The Iran Tribunal: defying international silence

Survivors of the Islamic Republic of Iran's brutal violence towards its opposition wanted acknowledgement that their situation was not simply ‘unseen’ but had been actively ignored. From States of Impunity.

Pardis Shafafi
12 May 2015

Iran Tribunal Foundation. All rights reserved. 

When international law fails to address episodes of immense violence, actors are compelled to create their own justice without the assistance of states and international judicial institutions. Such is the case for those who survived Iran’s ‘bloody decade’ during the 1980s, in which the Islamic Republic, having recently assumed power, waged a largely indiscriminate, decade-long assault on its opposition. This particularly furious decade-long attack largely set the scene for the oppressive governance that currently characterises their rule.

In 2012, after over five years of planning, The Iran Tribunal held a truth commission at Amnesty International’s Headquarters in London, followed by a tribunal in October 2013 based on the model of the famous Russell Tribunals of the 1960s. But there was one very crucial difference between them. The Iran Tribunal was not a product of intellectual outcry and organization and unlike the Russell Tribunal the panel did not consist of foreign intellectuals. This was an exercise of justice from within the survivors’ communities themselves. 

The Iran tribunal worked to construct a national process of justice seeking away from the spatio-temporal site of its occurrence, over three decades and five thousand kilometres away from the prisons of the Islamic state. Their unique approach was compounded by the fact that there has been no political transition within which to conduct a process of truth-telling. This too has been a space constructed solely by survivors and victims’ families, carved out from multiple barriers, including the absence of international acknowledgement and the continued apathy of (Iranian) national powers. Thus, a displaced ‘community’ of survivors enacted their truth-telling in absentia of both perpetuators and structural changes, challenging the very same structures that once facilitated their suffering, structures that have prevailed up to the present day disturbingly intact. For the organisers of the Iran Tribunal, a crucial ambition was in play. They were not simply seeking to ‘raise awareness’ about the violence that had befallen them during the 1980s. They wanted acknowledgment that this situation had not simply been ignored or overlooked; they were telling their truth directly to and at the law. 

Justice from above

Stephanie Cronin describes how the situation unfolded when, in 1924, a number of chiefs of the nomadic Lur of southwestern Iran were murdered by the commander of the army, despite having surrendered with promises of a pardon sealed by the holy Quran.  The Lurs wrote to the Iranian parliament to express their frustrations. From 1925 onwards, as the monarchy regenerated with Reza Shah as head of state, such petitions were directed solely at him and not at the decreasingly significant parliament. At this time, according to Cronin, the Shah was considered the moral and jurisdictional authority of the state. In this way, justice was imagined to be in the hands of an ultimately merciful purveyor, who only by virtue of their being unaware had allowed for injustices to occur in the first place.

This situation sprung to mind as I sat in the London phase of the Iran Tribunal. Hediye Shamsi recounted her experience to the truth commission, describing how a number of the distressed families had gone to the United Nations offices in Tehran, appointing one of the mothers as their representative. She confirms that crowds of distressed families often waited outside the prisons and United Nations offices, hoping for access to a ‘kingly’ figure. These ranged from national figures like Ayatollah Montazeri to international figures like Maurice Copithorne, United Nations Special Rapporteur to Iran from 1995 to 2002 and his predecessor Galindo Pohl. Copithorne served as the truth commission’s chairman during the London proceedings.

Both of these incidents imply a ‘higher power’ that enacts goodwill and justice from above, with the assumption that if only this higher power were made aware of the wrongs that were being committed just below their jurisdictive vision, all would be put right. But Hediye Shamsi and those like her had long learned their lesson to the contrary. 

The Hediye Shamshis of the Iranian case are many. They number in the thousands. Hundreds of such cases eventually came together to assemble their own space for justice, where alternatives had proven to be non-existent. This became a movement that drew its momentum exclusively from the emotional investment of each participant. 

Post-traumatic political activism

The Iran Tribunal was created out of a frustration of living with intense embodied traumas and under the weight of the impunity of known perpetuators. These traumas were multiple, carried in the bodily scars, the open-ended grief and loss stemming from withheld and mistreated bodies, and the disordered lives they founded. Just as the violence had been experienced through many different dimensions, so too had the trauma bled across planes temporal and territorial borders. A slow and thoughtful movement emerged that consciously cut the politics out of activism at great pains, creating a campaign of over 200 members decided that a legal structure would best facilitate their aims. These numbers ebbed and flowed, and saw numerous entrances and exits. It was not easy to maintain such a project amongst Iranians in the diaspora without the usually inevitable decent into factionalism along political, ethnic, religious and other lines.  

The aim was to depoliticise human rights and to exercise and encourage absolute inclusivity. This would be tough amongst any such group, not least a group who had been so affected by a political violence. This inclusivity was strictly enacted at every level, especially amongst witnesses who were chosen by the campaign members to represent as many experiences of post-revolutionary violence as possible. In this way, a patchwork quilt of narratives was tentatively sown into existence.

Using law as an imperfect equalizer provided a relatively neutral space for multiple truths to exist side by side. Monarchists described the demise of their loved ones with Mujahedeen-e-khalgh members, Fadaiyan affiliates recounted their experiences next to elderly women who had never had any political membership at all, Bahais, Kurds, and Khuzestani Arabs were amongst those who spoke of the targeted ethnic genocides that the Islamic Republic unleashed on their communities. This was largely why the campaign’s slow and steady momentum materialised into success.

