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Evidence of Iran’s Worst Crime Against Humanity Still Awaits Collection – not Destruction

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

More than 150 legal and human rights experts, including 45 former United Nations officials, recently signed their names to a statement prepared by an organization called Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran. The document appealed to the UN Human Rights Council to “end the culture of impunity that exists in Iran by establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the 1988 mass extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances.” 

This statement emerged only about a week after the families of that massacre’s victims sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging action to prevent Iranian authorities from implementing plans to demolish and build upon the sites of mass graves that have been informally identified by Iranian activists and human rights defenders. The letter highlighted recent news of efforts to destroy one such site at Khavaran Cemetery in Tehran, and it noted that the Iranian regime had previously “destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.” 

All told, similar gravesites have reportedly been identified in at least 36 cities by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the main target of the massacre itself, which took place in the summer of 1988, in the face of serious challenges to the theocratic regime’s hold on power. At that time, the regime’s then supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring that members and supporters of MEK who opposed the system were enemies of God and therefore subject to summary execution. 

UN Must Investigate Iran's 1988 Massacre

In response, prison facilities throughout Iran convened tribunals that came to be known as the “death commission,” which interrogated political prisoners, focusing on known and suspected members of the MEK, and ordered the hanging of all those who failed to demonstrate fealty to the supreme leader and the theocratic system. In many cases, the prisoners were hanged in groups and then taken away in refrigerator trucks for burial in the mass graves. The diverse array of those graves’ locations is a testament to the breadth and scale of the massacre, which is believed to have claimed upwards of 30,000 lives. 

This death toll naturally left behind a wealth of evidence in the form of bodies, records, and eyewitness testimony. However, that evidence was never collected or examined by international authorities, even though Iranian activists sought to bring the killings to the attention of policymakers across the globe. This effort succeeded in prompting the United Nations to mention the massacre in a contemporary resolution condemning Iran’s human rights abuses, but leading UN member states declined to take further action in the face of policies that prioritized relationships with so-called moderate Iranian officials, rather than the confrontation of those deemed most responsible for such abuses. 

UN experts call for investigation of 1988 Massacre in Iran - December 2020

The consequences of this situation were outlined in a letter sent to Iranian officials by seven UN human rights experts in September of last year. The document noted that after the 1988 resolution, the matter of mass executions “was not referred to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly did not follow up on the resolution and the UN Commission on Human Rights did not take any action.” 

The letter continued: “The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to continue to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.” 

The destruction of mass graves is a prime example of that strategy, and the persistent absence of a global response to it has reinforced a sense of impunity among Iranian authorities. This is the very thing that Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre was responding to with its latest call to action by the Human Rights Council. That appeal was seemingly endorsed in advance by last year’s letter, which initially urged Iranian authorities to address the matter on their own but also expressed serious skepticism about the prospect of a response from Tehran. 

When the letter was published in December, it signaled that no such response had been made and that the UN experts now believe the responsibility to address this situation must fall to the international community. The letter’s statement to this effect was embraced by Amnesty International as a “momentous breakthrough” and a “turning point” in matters related to Iran’s human rights record. However, the significance of that development will only be established once leading Western powers, the Human Rights Council, the UN Security Council, or other relevant bodies actually respond to the appeal with action. 

As to what that action might look like, the statement from Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre provides some insight not just through its outline for the “establishment of an international investigation” but also through its observation that “many of the officials involved [in the killings] continue to hold positions of power including in key judicial, prosecutorial and government bodies.” 

This fact was acknowledged in the UN experts’ letter and in countless other statements that emphasize the Iranian regime’s ongoing exercise of impunity in matters related to this and other human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. It is well established that figures like Iranian Minister of Justice Alireza Avaei and judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi were leading members of the 1988 death commissions and that there are therefore guilty of crimes that are plainly worthy of prosecution in the International Criminal Court. 

Such prosecution should be the expressed goal of any serious inquiry into the 1988 massacre. Meanwhile, it should be made clear to anyone who participates in the destruction of Iran’s mass graves that they are making themselves accessories to an ongoing crime against humanity and that they will be held similarly accountable before the file on this matter is closed at long last.