North Africa, West Asia

The Iran Tribunal: a route to justice and accountability in the Middle East?

Inspired by the 1960s Russell tribunal on Vietnam the ITC aims to document, clarify and publicise the treatment of political dissenters and members of religious and ethnic minorities by the Iranian government between 1981 and 1989.

Brigitte Istim
11 August 2014

In July 1988 shortly after approving a ceasefire in the eight year long Iran/Iraq war, an act he likened to “taking poison”, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in which he urged the Iranian authorities to “satisfy the almighty God with your revolutionary rage and rancour against the enemies of Islam…try to be most ferocious against infidels”. The backdrop to this fatwa was a post ceasefire attack on Iran by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), the Leftist/Islamist organisation given refuge initially by France and later by Saddam Hussein after losing out to Khomeini and his supporters in the struggle for power in the early 1980s. The MEK attack was soon defeated and provided a pretext for a wave of arrests and executions from July through to September 1988, ostensibly designed to crush those categorised by Khomeini as waging war on God and the Islamic Republic, but rapidly expanded to encompass a range of individuals with generally leftist political sympathies but no record of armed action against the regime.

The violence and trauma involved in the drive “to be most ferocious against infidels” has recently been the subject of investigation by the Iran Tribunal Campaign (ITC), a group established in 2007 by those who survived imprisonment in Iran and friends and relatives of those executed. Inspired by the 1960s Russell tribunal on Vietnam the ITC aims to document, clarify and publicise the treatment of political dissenters and members of religious and ethnic minorities by the Iranian government between 1981 and 1989.  A two stage process has now been accomplished – a Truth Commission held in June 2012 at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre in London and a Tribunal held between 25th and 27th October 2012 at The Hague Academy of International Law of the Peace Palace.

The Truth Commission, chaired by Maurice Copithorne UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran from 1995 to 2002, heard evidence from 38 direct witnesses who had experienced imprisonment in Iran during the 1980s and 37 indirect witnesses, relatives of those who died or were executed. These detailed testimonies then provided the Tribunal with a ‘basis for prosecution’ supplemented by evidence from a further 19 witnesses. The Tribunal’s presiding judge was Johann Kriegler and he was joined by five more jurists including Michael Mansfield, Makau Mutua and Patricia Sellers. The Iranian government was invited to attend the Tribunal and present its case but did not respond to this invitation.

The two substantial documents produced by the Truth Commission and the Tribunal make sombre reading. Witnesses describe summary arrests and executions, grossly overcrowded prisons and physical and psychological torture. Amir Atiabi, a member of the Tudeh (Communist) party was arrested in 1984 and subjected to falaka, beating on the soles of the feet. The beating was so severe he urinated blood and spent time in the prison infirmary. There he saw a MEK supporter who was unable to sit up because “his whole body had been tortured and demolished”.

In 1988 Atiabi witnessed the work of the Commissions established in the wake of Khomeini’s fatwa to establish the ‘guilt’ of those viewed as opponents of the regime. Soon nicknamed Death Commissions these bodies operated in prisons across Iran and condemned thousands to death, usually after a perfunctory examination lasting less than five minutes.

Brought before a Death Commission Atiabi was asked if he still supported the Tudeh party, if he was a Muslim and believed in God and whether he said his prayers. When he refused to pray he was beaten and taken to a cell where there was a rope and some jam jars and a prison official encouraged him to ‘save himself’ by committing suicide. Atiabi stated that by the time the Death Commission had finished its operations 26 out of 52 people in his section of the prison had been executed. Interestingly he described how it appeared that the work of selecting prisoners for execution started early in 1987, long before Khomeini’s fatwa. Religious prisoners were separated from leftist prisoners and those who had renounced their beliefs were segregated from those who refused to do so.

Alongside the complete absence of fair trials a number of other themes recur in the accounts given to the Truth Commission and Tribunal. Torture was widespread including falaka and ghapani where the arms are twisted and cuffed together behind the back, the victim is then suspended by the arms. Many witnesses mentioned the abuse of children and adolescents, either directly or indirectly. One witness said she was beaten until she passed out in front of her little girl. Another saw a 15 year old boy tied to a tree and shot for distributing leaflets sympathetic to the MEK.

