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Death of Iran President Raisi prompts grief and relief for some

The death of President Ebrahim Raisi was greeted with grief and relief in Iran after he was confirmed to have been among those killed in a helicopter crash Sunday.

Video and photos showed a large crowd of people gathered in central Tehran’s Vali-e-Asr square starting Sunday night, with many appearing to pray and some visibly distressed on the news that Raisi was one of eight people on board who were killed.

“Our honorable Raisi worked tirelessly,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s head of state, said Monday in posts on X. “He was totally dedicated to serving the people and Islam nonstop.”

A helicopter in the convoy Raisi and Amir-Abdollahian was involved in "an accident" in East Azerbaijan province in poor weather conditions on May 19, state television reported.
Iranians pray for President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Valiasr Square in Tehran on Sunday night.Atta Kenare / AFP – Getty Images

Raisi and other officials, including Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, had been returning from the border of Azerbaijan, where the president had inaugurated a dam with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, when the aircraft went down.

Video from Iran’s official news agency Monday appeared to show Red Crescent workers carrying a covered body on a stretcher through a forested area. NBC News was not able to independently verify the video.

It was not known what caused the crash.

It was clear from reactions online that Raisi, remembered by many in Iran and beyond for presiding over brutal crackdowns on political opponents and protesters, was not universally admired and loved.

Raisi, who was 63, was known to some as the “Butcher of Tehran” for being one of four judges whom activists accused of overseeing the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988 following the Iran-Iraq War. An estimated 2,800 to 5,000 people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch, but Iran has never publicly acknowledged the incident.

“As deputy prosecutor general of Tehran,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in a 2019 announcement of sanctions, “Raisi participated in a so-called ‘death commission’ that ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.”

Social media is monitored and restricted in Iran, but outside the country some took to banned platforms like X to share messages of celebration.

“Goodbye to the butcher of Tehran. You will not be missed!” Iranian Canadian actor and producer Shiva Negar, who is based in the U.S., wrote in a post on X, according to a LinkedIn page appearing to belong to her.

“The once untouchable tyrant meets a fate he often dealt to others,” said Dr. Nina Ansary, a prominent Iranian American author and historian who also serves as the director of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum Women’s Leadership Initiative at the University of Cambridge. She shared video purported to show fireworks in Iran.

“His death is karma at its finest but for a mass murderer, this swift end may seem far too easy,” Ansary said in a post on X.

Image: Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi casts his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, on June 18, 2021.
Ebrahim Raisi in 2021.Ebrahim Noroozi / AP file

A conservative hard-line cleric, Raisi took presidency in 2021 after a number of popular candidates were disqualified in an election with historically low voter turnout.

His short tenure included overseeing a crackdown on mass protests after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died on Sept. 16, 2022, days after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly failing to adhere to the government’s mandatory rules on headscarves for women and other gender-based restrictions.

Iranian authorities led a massive crackdown during protests in the wake of Amini’s death. Thousands of demonstrators were detained and more than 500 are believed to have died, according to the United Nations, with some publicly executed.

Iranian authorities responded to protesters’ defiance by ramping up efforts to impose the government’s dress code “using a range of tactics,” HRW says on its website. Earlier this month, Amnesty International warned that Iranian security forces had “intensified their enforcement of compulsory veiling in public spaces,” including through violent means.

Regardless of what political opponents said, condolences from world leaders streamed in within hours of Raisi’s death, with Aliyev saying his country was “deeply shocked” by the incident following Raisi’s visit.

Leaders from around the Arab world, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, offered their condolences.

China and Russia, which have been building closer ties with Iran, expressed their condolences, with Russian President Vladimir Putin describing Raisi as an “outstanding politician” who “rightfully enjoyed high respect from his compatriots and significant authority abroad.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, said on X that he was “deeply saddened and shocked” by Raisi’s “tragic” demise.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced that his country would observe a day of mourning “as a mark of respect.”

European Council President Charles Michel said the European Union’s “thoughts go to the families” of those killed in Sunday’s crash.

Hamas leaders also paid early tribute, calling Raisi’s death an “unfortunate accident and painful tragedy.” The militant group that controls the Gaza Strip was long supported by Iran, which has long been a public supporter of Palestinian rights.

Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, both backed by Iran, offered condolences.

First Vice President Mohammad Mokhber, 68, who led an “emergency meeting” Monday, according to state news agency IRNA, has been named interim president until new elections are held within 50 days.

Khamenei has said there will not be any disruption to state affairs.

A funeral for Raisi was expected to Tuesday, IRNA reported.

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