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Top Iranian cleric Shahroudi dies at 70

Former chief justice Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi was seen as possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei
A 2005 photo of Shahroudi when he was chief justice, with then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (AFP)

Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a senior Iranian cleric and a former chief justice, died in Tehran on Monday after a long illness, state media reported.

Shahroudi, 70, was a close ally of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and had been seen by analysts as a possible successor to him.

Shahroudi had not been seen in public for several months, and there were reports last year that he underwent surgery for an unspecified cancer in Germany.

A German lawmaker filed a complaint against Shahroudi during his stay, calling for him to be charged for crimes against humanity, but a judge found no grounds to hold him.

Shahroudi headed Iran's conservative judiciary for a decade until 2009, but he also implemented some reforms during his tenure, including banning the death penalty by stoning, arguing the practice tarnished Iran's image.

However, dozens of newspapers were banned under his watch and many journalists and bloggers faced long-term sentences.

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His tenure concluded with mass protests over allegations of rigging in the 2009 presidential election, which led to thousands being arrested and allegations of severe prisoner abuse.

In 2017, Shahroudi was appointed by Khamenei as the head of the Expediency Council, a body intended to resolve disputes between parliament and a watchdog body, the Guardian Council.

He was born in the city of Najaf in Iraq to Iranian parents. In the 1970s, he was jailed and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s security forces because of his political activities.

He moved to Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979 and was promoted to top posts. In recent years, Shahroudi aimed to raise his profile in Iraq as a replacement for Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shia cleric and a powerful figure in Iraq.