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Full Accounting of Iran’s Worst Crime against Humanity Is More Important than Ever

summer of 1988, more than 30,000 political prisoners

By Mahmoud Royaei

After narrowly surviving Iran’s massacre of political prisoners in 1988, I spent years investigating the details of those crimes against humanity, and eventually published a series of five books detailing its planning, scale, and lasting impact. For all the specific information I acquired from fellow eyewitnesses and leaked documents, my research also revealed that there is a great deal that we do not yet know about the massacre, and might never know until after the regime responsible for it has been overthrown.

Most current estimates for the death toll from the 1988 massacre stand at around 30,000. But this must be understood as the floor, not the ceiling of a possible final estimate. Activists arrived at that figure by carefully analyzing prisoner intake and transfer records from the era, and by speaking with survivors as well as with the relatives of many who went missing during the summer of 1988. However, regime authorities deliberately used mass transfers around the time of the massacre as a means of both streamlining the killings and obscuring their scale. What’s more, many families were subsequently intimidated into silence over their loved ones’ disappearances, and among those who have spoken out, many have faced serious repercussions.

In September, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres presented a report to the General Assembly regarding Iran’s human rights record and singled out one instance of such intimidation. He noted that Maryam Akbari Monfared is serving a 15-year sentence as a result of her participation in peaceful protests in 2009, and that “harassment against her increased after she filed a formal complaint, seeking an official investigation into the executions of political prisoners, including her siblings, in 1988.”

That formal complaint was a particularly bold instance of an individual directly confronting the regime over its past crimes, especially considering that other family members of the massacre’s victims have been punished for far less. Sometimes that punishment consists of mere threats of violence and sometimes it consists of actual violence during extended periods of interrogation following politically motivated arrests. Sometimes that arrest leads to prosecution and imprisonment, and in at least one instance, the father of one of the massacre’s victims was subjected to mock execution solely because he expressed a desire to hold a memorial for his son.

My research has uncovered countless stories of pressure and retaliation, which have been corroborated by renowned human rights organizations on various occasions. Just last year, seven UN human rights experts wrote an open letter to Iranian authorities demanding transparency regarding the 1988 massacre. The letter specifically appealed for an end to the pressure campaign against survivors and victims’ families, but it seemed to acknowledge that the chances of receiving a meaningful response from the regime were slim.

The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: Eyewitness Accounts, Mahmoud Royaei

Toward that end, the experts explained that in absence of relevant measures by the Iranian authorities, it would fall to the international community to pursue accountability for perpetrators of the massacre. The letter explicitly framed that potential action as a means of compensating for the mistakes that UN bodies made in 1988, when the massacre was referenced in a resolution on Iran’s human rights record but was not followed upon.

“The failure of these bodies to act,” the letter explained, “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue… a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”

Although the UN experts did not say so directly, the ongoing legacy of the 1988 massacre was particularly evident at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when regime authorities carried out a historic crackdown on nationwide anti-government protests that broke out in November 2019. Above 1,500 people were killed within the first days of that uprising, and more than 12,000 were arrested in short order. Many of those arrestees were then subjected to months of torture spanning countless prisons and detention facilities.

It is surely no coincidence that at the time of that torture campaign, the Iranian judiciary was in the hands of Ebrahim Raisi, a notorious clerical judge I and other political prisoners call him the “henchman” or “butcher” of 1988, on account of his leading role in that year’s massacre. Raisi was one of four officials to sit on the Tehran “death commission” that was tasked with implementing Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the mass execution of known and suspected members of the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

The Iranian regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei appointed Raisi as the new president in 2021. Instead of condemning his actions, the European Union sent a delegation to that inauguration ceremony, effectively turning a blind eye to the human rights violations Raisi oversaw less than two years earlier, not to mention his participation in crimes against humanity more than three decades earlier.

Raisi and other regime officials are accused of committing. This genocide is based on the fact that Raisi’s actions on the death commission were carried out in service of a fatwa that specifically branded members of the PMOI as enemies of God. The religious language suggests that the further intention of the 1988 massacre and countless associated human rights abuses was to destroy entire communities of faith that posed a challenge to the mullahs’ ultra-hardline, theocratic interpretation of Islam.

The Amnesty International statement described Raisi’s upward trajectory within the regime as a “grim reminder of the fact that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.” It is now more imperative than ever for the international community to confront that impunity, which it can do by launching formal investigations that might provide the clearest account of the 1988 massacre to date.

What we already know is more than enough to justify the prosecution of the perpetrators, as was demonstrated in August by the start of a Swedish court’s prosecution of the former Iranian prison official. Hamid Noury was arrested in 2019 on the basis of “universal jurisdiction,” a principle that allows for serious violations of international law to be prosecuted in any country, regardless of where the crime actually took place. Noury’s role in the 1988 massacre was at a much lower level than Raisi’s, so there can be no doubt that the same principle is available to justify the arrest of Iran’s current president, should he set foot in the West.

@Mahmoud_Royaie is a MEK member and a former political prisoner who spent 10 years in prison.