Last month, Amnesty International used Twitter to share a document from the organization’s archives concerning the massacre of political prisoners that took place during the summer of 1988 in Iran. The document, an appeal to contemporary Iranian authorities, underscores the fact that then-Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and other regime officials were fully aware of the killings and either allowed them to continue or actively encouraged and covered them up.
در اوایل مرداد ۶۷، با قطع ناگهانی ملاقات زندانیان، خانوادههای نگران با عفو بینالملل تماس میگیرند. در ۲۵مرداد و ۱۱ شهریور ۱۳۶۷، این سازمان با انتشار دو اقدام فوری خطاب به دولت و قوه قضاییه از احتمال آغاز «موج جدیدی از اعدامهای سیاسی» اعلام نگرانی میکند.#اسرار_به_خون_آغشته pic.twitter.com/r8jD2nGOpN
— Amnesty Iran (@AmnestyIran) August 18, 2020
In fact, the document was only one of 16 that Amnesty had sent to Tehran in an effort to halt the killings. Not one of them garnered a response, and Amnesty came to recognize that the regime’s official strategy was to deny that a massacre had ever taken place, despite a wealth of evidence. Some of the organization’s appeals even called attention to hangings that had been carried out in public. Though these comprised only a small fraction of the thousands of total executions, they pointed to a pattern of violent repression that was quite visible to activists, prisoners, and independent journalists throughout the country.
It is thanks in large part to the efforts of those activists that Amnesty was able to learn as much as it did about the killings while they were still ongoing. Unfortunately, those same voices failed to prevail among Western policymakers, who mostly preferred to turn a blind eye to Iran’s domestic affairs in hopes of normalizing relationships with a regime whose hold on power they assumed to be secure. But massacre itself should have been recognized as a sign of the regime’s vulnerability in the face of public dissent from organized opposition groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
That MEK comprised the vast majority of the 30,000 political prisoners who were killed during the massacre. It nevertheless remained the leading voice for democracy in Iran, and has since grown to the point at which it led a nationwide uprising in January 2018, and another in November 2019. Both movements were defined by slogans that left little doubt about the public’s demand for regime change. Among these was the refrain, “Principlists, hardliners: the game is over.”
That slogan sought to highlight the perceived lack of substantive difference between the ideology and behavior of the two mainstream political factions in the regime. It is a message that has long been promoted by the MEK in the interest of arguing for a democratic alternative.
In reporting on Amnesty’s tweet, Radio Farda said that it “appears to be a jab at Mir-Hossein Mousavi… as well as his supporters.” This is significant because Mousavi became well-known from 2009 onward as a “reformist” presidential candidate and one of two leaders of the “Green Movement” following the disputed outcome of that year’s election. For nearly a decade now, Mousavi has been under house arrest as a result of this dissent, but he continues to contradict independent reporting on the 1988 massacre, and insists he had no knowledge of mass killings.
By exposing this as a lie, it is clear that leadership of the so called reform movement does not absolve any Iranian politician of culpability for the regime’s crimes. That observation can be extended to implicate the current regime president, Hassan Rouhani, whose 2013 election was widely embraced by Western policymakers and portrayed as a partial vindication for the Green Movement following Tehran’s violent suppression of protests. Enthusiasm for Rouhani’s role has waned considerably during his time in office, thanks to his failure to follow through on almost any of his liberal-sounding campaign promises. But this outcome was predicted from day one by the MEK.
Apart from recognizing the fundamental lack of difference between hardliners and so-called reformists, the leading opposition group was well aware of the fact that Rouhani had aligned himself with the worst elements of the regime in 1988, at which time he was already serving in a role that would have given him intimate knowledge of the emerging massacre. During his presidential campaign and after his election, Rouhani adhered to the regime’s unofficial gag order regarding reference to mass executions. But in choosing the make-up of his government, he clarified his support for past crackdowns on dissent by appointing as Justice Minister a leading member of the “death commissions” that oversaw the massacre.
That cabinet official, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, came under scrutiny in 2016 after a leaked audio recording from 1988 brought unprecedented public attention to the massacre. But he made no effort to hide from the allegations, telling state media that he was “proud” of his role in carrying out “God’s command” of death for MEK members. During the transition to Rouhani’s second term in 2017, Pourmohammadi was removed from the cabinet, but remained as a close adviser to the president. What’s more, his replacement as head of the Justice Ministry turned out to also have been a death commissioner in 1988.
The same can now be said of Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, who has overseen expanded crackdowns on dissent, especially in response to the recent nationwide uprisings. In November alone, 1,500 peaceful protesters were shot dead by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and several other activists have since been sentenced to death for participation in that and other demonstrations. On Saturday, Tehran made international headlines by defying international appeals and carrying out the execution of champion wrestler Navid Afkari, who had taken part in a protest in August 2018.
#Iran's regime executed political prisoner Navid Afkari after torturing him and obtaining forced confessions. His death sentence was carried out despite a global campaign calling to spare Afkari’s life.#NavidAfkari #NoImpunity4Mullahs pic.twitter.com/5gePhKp75N
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) September 12, 2020
Naturally, Amnesty International was among the human rights organizations that had urged Tehran to spare the life of the popular athlete and activist. The failure of that appeal therefore joins a long list of campaigns that Amnesty has taken before Iranian authorities only to be rebuffed or ignored. It also underscores the regime’s flat refusal to undertake meaningful reforms on the basis of mere recommendations or expressions of international outrage.
If there is any hope at all for such reform, it depends upon the world community taking assertive action to hold Iranian officials accountable for past and ongoing crimes. That accountability must begin with the 1988 massacre – not only the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic” but also quite possibly the worst single crime against humanity to take place in the latter half of the 20th century.
As evidenced by their continuing presence in powerful government positions, the officials who carried out that massacre have enjoyed a sense of impunity ever since the first warnings fell on deaf ears in the West. That impunity serves as the basis for the current crackdowns on dissent, including the mass murder of activists last November. The death toll from these crackdowns will continue to climb unless world powers band together to place strict sanctions on Iran over its human rights violations and to investigate the 1988 massacre and prosecute its perpetrators at the International Criminal Court.