BY: R. Bruce McColm
In Ebrahim Raisi, we now have an international criminal as the next president of the state of Iran. The United Nations will have to grapple with the fact that one of its member states is led by a notorious international criminal. It is now time for the UN to end the Iranian regime’s impunity and hold its criminals to account for their horrendous conduct against humanity.
According to detailed reports by leading human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Raisi is guilty of crimes against humanity committed in 1988, including the slaughter of thousands of political prisoners. In a recent speech, Geoffrey Robertson, an appeal judge on the United Nations war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone, who wrote a detailed report on the 1988 massacre, went even further and said those mass killings should be classified as genocide because the executed prisoners were members or sympathizers of the MEK, a Muslim group that rejected the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Raisi’s election as president should focus attention on a barbaric moment in world history that has been unjustifiably overlooked, particularly by the UN.
As a human rights advocate, I have had my share of experiences with defending human rights against dictators and war criminals.
The massacre happened 33 years ago, late in July 1988, as the war with Iraq was ending in a truculent truce. In revenge and rage, then-Supreme Leader Khomeini issued a fatwa that all those who opposed his theocracy and were in prison must be swiftly annihilated. This religious decree was carried out by a “Death Committee,” in which Ebrahim Raisi was a central figure.
Prisons in Iran, crammed with opponents of the regime at the time, suddenly went into lockdown. All family visits were canceled. The only permitted visitation was from a delegation, turbaned and bearded, which came in black government BMWs to outlying jails.
The delegation included a religious judge, a public prosecutor, and an intelligence chief. Before they have paraded thousands of political prisoners, who had been jailed since the early 1980s, and most were activists of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) opposition movement.
The delegation had but one question for these defenseless young men and women, most of whom had been detained since 1981 for merely taking part in street protests. Many of them had already served their sentence. Those who answered that they had a continuing affiliation with the MEK were blindfolded and ordered to join a conga-line that led straight to the gallows.
They were hung from cranes 12 at a time from ropes at the prison assembly hall stage, called Hosseiniyeh. Their bodies were packed in refrigerated trucks and buried by night in mass graves.
Months later, their families, desperate for information about their children, would be handed a plastic bag with their few possessions. They were refused any information about the location of the graves and ordered never to mourn their loved ones in public.
By mid-August 1988, thousands of prisoners had been killed in this manner by the state, without trial, without appeal, and utterly without mercy.
The United Nations essentially turned a blind eye even though its own rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Reynaldo Galindo Pol had mentioned the execution of at least 860 prisoners in the summer of 1998, after he visited Iran a year later. In September 1988, Amnesty International had put out an Urgent Action telegram on the matter.
Sadly, the UN has failed in its duty to hold these criminals against humanity accountable. Raisi has since acted with impunity, ordering the executions of more protesters, particularly during the November 2019 uprisings. This is while last September, seven top UN human rights experts once again shed light on the 1988 massacre and urged an international investigation.
Now with Raisi’s ascendance to the presidency, the international community should have no hesitation to act fast. The world and the UN must swiftly hold Raisi and other regime criminals accountable. The UN has a duty to set up a proper inquiry into the barbaric doings of 1988.
The Iranian people will rewrite the history of Iran with the truth, the truth of the barbarity which future generations will want to erase just as the German people were able to condemn and erase the Nazis and their horrors. Britain, Canada, America, Australia, and the countries that have targeted sanctions and laws, including the Magnitsky sanctions, should target the surviving masterminds of the 1988 barbarities, especially Raisi.
Name them, shame them, and blame them, because, in that way, we can go on the offensive against the perpetrators of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War, one of the worst crimes against humanity, the 1988 Massacre.
R. Bruce McColm, the former Executive Director of the Freedom House, is the President of the Institute for Democratic Strategies.