Headquarters of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO or Setad) and Bonyad Mostazafan (Bonyad).

Since 1996, a practice has emerged whereby the said entities have been auctioning confiscated lands and properties in a more systematic way through a series of substantial auction adverts published in nationwide newspapers. These entities have been selling off confiscated properties as an ongoing and long standing lucrative business practice, which provides them with capital needed for expanding their business empire and establishing their overreaching control over the Iranian economy. Several times a year,  as recently as September 2020 and January 2021, they publish huge advertisements in major national newspapers where a long list of properties (sometimes more than 1000 items in each) are on offer including plots of lands, houses, apartments, farms, warehouses, etc. and invite potential bidders to take part in the auction.

For the purpose of this investigation, the concept of confiscation is defined as seizing of privately owned land or property by state authorities. To be lawful, confiscation must comply with several conditions to protect human rights and the rule of law. Only in exceptional circumstances confiscation of property can be justified by public interest, and even so, it must not be arbitrary and discriminatory in law and in practice. It should also be exercised following due process and with respect for the rights of the private owners including their rights to fair trial and remedy. Due to the arbitrary and discriminatory grounds and processes of the confiscations in question, the legitimacy of the IRI government’s confiscation of land and property is highly questionable. Countless documents and evidence suggest that the confiscations by the order of IRI’s Revolutionary Courts, mostly in favour of EIKO and Bonyad, are unlawful and carried out in violation of international human rights standards.

This database contains data gathered from the mentioned series of mass advertisements auctioning confiscated properties published particularly by EIKO and Boynad in the Iranian national newspapers. So far, it consists of the auctioning for sale of around 23,000 of such properties by EIKO and nearly another 25,000 by Bonyad. The database focuses mainly on EIKO and Bonyad because of their key role in confiscating and selling properties as well as the unparalleled magnitude of this practice as exercised by both entities.

JFI researchers documented a complete series of adverts by EIKO (90 adverts) and Bonyad (73 adverts) published mainly in 5 national newspapers (Hamshahri, Jam-e Jam, Iran, Kayhan and Ettela’at) between 1996 and 2020. Subsequently, JFI researchers transferred the information from the newspaper adverts (in the form of scanned images of large sheets of newspapers) into a searchable and analysable format. Our team spent hundreds of hours painstakingly entering the data from each advert and for every single property into datasets, which after further reviews were merged and entered into the current database.

The advertisements documented in this database consist in total of more than 1.1 billion square meter of land area that has been put for sale by EIKO and Bonyad. These adverts also contain the starting bidding price, which gives an indication of the minimum price these properties have been selling for. The combined minimum bidding price of these equals to more than 206 trillion Iranian Rials which, based on the exchange rate corresponding to the time of each auction, would amount to more than 9.1 billion USD.

As further described below, Justice for Iran has identified the owners of tens of properties recorded in the Stolen Lands database which were auctioned for sale by EIKO and Bonyad. A vast majority of such properties belong to religious minorities including members of Baha’i, Christian, and Jewish communities.

The Stolen Lands database demonstrates the vast scale and systematic and ongoing nature of the practice and, ultimately, provides proof of the targeting and persecution of specific groups of victims particularly religious minorities through this practice. This will be a key element if the perpetrators of unlawful confiscations are to be held accountable.

It must be noted that there are many properties (often more substantial in terms of size and value) that the said organisations hold onto and have not put on sale. There are also other organisations such as Kosar Foundation which engage in similar activities of selling confiscated properties. Therefore, the findings are indicative of a practice that is exercised more widely and we acknowledge that this database provides a limited picture of the overall practice.

Key Findings

Action Adverts

EIKO has been publishing auction advertisements for more than two decades. The first advert appeared on 1 may 1997 and the most recent one so far recorded in the Stolen Lands database is from 1 May 2019. However, EIKO continues to publish these adverts.

In total, EIKO has published 90 advertisements over these years with the highest number of adverts in one year being seven adverts published in the Iranian calendar year coinciding with 2010-11 and 2017-18. The yearly disaggregation of these adverts is as follows:

Furthermore, these adverts were published in national and widely circulating newspapers including Hamshahri, Jam-e Jam, Iran, Kayhan and Ettela’at. Out of these, most properties are advertised in Iran Newspaper.

Every advertisement contains a large number of properties ranging from 1068 properties listed in EIKO’s Twenty-Second Nationwide Auction in June 2003 to only 5 properties listed in EIKO’s Fifty-First Auction in September 2011. Many of the properties are also repeatedly advertised. Over three thousand (3539) properties are advertised between one to six additional times.

