North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Iran’s leaders ‘are responsible’ for executing 30,000 political prisoners

A survivor of the 1988 massacre says he is ready to testify before the UN about the role of Iran’s leaders in the extrajudicial killings

Mostafa Naderi
7 June 2021, 7.25am
Remembrance of the 30,000 victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran. 4 October 2019, London
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Matthew Chattle/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

I was only 17 in the autumn of 1981 when I was arrested in Tehran for supporting and selling the publication of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a political organisation opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I spent almost 11 years in Ayatollah Khomeini’s prisons in Evin, Ghezel Hesar and Gohardasht until I was finally released in the spring of 1992. During my time in prison I faced torture and mock executions. I was kept in solitary confinement for five years. But my most daunting experience was witnessing the infamous 1988 massacre.

On 19 July 1988, Khomeini, supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, charging all political prisoners affiliated to the MEK with “waging war against God” and ordering the execution of all those who refused to renounce the group.

Death Commissions were set up in prisons across Iran. They interviewed prisoners for no more than a few minutes before executing them. Their bodies were buried secretly in mass graves under the cover of night.

No independent inquiry has established how many people were killed, but the group Justice for Victims of 1988 Massacre in Iran states that the number is 30,000. I believe this to be true.

In recent weeks, authorities have begun to destroy and build over Iran’s most famous mass grave, the Khavaran Cemetery in Tehran, prompting the victims’ families to hold protests at the site.

“This is the latest in a series of criminal attempts over the years by Iran’s authorities to destroy mass grave sites of victims of the 1988 prison massacres in a bid to eliminate crucial evidence of crimes against humanity, denying truth, justice and reparation to the families of those forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret,” said Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Diana Eltahawy.

Survival by chance

I survived the massacre only by chance. Just before the Death Commissions arrived, I was being tortured in solitary confinement at Evin. The soles of my feet were flogged so hard that I lost consciousness and was transferred to the prison infirmary. By chance I was asleep when wardens called my name several times to appear for questioning.

This is what the other prisoners at the infirmary told me when I woke up. When I returned to the ward, it was all but deserted. I soon found out that virtually all my cellmates had been executed.

Khomeini’s fatwa has never been rescinded, and no Iranian official has ever been held accountable for the mass murder. To the contrary, members of the Death Commissions have been promoted to senior positions in the Iranian government and judiciary.

One of them is allegedly Ebrahim Raisi, the current judiciary chief and the leading contender in the upcoming presidential election. In 1988, Raisi was deputy prosecutor in Tehran and a member of the Death Commissions that executed thousands of defenseless political prisoners.

A culture of impunity

The failure of the international community to hold to account those responsible for mass executions has only fuelled a culture of impunity in Iran.

For example, when nationwide anti-regime protests broke out in November 2019, the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, ordered his security forces to open fire on unarmed protesters. More than 1,000 peaceful protesters were reportedly shot dead on the streets, while the authorities turned off the internet to prevent scenes of the carnage reaching the outside world.

The judiciary, under Raisi’s leadership, has since issued death sentences for protesters, including Iran’s renowned wrestling champion Navid Afkari, who was executed last summer despite global appeals to spare his life.

The families of the victims face harassment and imprisonment for visiting the site of their loved ones’ mass grave

Accountability

For more than 30 years many of the families of the victims of the 1988 massacre, and the few like me who were lucky to survive, have sought UN accountability for the perpetrators of that atrocity, not least to help put an end to the regime’s current injustices.

In 2016, a group of human rights lawyers in London established Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI), an NGO dedicated to bringing justice at the UN.

Advocacy by groups like JVMI and Amnesty International has increased pressure on the UN to take belated action.

Last September, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a joint letter to the Iranian authorities, stating that the 1988 extrajudicial executions could amount to “crimes against humanity”.

In the letter, which was made public in December, the rapporteurs pointed out that the UN’s failure to hold Iranian officials accountable over the past three decades “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families” and “emboldened” the Iranian authorities to “conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial”.

Today, the families of the victims inside Iran face harassment and imprisonment for doing simple things such as visiting the site of their loved ones’ mass grave, or requesting that the authorities admit to the killings and issuing death sentences to their loved ones.

In a 2018 report, Amnesty International concluded that the Iranian authorities committed crimes against humanity by forcibly ordering the disappearance and extrajudicial execution of thousands of political dissidents in 1988. The report adds that the Iranian authorities are committing “ongoing crimes against humanity” by way of enforced disappearance, persecution, torture and other inhumane acts, including continuing to conceal the fate and whereabouts of the victims.

Protests and appeals

It’s high time the UN puts an end to the families’ suffering by holding the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre accountable.

In May 2021, more than 150 former UN officials and renowned international human rights and legal experts wrote to the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, calling for an international commission of inquiry into the 1988 mass extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances.

Dozens of international NGOs supported the open letter, including JVMI, the International Center for Transitional Justice, the World Organisation Against Torture, and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

In response to the open letter, a spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Marta Hurtado, told the Agence France-Presse that “the establishment of an international commission of inquiry is a decision that [UN] member states take”.

The UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, also sidestepped questions about an inquiry to national governments when questioned by journalists on 5 May, about the open letter, adding that, “the Human Rights Office and the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran have reported persistent immunity for grave violations of human rights in Iran”.

But what’s the use if the UN only ‘reports’ persistent immunity in Iran but fails to take action?

A chance to testify

In 2018, I appeared as a witness at a civil society hearing organised in Geneva and aimed at identifying the perpetrators and mobilising an official UN investigation.

After nearly 33 years, the UN has had enough time to deliberate on taking meaningful action. Its own Special Rapporteurs have appealed for an international investigation, as have dozens of former senior UN officials and the human rights community at large. Meanwhile, families of the victims continue to suffer the consequences.

Bachelet, the UN high commissioner, has a moral duty to establish a commission of inquiry into the 1988 massacre. How else can she respond to the families of the victims in her role as the UN’s highest official responsible for promoting and protecting human rights?

As a survivor of the 1988 massacre, I am ready to testify before any UN investigation about the horrors I witnessed in Iran’s prisons, and the identities of the perpetrators who ought to be held responsible. I appeal to Bachelet to give all the families, survivors and me an opportunity to testify before a UN tribunal.

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