By Alejo Vidal-Quadras
This week United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres presented a report to the UN General Assembly regarding the situation of human rights in Iran. Among the issues highlighted in this report was the ongoing crime against humanity that is the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. The report noted that authorities have attempted to conceal mass graves associated with the massacre and that family members of its victims have faced harassment for protesting or otherwise working to increase public awareness.
As an example of this latter phenomenon, the report also pointed out the case of Maryam Akbari Monfared, who has served 12 years of a 15-year sentence for her participation in large-scale protests in 2009. “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”, the report read.
The larger harassment campaign was also highlighted in December 2020 with the publication of a letter signed by seven UN human rights experts and sent to Iranian authorities in an effort to convince them to adopt a policy of transparency regarding past abuses. Its publication took place after a roughly three-month waiting period during which the authorities declined to offer any response. Apparently anticipating that outcome, the letter also made it clear that the international community would bear responsibility for holding Iranian officials accountable for the massacre if the Iranian government would not do so.
During the subsequent year, Tehran clearly demonstrated that it remained committed not only to harassment and what the UN experts called a “strategy of deflection and denial”, but also to a longstanding practice of rewarding participants for their participation in the 1988 massacre and other human rights abuses. June 2021 saw the “election” of Ebrahim Raisi as president of the Iranian regime, although his campaign was virtually uncontested and the vast majority of Iranian citizens boycotted the process. Many also placed themselves at risk of backlash from the regime by openly protesting Raisi’s involvement in “the worst crime of the Islamic Republic.”
Prior to the 1988 massacre, Raisi served as a deputy prosecutor for Tehran. Following a fatwa from the then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini which targeted organized opposition to the theocratic dictatorship, Raisi became one of four officials on the Tehran “death commission” that oversaw the implementation of capital punishment for virtually all political prisoners who were believed to still support the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). This role made Raisi directly or indirectly responsible for all of the roughly 30,000 executions that took place over the span of about three months that year.
Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s Secretary-General, reacted to Raisi’s appointment as president by calling it “a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran” and lamenting the fact that it occurred instead of Raisi being “investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture.”
The latest of these developments also gave rise to renewed criticism of Western policies toward the Iranian regime. The likely persistence of those policies during the Raisi era was underscored by the presence at Raisi’s inauguration of a European delegation headed by the deputy political director of the European External Action Service, Enrique Mora.
That body’s apparent willingness to embrace Raisi’s presidency while overlooking his crimes against humanity calls into question the validity of its name. In the wake of Mora’s attendance, many of the regime’s critics fear that there will be no “external action” whatsoever from the European Union with regard to Raisi’s past crimes or even his current endorsement of hardline policies which threaten the lives of countless Iranian citizens.
Soon after his inauguration, the new Iranian president seemed to reassert Tehran’s impunity by appointing a number of cabinet ministers who are subject to US and EU sanctions over human rights abuses, terrorist activity, illicit nuclear research, and missile development. Several of those individuals have been directly implicated in terrorist attacks around the world and one, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, is even subject to an Interpol arrest warrant for having overseen the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps at the time of a 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Some of Raisi’s appointees, like his Vice President for Economic Affairs Mohsen Rezaie, also have an established history of specifically targeting the MEK, as Raisi himself did during the 1988 massacre. Rezaie is also subject to an Interpol arrest warrant for his role in the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian even seemed to openly defend a terrorist plot that sought to undermine the MEK by attacking an international gathering organized by its parent coalition near Paris in June 2018.
“As a safe haven [for the MEK], Europe must now receive a sensible, wise, but shocking message,” Abdollahian said in response to the European announcement of sanctions related to the thwarted bomb plot. Serious opponents of the Iranian regime might wonder whether its officials would be comfortable making such statements if the sanctions in question were not so limited in scope or if the eventual pursuit of legal accountability went beyond the four direct participants in the plot to include those figures high within the regime who ordered and approved it.
Similar questions have been asked and will continue to be asked with respect to the 1988 massacre, which various Iranian officials including Raisi have publicly defended as the implementation of “God’s command” for the death of MEK members. This, of course, highlights the ever-present threat of further large-scale attacks on members of the organization, as well as anyone believed to have any ties to it whatsoever. This threat grew only more serious with the 2019 crackdown and with Raisi’s ascension to the presidency.
Until just last month, no one has ever faced legal consequences for the 1988 massacre. This only changed because Swedish authorities made the politically courageous decision to apply the principle of universal jurisdiction when former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury arrived in the country for a visit. In a recent virtual conference hosted by the NCRI, legal scholars Eric David and Geoffrey Robertson signaled the clear opportunity that exists for any country to apply the same principle to the case of Ebrahim Raisi, whose acts of mass murder on religious grounds potentially fit the legal criteria for genocide.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is currently president of the Brussels-based International Committee in Search of Justice (ISJ)