Properties

Specifically in relation to the properties, JFI’s found that within the time period of this dataset, EIKO has advertised a total of 23,164 unique properties. These properties include a diverse range of different types of properties divided precisely into the following respective categories:

JFI’s research shows that there are tens, if not hundreds, of victims that resided, owned, worked in, or otherwise depended on each of these properties. These properties are often located in villages where the most marginalised groups live. The confiscation of overwhelming numbers of properties has forced many of these populations, sometimes an entire community in a village, into mass displacement. As will be explained in more detail below, some of the villages where these properties are located are Matanaq in East Azerbaijan province, Ivel in  Mazandaran, Kerogan Jasb in Markazi and Hosein Abad Korus in Semnan.

The properties auctioned by EIKO are located in 30 provinces across in 266 cities throughout Iran. Of these, the highest number of properties are located in Tehran, Alborz, Fars and Mazandaran provinces. At the city level, some of the notable cities with most confiscated properties are Tehran (7446 properties), Shiraz (1562 properties), Karaj (1559 properties), Shahriar (728 properties) and Savojbolagh (712) properties. The following is a full breakdown of the number of properties located in each province:

The total land area of these properties is in excess of 580 million square metres. Amongst these, the biggest plot of land is over 33 million square metres in Shahin Shahr, Isfahan.

In terms of price, these adverts also contain the amount set for the minimum bid, which gives an indication of the minimum price these properties have been selling for. The combined minimum bid for these properties equals to 135.2 trillion Iranian Rials, which, based on the exchange rate corresponding to the time of each auction, would amount to $5.7 billion USD in total. The highest starting bid for a property, in Iranian Rials, is 1.86 trillion Rials (equivalent to $14.4 million USD at the time of auction) for a building auctioned in March 2019.

Victims

An essential part of this research has been to identify the victims of confiscation. While a public call is yet to be published for the victims and rightful owners to contribute to the database, and considering the limited time since the completion of the database, JFI has been able to identify a significant number of victims and their properties only by relying on the limited sources of information available, and based on interviews with a number of victims whilst taking into account their concerns in case they were still living in Iran.

The interviews with victims and witnesses, in particular, have helped the study to provide not only a picture of the main victim groups of the confiscations but also an objective description of the process, including any extrajudicial and arbitrary actions involved such as threats, harassment and also inhumane punishments such as flogging and the death penalty. It could also establish the attempts made by the victims to recover their property and the outcomes (or a lack thereof) of the legal proceedings they might have pursued. These are essential in establishing the systematic nature and the wide spreadness of this unlawful practice.

The attempts to identify the victims have been fraught with challenges, some of which rising from the adverts. For example, the addresses given in the adverts are often inaccurate and full of errors, which makes it difficult to accurately identify each property and match it with any confiscated properties of the identified victims.

In many cases, the plate number or the names of streets, alleys and neighbourhoods have changed over time. In the same vein, the great number of confiscated properties in each area adds to the difficulty of locating these properties and matching them with the properties of the victims. In some cases, larger properties seem to have been broken up into smaller pieces and sold off separately. In spite of these challenges, JFI used the three components of property type, plot size and satellite maps, in addition to matching the addresses, in order to identify these properties and connect them to particular victims.

At the time of the publication of this report, Justice for Iran has so far identified the owners of 42 confiscated properties auctioned by EIKO. Of these, properties belong to religious minorities with the majority of victims being the Baha’is.

The extent of the confiscation of properties belonging to religious minorities, especially among those auctioned by EIKO, indicates the deliberate targeting of religious minorities, especially the Baha’i community, in the confiscation process. Among the cases in which it has been possible to review the court ruling, the most prominent reason for confiscating properties is the victims’ religious beliefs. Examples of confiscation rulings have either cited the specific religious beliefs of their owners as the reason for confiscation, or allegations such as links to hostile states or espionage charges based on religious activities have been cited as grounds for confiscation.

Korus village

Amongst these victim groups, one of the Baha’i villages that was targeted for property confiscation is Korus village, which is part of the Eyvanekey district in Semnan province. The Nashery family is one of the Baha’i families whose entire property, including pomegranate orchards, houses, warehouses and cattle farms were confiscated by EIKO.

On 26 November 1996, according to case number 41942, all agricultural and residential lands belonging to the Nashery family were confiscated. On 10 March 2013, the Assistant Prosecutor of the Second Branch of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran issued the eviction order for four properties belonging to the Nashery family which were to be handed over to EIKO.