Religious minorities, most notably the Baha’is who were not one of the recognised religious minorities listed in the Islamic Republic’s constitution, were subject to a range of economic and social penalties as well as severe pressure to recant. Ruhiyyh Jahanpour told the Tribunal how some Shia clergy encouraged the view that the Baha’is were enemies of Islam and to attack them and their property was therefore justifiable. Arrested twice in the early eighties Jahanpour recounted how one of her closest friends was executed because she refused to repudiate her Baha’i beliefs. Another woman who gave in to pressure to convert to Islam was then forced as a ‘Muslim’ to divorce her Baha’i husband and marry a Revolutionary Guard.

After considering the accounts they had heard the judges of the Iran Tribunal issued a verdict in February 2013 that declared ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran has committed crimes against humanity in the 1980-1989 period against its own citizens in violation of applicable international laws’.

But so what? This was not an officially recognised trial and the defendant, the Islamic Republic of Iran, refused to participate in the proceedings. No-one accused of committing the abuses described by witnesses is compelled to account for their actions or undergo any punishment.

What the Truth Commission and Tribunal do represent is the potential of painstaking, long-term co-operation and organisation between people who are determined that their sufferings and those of their families and friends should not simply be pushed aside and subsumed by the demands of international realpolitik. Shokoufeh Sakhi who was arrested at the age of 18 and imprisoned from 1982 until 1990 described the Tribunal as “wonderful…it shows there is still resistance, courage in the victims and their families that they have not been crushed by this regime…It is like we are creating our own institution if the formal institutions are not accepting us and not accepting our suffering, but our suffering exists and we demand being taken as part of human experience rather than being forgotten. We demand accountability from the powers”.

Aside from their potential as material evidence in possible future prosecutions the documents produced by the Commission and Tribunal provide a detailed resource for anyone interested in the human rights situation in Iran during the 1980s. Maurice Copithorne, speaking to the Tribunal, described the information brought to the Commission as “much more complete” than that which he managed to obtain during his time as UN Special Rapporteur.  

Although they sent no representatives to the Tribunal the Iranian government has responded to its findings, in the pro-government newspaper Kayhan and on the Baztab website. An article in Kayhan insisted that all those executed in 1988 were MEK sympathisers, determined to break out of jail and mount an attack on the government - their execution was therefore justified under international law. Baztab focused on praise for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s current supreme leader, who was said to have “saved the lives of thousands of youngsters” by convincing Khomeini not to extend his fatwa to include communists and other leftist groups.

Despite this dismissive response from the Iranian government Hamid Sabi, a member of the Tribunal’s steering committee, is encouraged by the fact that these issues have even made an appearance in pro-government media. He says I believe the Tribunal has helped to remind people of events that the Iranian regime thought lost and forgotten. It’s encouraged discussion about these issues both inside and outside Iran.” The proceedings of the Tribunal were streamed online and viewed by 900,000 people; Sabi believes the majority of these viewers were inside Iran.

For Shokoufeh Sakhi who spent eight and a half months blindfolded in a ‘coffin’ type construction and missed eight years of her small son’s childhood the idea of reducing justice to punishment for what she and others went through in the 1980s is a limited notion, linked to an increasingly far distant past and victims and perpetrators who are aging. For Sakhi a significant aspect of the Tribunal campaign is its educational potential in bringing together Iranians from all generations to discuss ideas about political and social conduct with the aim of building societies that do not resort to repression of those seen as different or those who disagree with the policies of the dominant majority.

Referring to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission she says she prefers the idea of truth and responsibility – “We should be responsible for our actions but also response-able by which I mean able to respond and relate to other people with confidence but without trying to control and intimidate them and always forcing them to follow one way only.”

Viewing the current turmoil and political manoeuvring in the Middle East Sakhi insists that “reverting to shortcuts of either forgiving or forgetting the past or punishing and taking revenge just end up in putting the past to sleep, missing its relevance to the present and the future. I know this kind of measured long view isn’t seen as exciting and ‘sexy’ but these are ideas that helped me hold on to my psyche in prison when all around me people were being crushed and I didn’t know whether I might be taken away for execution at any moment.”

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