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The Only Thing More Shocking Than Iran’s 1988 Massacre Was the World’s Silence 

By Mohammad Zand

33 Years After the 1988 Massacre, I went to court. This time I was not the accused.

The 35th session of Hamid Noury’s trial ended on Wednesday. The trial has been transferred to Albania, so I, Mohammad Zand, along with my other friends who survived Iran’s 1988 massacre, could testify.  

Noury was apprehended in 2019 due to his role, as a prison official in Gohardasht prison, in the mass killings of dissidents in the summer of 1988.  I am one of the plaintiffs of his case, as I witnessed his crimes in prison. Months after the first trial in Sweden, we finally got this chance to testify about what happened 33 years ago in Iranian prisons.  

I was told that I would be the first person to testify in Albania. So I went to the District Court in Durres. When I first entered the hall, I suddenly recalled those dreadful days in the 1980s, mainly the summer of 1988, when my friends were executed rapidly.  

I was a student in Iran in 1981 when I was arrested for supporting the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the main opposition to the theocratic dictatorship that had been established the previous year. I was promptly sentenced to 11 years in prison, and I went on to serve a sentence in its entirety. My brother, Reza Zand, was arrested just around the same time and sentenced to 10 years on the same charge. He did not live to see the outside of the prison again. 

In 1988, seven years into his sentence, my brother was killed as part of the Iranian regime’s nationwide massacre of political prisoners. He was one of the thousands of individuals in Tehran and Gohardasht Prisons to have their existing sentences suddenly and arbitrarily upgraded to death sentences by the Tehran “death commission” that had been assembled in response to a fatwa from the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini. 

When it was my turn to stand before the death commission, I asked its four members why they had executed my brother even though the criminal court had already assigned him a lesser sentence. I was given no answer, but it later became clear that the very purpose of the death commission was to eliminate anyone whom they believed was still committed to the democratic principles of the MEK. 

I suspect that my brother knew what was going on before I did. When he was initially taken to face the death commission, he handed me his personal belongings and conveyed the belief that we would not see each other again. Even before that, when our mother visited for the last time before the prison was isolated from the outside world, he had expressed the same sentiment to her. 

I have no doubt that others shared my brothers’ insight. Indeed, many of my fellow detainees became suspicious of the authorities’ intentions as soon as newspapers stopped being delivered to the prison and televisions began being removed from cells. To the extent that these people conveyed their suspicions to friends and family members before the lockdown, the expectation of mass executions must have reached the wider world long before the massacre concluded, three months after it had begun. 

The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: Eyewitness Accounts, Mohammad Zand

It is, therefore, deeply upsetting to know that no one took action to stop it. Iran’s own activist community could not have done much on their own, but parts of that community reached out to their friends and families within the Iranian diaspora and urged them to raise the alarm about an emerging crime against humanity. The Iranian Resistance abroad brought evidence of the massacre to lawmakers in Washington and other Western capitals, only to be brushed aside as those governments continued pursuing a strategy of friendly outreach to the regime in Tehran. 

What is even more upsetting is that that strategy continues to the present day, even after three decades of the regime covering up its worst crimes against humanity and keeping its legacy alive through crackdowns on dissent, assassinations of dissidents, and systematic promotion of high-level participants in the 1988 massacre. In June of this year, arguably the most egregious example of the latter phenomenon emerged when clerical authorities orchestrated the “election” of Ebrahim Raisi, one of the four individuals who sat on the Tehran death commission in 1988. 

Raisi was selected while Iran’s eligible voters boycotted the proceedings in protest. However, this denial of his legitimacy was contradicted by the international community in August, when foreign dignitaries, including the deputy political director of the European External Action Service, attended the ceremony in an effort to establish a cordial relationship with the Raisi administration from day one. 

This decision represents a clear betrayal of the European Union’s humanitarian principles. That betrayal had already been ongoing for 33 years by the time of Raisi’s inauguration, during which time the Iranian Resistance and human rights groups made numerous appeals for an international commission of inquiry regarding the 1988 massacre, with the ultimate goal of initiating prosecution for known participants in it. 

Less than a year before Raisi’s ascent to the presidency, seven United Nations human rights experts wrote an open letter that acknowledged that UN institutions were aware of a surge of executions in 1988 but did nothing. “The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran,” they said. One of the clearest examples of that impact had just been identified by Amnesty International in a report detailing a campaign of torture that emerged from the regime’s crackdown on a nationwide uprising that broke out in November 2019. 

In June, Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard issued a statement lamenting that “Raisi has ascended to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture.” This, she said, was a “grim reminder of the fact that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.” 

The Western powers and international bodies that turned a blind eye to the 1988 massacre bear much responsibility for that impunity. I would not expect them to have the same insight into the regime’s intentions as my late brother, but nothing can excuse three decades of obviousness and naivety in the face of countless appeals for them to hold Iran’s worst human rights abusers accountable. 

Western powers’ refusal to condemn Raisi’s particular role in the 1988 massacre represents a whole new dimension of their betrayal of shared humanitarian principles. Fortunately, this collective inaction is counterbalanced somewhat by the efforts of rights groups like Amnesty, and especially by the various lawmakers and the single European government that has actually committed to a reversal of longstanding policies of neglect. 

Noury’s trial began in August of this year, on the charges of war crimes and mass murder, due to his role in torturing political prisoners before and during the 1988 massacre. The arrest was carried out on the basis of universal jurisdiction, a legal principle that allows for the most serious violations of international law to be prosecuted by legal authorities in any country, regardless of the perpetrator’s nationality or the location of the crime in question. 

When I testified at the District Court of Durres, I could seed my fellow inmates and my brother. And I thought, “Would justice be finally served?”  

Noury’s trial stands out as a model that might be applied to the case against Ebrahim Raisi, whose role in the massacre was much more extensive. Some legal scholars have even urged the International Criminal Court to investigate Raisi for genocide, given that his transparent efforts to annihilate the MEK were arguably part of an even larger effort to destroy entire communities of faith that promoted moderate brands of Islam in opposition to the theocratic fundamentalism underpinning the mullahs’ regime.