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A Political Analysis of Iran’s 1988 Massacre

Pictures of political prisoners who were massacred in 1988 in Iran.
Pictures of political prisoners who were massacred in 1988 in Iran.

After thirty-three years, the heinous massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners continues to have an impact on Iran, and many perpetrators hold top positions in the regime, including President Ebrahim Raisi.

Hamid Noury, one of the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre, was put on trial by the Swedish Judiciary in early 2021, and survivors have presented testimonies that are still very shocking. Through them, much of the world is learning for the first time about what happened in Iranian prisons thirty-three years ago.

Many analysts have already drawn conclusions about the incident, but their statements reveal a general lack of information about the real motives behind the fatwa that instigated the genocide.

In 230 words, Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini sealed the fate of thousands of Iranian youths in the summer of 1988. This fatwa was implemented by “death committees” that were formed primarily to target supporters and members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

Khomeini’s fatwa lists many charges against the MEK, the most important being the first three:

– Being hypocrite (a derogatory term Tehran uses to describe the MEK)

– Treason

– Not believing in Islam

These bogus charges were meant to tarnish the image of the MEK as the sole progressive Muslim opposition to the mullahs’ regime and their reactionary interpretation of Islam. The core of Khomeini’s fatwa is the following sentence: “It is decreed that those who are in prisons throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for the Monafeqin [Arabic term “monafeqin” a derogatory term means “hypocrites” and is used exclusively by the Iranian regime in reference to the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization], are waging war on God and are condemned to execution.”

In 32 words, Khomeini acknowledges the real motive behind the 1988 massacre. Those who remained “steadfast” in the MEK’s ideals – namely freedom, democracy, and a tolerant form of Islam – were sentenced to death. Despite the regime’s claims, death sentences didn’t depend on prisoners’ conduct. The prisoners’ mere persistence in their ideals was the ultimate crime, punishable by death.

One of the survivors of the 1988 massacre, Ali Zolfghari, said: “One was forced to choose between life and death. If you wanted to defend your beliefs, you should have chosen death.”

1988’s killings: massacre or genocide?

The extent of the killings and their label as a “massacre” has led some to the false conclusion that this crime was a blind mass murder of prisoners. Yet, based on Khomeini’s fatwa, the MEK supporters were executed only for their political views and belief in a different interpretation of Islam. The ideological and political affiliations of all prisoners were examined individually. The procedure for the killings, such as the formation of the three to four-member “death commissions” in all provinces, underlines that this crime against humanity was indeed a genocide, targeting a specific group of people based on their faith.

This fact was highlighted in an international conference by renowned lawmakers, such as Geoffrey Robertson QC, concluding that the 1988 massacre should be described as genocide based on Khomeini’s fatwa.

In other words, what happened is not an act of blind revenge or madness. Rather, it is genocide based on an explicit, definite, obvious, and commanded criterion: steadfastness.

The MEK prisoners knew this was not a blind massacre, and they chose “steadfastness” on their ideals. Ali Zolfaghari’s testimony during Noury’s trial in Sweden confirmed this fact.

“Before meeting the death commission, Gholamreza Hassanpour, a MEK supporter who was executed later during the 1988 massacre, told us: ‘Guys, they are executing all of us. It is up to you to choose what position to take’,” Zolfaghari said.

A legal procedure?

The third part of Khomeini’s fatwa describes a procedure that could be mistaken as a legal procedure. According to this fatwa, while “a unanimous decision is better,” “the view of a majority of the three [members of the death commissions] must prevail.”

Some writers and analysts have described the interrogation by the “death commission” on the eve of the massacre as a trial and explained its inconsistency with judicial standards. According to these analysts, the defendants did not have a lawyer. They were deprived of the right to appeal. Most importantly, they were already serving their sentences, and their retrial was a gross injustice.

It is, of course, true that all these atrocities were committed against the victims. However, the arrangements outlined by Khomeini were not for trial. He stated that the task of the death commission was to identify those who were “steadfast” in their beliefs. Their job was to discover idealistic human beings who were determined in their struggle for freedom.

Zolfaghari describes one of the heroic prisoners who chose to die defending his faith. “In the death corridor, I asked the prisoner close to me what his name was, and he introduced himself as Behrooz Shahmogheni. He was from Tehran and very resistant. I told him you should be careful they are executing everyone. He said I went to the court and defended the MEK. I do not care what happens next. He sang the ‘Iran Zamin’ anthem for me. He wanted me to know he firmly stood on his ideals and was ready to die for them.”


In 1988, Khomeini saw the MEK and its progressive interpretation of Islam as a serious threat to his reign and ideology. Hence, he decided to eliminate everyone who was not willing to submit and choose fate over faith. The entire regime would obviously prefer that tens of thousands of youth would surrender to the regime and go back to their families with the message that dissent against Khomeini is futile, which is proven by the organization of tens of thousands of so-called “courts or charging sessions” across the country. But instead, these men and women stood tall, chose to die for an idea that would live on to inspire love, equality, and prosperity for generations to come. The uprisings today in Iran are an indication that the message and spirit of those executed in 1988 lives on.

An ongoing crime against humanity

Khomeini’s fatwa was and has been a timeless license to kill all dissidents. In the last part of his fatwa, Khomeini describes the essence of his regime:

The decisive way in which Islam treats the enemies of God is among the unquestionable tenets of the Islamic system. I hope that with your revolutionary rage and vengeance toward the enemies of Islam, you will achieve the satisfaction of the Almighty God. Those who are making the decisions must not hesitate, nor show any doubt, or be concerned with details. They must try to be “most ferocious against infidels.”

This brutality against the dissident has never ended since 1988. Thousands of Iranians who stood up for their rights have been killed. November 15 marks the anniversary of the major Iran protests. On that day, people poured onto the streets to demand their basic rights. The regime’s forces gunned down over 1,500 protesters and arrested 12,000 people. For months, the regime’s Judiciary, then headed by Raisi, oversaw the systematic torture of the protests’ detainees.

It could be concluded that according to Khomeini’s fatwa, those who truly represent and defend the genocidal regime’s criminal nature should be promoted to high positions. The recent selection of Raisi as the regime’s president is a testament to this fact. Mass murderers like Raisi enjoy systematic impunity, which reigns supreme in Iran.

This impunity largely stems from the international community’s failure in holding the regime to account in the first place. In 1988, the world community turned a deaf ear to repeated calls by the Iranian opposition to investigate the 1988 massacre.

In a letter published in December 2020, seven U.N. experts criticized this failure to act and underlined that it “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran.” They also underlined that this inaction “emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”

Now, Hamid Noury’s trial can be seen as a long-overdue challenge to the regime’s impunity, but it is definitely not sufficient on its own. The international community should hold regime officials such as Raisi accountable for their crimes, whether through a U.N. Security Council resolution or through the unilateral application of the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Tehran should know that its human rights violations will no longer be tolerated. But if this message is not firmly delivered, the regime will only continue to reinforce the legacy of the 1988 genocide.