The use of a legal structure to provide a comparatively monolithic discourse of the truth, may suggest that this was primarily in order to appeal to the international community for their assistance. This assumption rests on the idea that the international community wasn’t already well aware of the troubling violence in Iran, a premise that the witnesses frequently dispelled during their testimonies and interaction with the judges. Furthermore, despite the multiplicity of testimonies and experiences, all had a common feature. Although thankful for the opportunity to share their past traumas, they were largely indignant when pressed to recount whether and how they had pursued their cases via national and/or international powers. But as with Hediye Shamsi and countless others who had tried in vain to work through official channels to voice their grievances, they had learned a painful collective lesson: their appeals fell on deaf ears. Each time they tried, they were left feeling abandoned by the law and legal mechanisms, something they touched upon during testimonies.

‘Raising awareness’ then ostensibly did nothing, and had elicited no meaningful results decades after they had fled abroad. Their loved had ones perished in the prisons of the Islamic Republic, and they themselves continued to be haunted by the spectres of torture. Indeed, years of campaigning, hunger strikes outside of embassies and activism had never achieved either significant mainstream press attention or any definitive action from their diaspora host states or the United Nations. And despite promising appointments of special rapporteurs on human rights in Iran who have called for investigations, little has been done despite continued confrontation “by individuals who communicate allegations of enforced disappearance, torture and summary execution from the the period of 1980 to 1990”. 

The Iran Tribunal worked on several levels to address this. It established the illegality of the 1980s state violence, framing it in the formal language of international law, and then it went on to challenge the absence of an ‘official’ trial in face of tireless appeals since the 1980s. The enactment of the tribunal as process of truth-telling within the frame of legal discourse was thus as much about putting the international community on trial as the Islamic Republic itself. The pursuit of justice was not just being enacted in the absence of but in defiance of an ‘official’ state apparatus that did not–or rather had not–accepted their pleas for assistance. 

From public secrets into public acknowledgement

In June 2012 the first phase of the truth commission phase of the tribunal took place. The commission’s members, prominent jurists and representatives, selected from prestigious human-rights bodies, sat on a stage with the Iran Tribunal banner hanging behind them. Together with the witnesses the room was set up not unlike a courtroom, with the commission at the very front of the auditorium facing rows of the audience. The room was filled to capacity in the opening days of the testimonies. Weathered faces and tired bodies occupied the seats. Groups of men sat in huddles at the back with the marker of revolutionary left-wing aesthetic, a thick and defiant moustache, still present above their upper lips. They spoke in a multitude of dialects and languages, but always in hushed voices and bowed heads.

Those present at the London phase of the proceedings were largely composed of the living remnants of 1980s violence in Iran. Looking carefully one saw the telltale signs of torture inscribed onto their bodies. Some limped, others adjusted their hearing pieces, and bodies too young to develop discomfort just from sitting writhed and rubbed their joints in the plastic seats. They were the evidence of the crime. They were the living narrators of a public secret that the Islamic State had tried to terrorise into exile and silence.

The room was full of disturbing biographies. Many of the witnesses wore t-shirts emblazoned with photographs of their lost loved ones, animating the names of the absent. If the violence of the 1980s had been a ‘public secret’ outside of that room, inside it, in the hush and the tears and the bowed heads in hands, it was very much invoked and broadcast into the open and across multiple political, ethnic and religious networks that rarely converged otherwise.

In an effort to reach an audience beyond the campaign’s main network of survivors and the families of victims, the tribunal’s media team had invested much thought in their recording and broadcasting capabilities. Their perched cameras were checked compulsively to ensure that they were in order at all times. On closer inspection, I noted that the hands that held these cameras shook too. They were deeply involved in the words and images that they recorded. Almost every person who took part in the practical facilitation of the two stages of the tribunal was a survivor or family member of victims. It was as if the scene was held up and together with the sheer might of collective past horrors.

Understandably thus, the catharsis of re-living the torment was visible at every turn. There were seldom occasions where men were not sobbing in the corridors, sometimes in twos or threes, sometimes alone with heads pressed to the wall. When Azar Alekanan recounted her ordeal of sexual violence to gasps and tears, a short recess was enforced. A prominent and experienced activist sobbed uncontrollably in her seat during this recess. Khatereh Moini’s description of unearthing bodies in the shallow graves of Khavaran was met with tearful horror. Madar Esmat, an elderly woman who suffered immense loss, spoke of seven of her family members, including her nephew who was executed at just 11 years old. She became an emblem of the tribunal, an apolitical grieving mother, sister and aunt who had been forced to flee and live in anonymity for some years after her entire family was effectively exterminated. 

Acknowledgment as means or ends?

For many of the campaign members, including the witnesses above, the question remained: what if, at great personal cost, they narrated their indignity and that of their loved ones to thousands of people (both in attendance and via audio-visual link) and achieved no tangible results? What if they vocalised their normally hidden “low intensity panic” in its entirety to no productive ends? For the witnesses and partakers, it meant investing a great deal of trust, not just with the Iran Tribunal as a vehicle for their most personal traumas, but in the mechanism of change itself. For the participants of the tribunal, the catharsis through testimony was not sufficient. It did not represent an end in itself. 

Those I worked with were frustrated with media outlets that described their tribunal simply as a ‘symbolic court’. “What we are doing here is not symbolic,” my informant told me during a cigarette break between witnesses. She was irate that their movement be compared to an art installation or a theatrical performance, mimicking a ‘real’ legal process. She and many others considered the Iran Tribunal to be a manifestation of justice where justice had for so long been refused to them, by the Iranian government, by their diaspora host states, and by the higher international legal authorities. To her and to the other campaign members, the tribunal was putting all of these entities on trial. 

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