By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
On Sunday 20th of September, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) released a report detailing some of the torture experienced by Iranian activists who were arrested during the country’s mass uprising last November. The report effectively acts as a supplement to a more extensive one released by Amnesty International at the beginning of the month, which pointed to 7,000 arrests leading to many well corroborated accounts of beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, mock executions, and more.
While the Amnesty report focused on well-known centers of torture like Tehran’s Evin Prison, the NCRI made a point of highlighting “temporary and secret detention centers” in which some activists were tortured before being transferred to far more infamous locations. The clear implication of Sunday’s report is that the human rights situation in Iran is even worse than what has been described to most international audiences. That message is reinforced by the NCRI’s calculation that the total number of arrests connected to the November uprising was no less than 12,000 – nearly double the number that has been officially announced by regime authorities.
The NCRI has also drawn upon on-the-ground reporting from its main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), to determine the death toll from Tehran’s crackdown on the unrest. The death toll had been 1,500 shot dead and the immediate arrest of wounded protesters pointed to the danger of this number climbing even higher.
Multiple subsequent reports of torture underscore this danger and the NCRI’s latest publication notes that a number of wounded prisoners have suffered untreated infections in just one facility, known as Ebrat Prison. That prison is reportedly run by the intelligence division of the IRGC and is one of the clandestine detention centers in which torture has taken place while receiving comparatively little attention from international monitors. With this in mind, the NCRI renewed its call on Sunday for the United Nations to demand that Iranian officials grant an international delegation unfettered access to their detention facilities, including those where operations have been established or expanded specifically in response to recent unrest.
Attention to the NCRI’s appeal could save untold numbers of lives, both in the immediate future and over the long term. Sunday’s report notes that in Ebrat Prison alone, three people are known to have died from the effects of their torture and lack of access to medical treatment. Similar stories will no doubt be revealed over time from detention facilities all across the country. But the greater danger to political prisoners comes from regime authorities demands for widespread application of the death penalty in the face of an upsurge in popular dissent.
That danger was acknowledged by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in immediate aftermath of November’s nationwide uprising. In a statement dated December 6, 2019, she professed to being “extremely concerned about [the prisoners’] physical treatment, violations of their right to due process, and the possibility that a significant number of them may be charged with offences that carry the death penalty, in addition to the conditions under which they are held.”
This statement was cited in a document submitted to the Human Rights Council by more than 15 non-governmental organizations last week, just ahead of the 45th session of the UN General Assembly. That document expressed the belief that Iranian authorities would be “emboldened to further crack down with impunity on present-day protesters” unless the international community undertakes serious action to demonstrate that such crackdowns will not be tolerated.
The signatories also emphasized that the most important action to take toward that end is the formal investigation of a 32-year-old massacre of political prisoners, which has been described as “the worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and the worst single crime against humanity to take place in the latter half of the 20th century.
In the summer of 1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa declaring that all domestic opponents of the theocratic system were at war with God Himself, and thus subject to summary execution. In response, the judiciary convened death commissions in prison facilities throughout the country and began interrogating political prisoners to determine who still maintained connections to organized Resistance groups or harbored resentment for the mullahs’ regime.
After trials lasting as little as one minute, those who failed to demonstrate fealty were sentenced to hang and after several months the death toll from the systematic mass killings reached 30,000. No one has ever been held accountable for this crime and today several of the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre remain in positions of great power and influence within the regime. These include the head of the judiciary and both the current and former Minister of Justice.
As recently as last year, the former Justice Minister and current advisor to the judiciary chief, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, told state media outlets that he believed Khomeini’s fatwa should be applied to present circumstances and that anyone who is believed to be in league with the People’s Mojahedin Organization (PMOI-MEK) should be swiftly subjected to capital punishment. The clear barbarity of this position is made worse by the fact that both the November uprising and a previous nationwide protest movement in January 2018 have been attributed in large part to the MEK, thus making every protester a potential target for a wave of death sentences.
The NGOs’ statement to the Human Rights Council thus declared that literally thousands of current detainees are at risk of execution today and that this risk increases with every day that the international community declines to speak out decisively on the topic. Iranian officials, meanwhile, are seemingly telegraphing their intentions, with IRGC deputy commander Ali Fadavi telling reporters after the November uprising that detained activists were “mercenaries” of Western governments and the MEK and that “the judicial system will give them the maximum punishment.”
Such statements leave little question about the likeliest outcome of recent and ongoing crackdowns, at least in absence of foreign intervention. For the NCRI and its supporters, this situation underscores a point made by Amnesty International in a 2018 report: that “Iran’s 1988 prison massacres are ongoing crimes against humanity.” As long as Tehran perceives itself to enjoy impunity with respect to that massacre, there is looming danger of this dark moment in history repeating itself. In the meantime, the Iranian regime can also be expected to press ahead with the torturous pre-cursors to such a massacre.
These include, but are not limited to, the various activities described first in the September 2 Amnesty International report and now in the NCRI’s report from temporary and secret prisons. Both reports provide concrete examples of prisoners being beaten, shocked with cattle prods, threatened with rape, subjected to mock executions, and having their fingernails pulled out, their bones broken, and their wounds left untreated for days or weeks at a time. If the international community dos not take immediate action, all the innocent lives lost will always be a heavy burden on its conscience.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)