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A prize for the future of Iran: the Mothers of Khavaran and the quest for a just society

After more than quarter of a century of struggle to raise awareness about the secret execution of their loved ones, Mothers of Khavaran, a grassroots network of thousands of survivors in Iran, receive the 2014 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. 

Payam Akhavan
16 May 2014

In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa to deal with political prisoners, “with revolutionary rage and rancour.” An estimated 4,000-5,000 executions took place in that blood-stained summer which has come to symbolize the worst excesses of the Islamic Republic’s assault on the human rights of Iranian citizens.

Ever since that catastrophe, the Mothers of Khavaran have withstood slander, beatings, imprisonment, and torture, in their quest to mourn the loss of their children, and to put an end to the Government’s policy of denial and impunity.  The dark shadow of that violence continues to haunt Iran today.  The current Minister of Justice, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, was on the notorious Death Commission that put thousands to death after religious inquisitions that resemble those of the Catholic Church in medieval Spain., making a mockery of justice.

It is in this light that all Iranians striving for a just society should celebrate the historic award of the prestigious 2014 Korean Gwangju Prize to the Mothers of Khavaran.  This Prize was established in 1994 to honour the memory of the victims of the 18 May 1980 uprising that was the starting point of democratization in South Korea.  At that time, the people of Gwangju resisted brutal military forces in pursuit of democracy and human rights.  Today, the Mothers of Khavaran remind us that there can be no better future for Iran if the enormous crimes of the past remain unaddressed.

Our conception of power is too often associated with the capacity for violence.  We imagine that a regime that tortures and terrorizes its citizens is somehow powerful.  But would we say that about a man that beats his wife and children?  To the contrary, we would say that he is a coward that needs to prey on the weak to prove his strength.  What then can be said about a regime that slanders, beats, imprisons, and tortures mothers that simply wish to mourn their children?  Which is the better conception of power for the future of Iran: the Mothers of Khavaran or those that continue the policy of denial and violence?

Our mothers are the very source of life.  They are our first educators and role models.  Nothing is more powerful that the bond between a mother and her child.  And nothing is more painful than the separation of a mother from her child, not least through violence simply because of political or religious beliefs.  A mother who has thus lost her child will stop at nothing to achieve some measure of redemption.  In her cry for justice, in her refusal to remain silent even after so many years of suffering, we are reminded of our dignity as human beings.  In the universal pain of a mother that has lost her child, we experience a shared humanity that transcends the divisions of politics and religion, and the dark temptations of unjust and corrupt power.  The mourning mother reminds us why human rights are so vital to our dignity as a nation that stands for justice and humanity rather than tyranny and violence.

Consider the example of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo that defiantly protested against the military dictatorship of Argentina, demanding justice for their “disappeared” sons and daughters during the so-called Dirty War of 1976-83.  Their courage was a turning point in Argentina’s democratic transformation.  In this regard, the Mothers of Khavaran have a similarly important role to play in building the better future of Iran.

In 2012, I had the privilege of serving as Prosecutor of the Iran People’s Tribunal, established at the request of the Mothers of Khavaran, to start a long-awaited process of truth-telling and reconciliation.  Some 100 witnesses testified in London and The Hague before a panel of eminent international judges, including Justice Kriegler, the former head of the South African Constitutional Court, appointed by President Nelson Mandela after the collapse of the apartheid regime.  The stories that emerged for this testimony were heart-wrenching and shocking.  Among these, one story that stood out for me was Mother Esmat from Shiraz, who wept as she described the execution of her eleven year-old nephew together with his father.  How can such inhumanity be fathomed?  How can we accept such cruelty as a nation?

For me, it was clear after days of such painful testimony that Iran is in need of healing from these years of hatred and violence that have destroyed our potential as a nation and reduced us to pariahs in the world community.  While political leaders negotiate an agreement on the nuclear issue and compete with each other for status and privilege, the real power belongs to the people that demand justice.  After the broadcast of the Iran Tribunal’s harrowing testimony, watched by millions in Iran, the Islamic Republic was finally forced to admit that these executions did in fact take place.  One propaganda piece even suggested that Ayatollah Khamenei had attempted in those days to save political prisoners from execution!  The recent dismissal of the Evin prison’s ward 305 after a brutal assault on political prisoners is another sign that accountability is slowly becoming part of the fundamental demands of the people which the regime cannot indefinitely ignore.  This is just the beginning of an irreversible tide that will transform Iran in the coming years despite the stubborn clinging of some to old patterns of thought and behaviour.

Like post-apartheid South Africa, Iran needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in order to put a culture of impunity firmly in the past and to build a tomorrow where the horrors of 1988 will never again be visited upon the citizens of this great nation.  In their long-suffering, in their refusal to remain silent, in their demand for justice, the Mothers of Khavaran show us a different conception of power, they show us the potential for a different Iran.  The Mothers of Khavaran are also our mothers, because they give us moral life and educate us as a people.  That is why we should all celebrate their historic victory in receiving the Gwanju Prize, and consider it as a prize for our common future.

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