For many years, the Iranian Resistance has been clamoring for an international investigation into the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. Yet little action has been taken by government institutions, much less by the United Nations. Instead, the European Union sent a representative to the inauguration of the regime’s new president Ebrahim Raisi, who had a key role in the 1988 massacre.
Amid the international community’s inaction, a rare exception came in November 2019 when Swedish authorities arrested former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury. His trial is set to begin on August 10 for war crimes and murder in connection with his role in the 1988 massacre.
The start of that trial ought to spur other Western governments to act, especially in light of the fact that it comes just five days after the inauguration of Raisi.
On June 19, the day after Iran’s sham election, Amnesty International issued a statement that emphasized that Raisi should be targeted for prosecution just as Noury was, and for the same reasons. “That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
Raisi was a deputy public prosecutor for Tehran in 1988, and after then-Supreme Leader, Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the execution of political prisoners, Raisi was all too eager to step into a role on the regime’s leading “death commission.” Those panels were assembled all across the county with a mandate to interrogate known and suspected members of opposition groups, mainly the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and to pressure them to renounce their political ideals and affiliations.
Many of those who came before the death commissions resisted this pressure. One letter between regime officials from the time of the massacre described an interrogator compelling a political prisoner to denounce the opposition, then compelling him to declare his willingness to fight in the war against Iraq, receiving push-back only when the prisoner was specifically asked if he was willing to walk through a minefield in service of the theocratic regime.
The letter’s author, Hossein Ali Montazeri – the only official who objected to the killings– quoted the interrogator as telling this prisoner, “It is obvious that you are still holding onto your beliefs” and then sending him for immediate execution. Such conduct was commonplace among the death commissions, and this goes a long way toward explaining why the estimated death toll from the 1988 massacre rose to more than 30,000 over the course of only three months.
Witness statements make it clear that Raisi was as visibly committed to his role in the executions as anyone else who sat on a death commission. Available documents also indicate that this enthusiasm contributed to his selection by Khomeini as one of two figures who would compensate for the supposed “weakness of the judiciary” by examining cases of political dissent and carrying out “God’s command” in regions beyond their initial jurisdiction.
This phrase, “God’s command,” has been used by a number of Iranian officials to describe the act of killing political dissidents, particularly members of the MEK. The regime’s former Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi cited it in at least one public interview to defend and explicitly praise the massacre and his role in it. Raisi has offered similar comments in recent years, emphasizing the supposed infallibility of the Supreme Leader even in instances where he directs subordinates to handle political enemies with “no mercy.”
Such statements had no adverse impact on Raisi’s presidential candidacy. Quite to the contrary, they appear to have been an asset, insofar as they demonstrated his ongoing commitment to political violence and the repression of dissent, mainly the MEK, during a time when the regime is facing unprecedented domestic challenges. After Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Raisi as head of the judiciary, he had an opportunity to act upon that commitment in November 2019 by overseeing the regime’s brutal response to a nationwide uprising that featured popular calls for regime change.
Over 1,500 people were killed within days of the Iran protests erupting. Thousands of others were arrested, and torture continued in the regime’s jails for months afterward. This was a sign of the ongoing legacy of the 1988 massacre and the enduring influence of perpetrators who are still in leading government positions, it is also a stark reminder of the impunity that Amnesty International warned about following Raisi’s election.
That impunity must be challenged, at long last, by the international community. This can be accomplished quite simply, by launching a formal Commission of Inquiry at the United Nations and pursuing information about the 1988 massacre with the expressed goal of filing charges against known perpetrators at the International Criminal Court.