Last month, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus posted a video to social media in which she gave voice to the “grave concern” caused by the Iranian regime judiciary’s “persistent violations of human rights.” Ms. Ortagus also called attention to a specific crime that was mostly neglected by Western powers while it was occurring and has never been given adequate attention in international policy discussions.
In July 1988, the regime’s judiciary established “death commissions” in prisons throughout the country, with the defined task of interrogating political detainees over their views and affiliations, then handing down death sentences for those refusing to deny their beliefs. The move was prompted by a fatwa from the regime’s founder and then-supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. Fearing a nationwide uprising by the war-torn people following ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini set his sights upon stamping out organized dissent to shore up the regime’s power.
Then, as now, the primary source of such organized dissent was the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), and so it proved to be the main target of the death commissions’ actions. Most of the victims of the 1988 massacre were supporters or members of the MEK. They refused to succumb to the regime’s demands and deny their political beliefs, which were non than freedom and democracy.
Their commitment to the cause of freedom was sufficient for the death commissions to declare prisoners guilt of “enmity against God,” in Khomeini’s parlance. And the legal sentence for that vaguely-defined crime has always been death. In the summer of 1988, trials to establish this guilt took as little as a minute, and the condemned were hanged in groups of several prisoners before being loaded into refrigerator trucks for transportation to secret mass graves.
The precise scale of the killings has never been established because the massacre has never been subject to an independent investigation. But extrapolating from eyewitness testimony, leaked documents and audio recordings, and records of prisoners who went missing in the summer and fall of 1988, the MEK has been able to declare that at least 30,000 were executed during this massacre.
Fearing the outcome, the regime has attempted to obscure the matter by covering up vital evidence of the massacre, including the locations of many mass graves. While MEK activists have identified some of them and have made them the sites of illegal memorial gatherings, others have been paved over and turned into the sites of major construction projects. Amnesty International has warned of this phenomenon in multiple statements, emphasizing that it threatens to minimize the effectiveness of any future investigation.
These statements should have prompted a greater sense of urgency among governments and policymakers who are interested in enforcing basic principles of human rights throughout the world. But they have mostly fallen on deaf ears, as have the countless appeals for action from the MEK itself. While groups of American and European lawmakers have issued various statements and introduced resolutions condemning the 1988 massacre.
Now, we near the UN General Assembly, which will no doubt feature serious, high-level discussions of Iran policy. The UN and its member states should address the Iranian regime’s abysmal human rights record, its obvious sense of impunity in this area, and the lack of accountability for past crimes like the 1988 massacre which have granted this regime a license to kill and export terrorism. The brutal killing of 1500 protesters during the major Iran protests in November 2019, and the regime’s failed attempt to bomb the Iranian Resistance annual “Free Iran,” rally in June 2018 through a so-called “diplomat”, are the result of mullahs’ enjoying their impunity over the 1988 massacre.
The 1988 massacre is representative of the violent, extremist ideology at the heart of the Iranian regime, which has caused these other issues to be so entrenched.
Something must be done to confront the roots of that ideology. The international community must make it clear that even in instances where the regime has previously enjoyed impunity with respect to its worst impulses, there will now be serious consequences. The 1988 massacre has been described as the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and as the worst crime against humanity to be carried out anywhere in the latter half of the 20th century. There is no way to end the regime’s ongoing human rights violations until there has been a good faith effort to hold someone accountable for this.
Therefore, the international community should finally insist upon a comprehensive, independent investigation with the end-goal of filing charges with the International Criminal Court.