Following the publication of the news about the confiscation of their property by EIKO and when the family attempted to pursue legal proceedings, they were subjected to reprisal and prosecution. EIKO filed a criminal complaint against them and they were charged with ‘spreading lies’ about EIKO. According to the ruling of the First Branch of Eyvanekey General Court, dated February 20, 2017, three members of the Nashery Family (Amrollah, Anwar and Abdullah Nasheri) were each sentenced to 74 lashes. The investigation by JFI confirmed that 74 lashes were carried out on Mr Abdullah Nasheri.

JFI has identified two agricultural properties belonging to the Nashery family in the auction advertisements of EIKO. The first has a plot size of ​​۱۸۷,۵۵۰ square metres advertised for auction three times (November and January 2013 and June 2016) and the second property has a plot size of ​​۹۲,۰۰۰ square metres advertised once (November 2013).

Matnegh village

Matanaq is a small village in the Bostanabad County, East Azerbaijan Province of Iran. Shortly after the 1979 Revolution, Baha’i residents of the village of Matnagh were forced out of their homes and lands.

According to a classified letter dated 21 April 2002 from the local government of Bostan Abad, the then Friday prayer Imam of Bostanabad stated that “it is impossible for non-Muslims and Muslims to live together. There are two options for Baha’is, to either convert to Islam or leave; and they chose the latter.” For two years, the Friday prayer Imam and the Revolutionary Court would lease out the lands of Baha’is for several years. Finally, the EIKO and the Revolutionary court put the said lands up for auction among the residents of Mutnaq village.

According to EIKO’s advert in August 2000, 6 properties located in the village of Matanaq were put up for sale. These properties include five residential buildings with areas of 150 to 800 square metres and a warehouse with an area of 600 square metres.

:Ivel village

Following the 1979 Revolution, Baha’is in the village of Ivel located in Mazandaran Province were uprooted and displaced from their homes. Their properties and agricultural lands—some of which they had owned since the mid-19th Century—have been subsequently confiscated and sold off. These Baha’is have since sought the return of their homes through judicial proceedings. However, it has been to no avail; not only have they reached no remedies, but their homes have been bulldozed and demolished and their lands have been put for sale.

In November 2019, Special Court for Article 49 of the Constitution in the province of Mazandaran ruled that all remaining properties belonging to Baha’is in the village of Ivel be confiscated on the basis that Baha’is have “a perverse sect” and have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property. According to the court, the confiscated properties consisted of “many parcels of farmland, totalling approximately 10 acres, and many smaller pieces of land with buildings, totalling approximately 5,000 m۲”.

In August 2020, Branch 54 of the Tehran Court of Appeals designated to deal with cases of Article 49 of the Constitution, handed down a final ruling endorsing the initial decision in favour of EIKO that the properties belonging to Baha’i residents of the village of Ivel were illegitimate and that their confiscation was legal. According to this ruling, Baha’i properties in Ivel village were put “at the disposal of EIKO.”

In a separate court ruling regarding the destruction or forced occupation of more than 50 residential homes of the Baha’i residents of Ivel, Branch 8 of the Court of Appeal of Mazandaran handed down a final ruling in October 2020 acquitting the perpetrators and rejecting the legitimacy of the ownership of the lands by Bahá’ís of Ivel.

JFI has identified one of the properties confiscated in the village of Ivel among the auction adverts of EIKO. According to this advert published on 23 June 2009, a 941 square metre residential plot of land located in Ivel village was put up for sale.

Vahdat Hagh family

Another victim of this process is Paridokht Vahdat Hagh, the wife of Hossein Vahdat Hagh who was arrested on 29 October 1981 and subsequently shot to death on 28 February 1982. Ms Vahdat Haghhe told JFI in an interview that her husband was working for a company called Asan Gaz, which employed Baha’is. Together with the arrest of Hossein Vahdat Hagh, she told us, the agents forced Paridokht Vahdat Hagh out of her house in Apadana Street. The legal title of this residential building belonged to the Vahdat Hagh family. The ground floor belonged to Hossein Vahdat Hagh, the first, second and third floors belonged to the children, namely, Vahid and Rouhia, and the fourth floor belonged to his wife Pridokht Vahdat Hagh.

Following her forced eviction, Ms. Vahdat Hagh made multiple legal attempts to recover her property, but did not succeed. She also told JFI that she spent 87 days in prison on espionage charges. In 1990, EIKO officially seized the property of the Vahdat Hagh family. By the ruling of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, all the property of Hussein and Pridakht Vahdat Hagh and their children were confiscated in favour of EIKO.

Justice for Iran has identified four pieces of their property among the auction adverts of EIKO. These include four apartments, of which, three apartments were auctioned in 1999 and one in 2006.