IRAN goes to the polls this week to elect a successor to outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, but the election has been described as “fixed” and a “sham” after the 12-strong Guardian Council whittled down almost 600 candidates to just seven hardliners.

Rouhani has served the maximum of two four-year presidential terms, which earned him kudos for negotiating the nuclear deal with Barack Obama’s US administration, followed by criticism when his successor Donald Trump withdrew the country from it and hit Iran with crippling sanctions.

The Iranian president saw his popularity slide mid-term when more than a third of Iranians voted for ultraconservative leader Ebrahim Raisi, whose 38% share of the vote was not enough to put him in office. However it highlighted the cracks that were appearing in Rouhani’s presidency.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has told all seven candidates to focus on Iran’s economic problems, but he appears to have cleared the way for the favourite, the 60-year-old Raisi, to assume the presidency.

Khamenei has already sacrificed those closest to him by disqualifying all of Raisi’s potential rivals, something which has alarmed Iran’s opposition in exile, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

Raisi is known in Iran as the “henchman of the 1988 massacre” – the murder of more than 30,000 political prisoners, most of them PMOI activists or supporters – in which he played a leading role in the killings.

With no religious or academic qualifications, he has risen through the ranks of thugs with a 40-year track record of executions and repression.

Raisi was a member of the Death Commission in Evin and Gohardasht prisons in 1988, playing the part of prosecutor.

Last year, UN special rapporteurs wrote to the clerical regime about the 1988 massacre saying the massacre should be examined by an international mission on the grounds of crimes against humanity.

This year, more than 40 former UN experts reiterated that demand to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR).

Speaking to The Sunday National from Tehran, Hamid, a 58-year-old academic, told us the election this coming Friday was a joke.

“In my opinion, there is no difference between all these candidates,” he said. “We’ve seen that all the moderation, reformist and conservative candidates have come forward, but we haven’t seen anything, just corruption and bankruptcy. Everything in this country is at a crisis.

“In Iran the election is a joke. In the past 14 years, elections in Iran have never been about an expression of a particular choice in a democratic, fair and transparent way.

“There’s always been an election by the Supreme Leader, which this year is very clear to you.”

He said all the candidates presented by the Guardian Council were “fundamentalist conservatives”, and added: “We saw this at the time of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [president from 2005-2013] … but people hate the policy of appeasement by Western countries.

“They want to overthrow this government and the Islamic Republic.”

Hamid said he thought changing the regime was not possible and, while there had been calls for people to boycott the election, the West had to help by stepping up sanctions against Iran, just as President Joe Biden’s administration announced it was lifting some of them.

“We see repression, arrest, execution, censorship and dictatorship,” said Hamid. “There are things that we want from the international community. Western government should not deal with the mullahs … these deals help the repression and killing of Iranian people.

“The West should stand by the Iranians and hear our cries for freedom and democracy.”

Several survivors of the 1988 massacre, some of whom had first-hand encounters with Raisi, have been speaking about their experiences, ahead of an international campaign against his election.

Farideh Goudarzi said she was arrested in 1983 on charges of supporting the PMOI, and spent almost six years in Hamedan and Nahavand prisons – when Raisi was only 21 and already appointed as a prosecutor.

“When I was arrested in the summer of 1983 in Hamedan, I was nine months pregnant and was to give birth within few days,” she said.

“From the very first hour of my arrest, despite not feeling too good physically, I was taken to a torture chamber like all other prisoners. It was a room with a bed in the middle and a number of power cables of various diameters on the floor and blood spilled on its floor, indicating that some prisoner had been tortured there.

“When I was flogged by cable, there were seven or eight people in the room. One of them was this criminal Raisi. Of course, I did not know who he was for a while … I found out that this person was the prosecutor of the Hamedan court.

“From 1982 to 1985 he was directly involved in the imprisonment, torture and execution of many political prisoners, especially supporters of the Mojahedin, and I must emphasise that he personally executed many and was present at the scene to implement the verdicts.”

She read a list of names of girls, some as young as 16, who were raped before being executed in the prisons.

Goudarzi then relived the torture inflicted on her month-old son in prison, when the Iranian revolutionary gaurds came into her cell at 1am: “When they entered my cell, they picked up my son, while he was asleep and threw him on the ground in a cruel and ruthless manner, and, ignoring his cries, they took off his clothes.

They said they were looking for documents and evidence [against me]. The next day, from 8am to 2pm, I was taken to court with my son and interrogated. More than 10 torturers were present in the interrogation room, one of whom was Ibrahim Raisi, now a presidential candidate.

“During six hours of interrogation, one of them took my son by the hand and while his crying could not be stopped because he was hungry, he slapped him on the back in front of my eyes and the others laughed. Raisi was also watching this scene.”

She said she also recalled the memory of her mother who went to visit her son in Evin prison, where he had been incarcerated for six years.

“I can still hear my mother crying and wailing, a mother who went to visit her son in that bloody summer and they handed her the blood drenched clothing of my brother, Parviz Goudarzi, who was martyred in Hamedan prison during the massacre.

“We will not stand idly by until the day that all the perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Iran are brought to justice, and that day is not too far.”