UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances joined the call for an international investigation into the 1988 massacre.
“The Working Group reiterates the concerns expressed about the ongoing concealment of burial sites of those forcibly disappeared and allegedly executed between July and September 1988 across the country. The Working Group recalls that an enforced disappearance continues until the fate and whereabouts of the individuals concerned are established and joins the call for an international investigation into the matter,” the report reads.
In the summer of 1988, over 30,000 political prisoners were executed. Most of the victims were the members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Recently the Iranian Resistance held a conference that focused equal attention upon details of that massacre as recalled by its survivors and upon legal issues relating to it.
The conference was attended by more than 1,000 former political prisoners and eyewitnesses to the regime’s mass executions, many of whom addressed a global audience via the live video stream.
They were accompanied by various European policymakers and legal scholars, who offered insight regarding the role that Western governments and judicial systems might play in bringing major perpetrators of the massacre to justice, including the regime’s current president Ebrahim Raisi.
While the estimated number of victims of the 1988 massacre is above 30,000, one eyewitness to the massacre who provided a video testimonial to the NCRI before Friday’s conference even suggested that this is a conservative estimate.
Mahmoud Royaei noted that “in some prisons, there were absolutely no survivors to give their testimonies about the events,” meaning that Tehran would have been free to underreport the number of people who were detained in those prisons prior to the massacre. At the same time, the deputy intelligence minister at the time of the massacre, Reza Malek, referred to the death commissions on at least one occasion as having targeted 33,700 people, almost all of whom were members of the MEK.
The Iranian Resistance has long urged the international community to ascertain the exact scale of the massacre by launching a formal United Nations commission of inquiry. Such an investigation would no doubt establish the identities of major participants in the massacre, as well. But the eyewitness testimony from Friday’s conference and the preceding videos underscores the fact that leading participants have long since been identified.
The last push for accountability has been motivated in large part by Ebrahim Raisi’s ascension to the presidency, and many speakers at the conference duly emphasized the notion that Western nations have a stronger responsibility than ever to bring such figures to justice.
Just prior to the massacre, Raisi was serving as a deputy prosecutor for Tehran when he was tapped to serve on the Tehran death commission that would oversee the implementation of Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa targeting the PMOI. Eyewitnesses recall him taking a leading role in many of the proceedings, during which he routinely passed death sentences in the span of just a few minutes, closing one political prisoner’s file and moving swiftly to the next one. His commitment to the mass executions eventually led to Khomeini extending his jurisdiction beyond Tehran to several other cities, as a means of correcting so-called “weakness in the judiciary.”
Friday’s conference served to reinforce international recognition of Raisi’s criminal background by underlining that his enthusiastic embrace of the massacre made him a party not just to crimes against humanity but also to genocide. UK barrister and human rights expert Geoffrey Robertson QC, for one, used the conference as an outlet for his argument that the religious motives behind Khomeini’s fatwa lent support to the idea of labeling the massacre as genocide and prosecuting its perpetrators accordingly.
Robertson explained that an incident rises to the level of genocide if it involves “killing or causing serious mental or physical harm to members of a racial or religious group” with the intention of destroying or comprehensively displacing that group. “The religious group which the Iranian regime intended to destroy were those who held a different view of Islam,” Robertson added.
Eric David, a professor of international law from Belgium, agreed. The 1988 massacre, he argued, “is indeed a crime of genocide because these people were killed because they belonged to a current of Islam that the mullahs’ regime contested.” While it has been reported that 90 percent of the massacre’s victims were affiliated with the PMOI, the 1988 massacre was a part of a broader strategy of enforcing the fundamentalist view of Islam which underlay the regime’s theocratic dictatorship.
The Iranian opposition president, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi highlighted that ominous strategy in her speech before Friday’s conference. “Khomeini’s fatwa was an explicit decree to execute all the Mojahedin who remained steadfast,” she said. “[But] the goal of the regime goes far beyond the execution of several thousand. It is the obliteration of a generation, an ideology, and men and women who rejected religious extremism under the guise of Islam and stood up for human freedom and dignity.”
Robertson, David, and others indicated that if that suppressed ideology – the ideology of moderate and apolitical Islam – can be identified as a religious category unto itself, then it will be easy to make the case that Raisi, other leading officials, and ultimately the entire Iranian regime are guilty of genocide as well as more generic crimes against humanity. What’s more, the legal experts emphasized that once that case has been successfully presented to the international community, it is incumbent upon all nations that have ratified the Genocide Convention to take actions supporting accountability and deterrence for those suspected of the crime.
Friday’s conference naturally continued to urge the formation of a UN commission of inquiry as something that would fulfill that international responsibility and would set the stage for prosecution of leading perpetrators at the International Criminal Court. As an alternative, it highlighted the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows for any judiciary to initiate prosecution within its own jurisdiction for anyone who stands accused of committing serious international crimes in another jurisdiction where they are unlikely to face accountability.
This principle is currently being put to the test in Sweden, where a lower-level participant in the 1988 massacre is being prosecuted on charges of war crimes and mass murder. It is the first trial of its kind, but it will set the stage for other nations to execute arrest warrants similar to that which led to Noury’s detention in 2019.
Many human rights defenders and survivors of the 1988 massacre were, of course, distressed to learn that Ebrahim Raisi would be taking control of the presidency. Amnesty International described it as a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.” But the discussion of universal jurisdiction raised the possibility of a silver lining within this development, namely the fact that Raisi’s pending state visits will put him within easy reach of whatever Western authorities decide to utilize the legal principle and bring him to justice after more than three decades for a series of killings that arguably amount to genocide.