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Iran: Three Decades After Massacre of Political Prisoners, Iranian Regime Still Exercises Impunity

Iran Regime Arrests Family Members of the Victims of 1988 Massacre in Fear of Justice-Seeking Movement

More than 30 years ago, the Iranian regime carried out a systematic massacre of political prisoners, which was aimed at stamping out the main opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). At the time, expatriate activists and dissidents made a concerted effort to bring the killings to the attention of Western policymakers, with only limited success. No one has ever been held accountable for the massacre, and there has been no formal inquiry into the incident by the United Nations or any other relevant body.

Last December, this situation was highlighted globally by an open letter from seven UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran. The letter’s publication came roughly three months after it was shared directly with leaders of the Iranian regime, who reinforced their commitment to impunity in this matter by declining to respond. The human rights experts acknowledged that the UN and its leading member states bore some responsibility for that impunity, having failed to follow up on the massacre in its immediate aftermath.

The letter noted that in December 1988, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that expressed “grave concern” over “a renewed wave of executions” during the previous summer, which targeted prisoners “because of their political convictions.” The letter went on to say that despite this, “the situation 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.”

Families and survivors of the 1988 massacre hold an exhibition in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva
Families and survivors of the 1988 massacre hold an exhibition in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva on September 15, 2017.

“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 maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date,” the letter observed.

This strategy has received so little challenge on the international stage that Amnesty International was compelled to describe the UN experts’ letter as a “momentous breakthrough” in addressing what has been called “the worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and one of the single worst crimes against humanity in the decades following World War II. However, that breakthrough has proven to be less thorough than some might have hoped. With more than five months have passed, there is little sign of material progress toward the follow-up that was missing in the immediate aftermath of the massacre.

Consequently, that massacre’s survivors and the families of its victims are still hard at work bringing international attention to the case and highlighting the urgency that accompanies Tehran’s systematic efforts to destroy vital evidence related to it. Last month, a group of these individuals wrote a letter directly to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging him and all relevant bodies to initiate action that might lead to the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre being prosecuted at the International Criminal Court.

Protesting the destruction of mass graves of 1988 massacre victims - Khavaran (Tehran, Iran)

The letter noted that the legacy of that massacre still has ramifications for people throughout Iran and the Iranian expatriate community, and therefore constitutes an ongoing crime against humanity. It was referring in particular to the criminalization of memorial gatherings and the destruction of mass graves in which it is believed that as many as 30,000 victims were buried in the summer and fall of 1988.

At the time of the letter’s composition in April, Iranian authorities had allegedly just tried to destroy one such gravesite at Khavaran Cemetery in Tehran. Previously, the letter added, those authorities “destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.” Such activities constitute key tactics in the “strategy of deflection and denial” that the UN experts referred to last year. Their expression of concern implies substantial awareness of this ongoing effort to destroy vital evidence of the killings, yet the latest follow-up from victims’ families seems to indicate that that awareness has not yet sparked serious action.

Fortunately, the survivors and victims of the 1988 massacre do have supporters among policymakers and legal experts from throughout the world. More than 150 of them joined in the campaign for justice in recent days by signing their names to yet another statement urging action from the United Nations. This latest effort was spearheaded by an organization known as Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran, and it specifically targeted the UN Human Rights Council and High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.

The document reiterated the UN experts’ warning about how Tehran has developed a sense that its officials need not worry about accountability for the massacre or for any other human rights abuses. “There is a systemic impunity enjoyed by those who ordered and carried out the extrajudicial executions,” it said. “Many of the officials involved continue to hold positions of power including in key judicial, prosecutorial and government bodies.”

Among the most notable such figures are Justice Minister Alireza Avaei and Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s federal judiciary. Both men played a role on the “death commissions” that interrogated political prisoners over their views and affiliations in 1988, then ordered the hanging of all those who failed to demonstrate absolute fealty to the theocratic system and the supreme leader. Today, Avaei and Raisi collectively wield virtually unchecked power over law enforcement in Iran and have unsurprisingly overseen some of the worst crackdowns on dissent in recent years.

Those crackdowns have been exacerbated by the entire regime’s concern over a growing movement for comprehensive political change. That growth has been readily apparent at least since the beginning of 2018 when Iranian society was in the midst of a nearly unprecedented upheaval that encompassed over 100 localities and featured stark, anti-government chants like “death to the dictator.” That nationwide protest sparked a period that the Resistance leader Mrs. Maryam Rajavi described as a “year full of uprisings,” and it helped to set the stage for another, even larger uprising in November 2019.

More recently, the twin uprisings have been linked to an emerging boycott of the regime’s presidential election, which many activists have presented as a means of “voting for regime change.” Each of these coordinated outpourings of dissent has reportedly been led by the MEK – the very same group that was the main target of the 1988 massacre. This fact makes it clear that the 1988 massacre did not succeed in stamping out organized opposition, but it also raises concern about the potential for extraordinary bloodshed if Tehran’s sense of impunity remains intact in the face of the current challenges.

These concerns were plainly validated during the November 2019 uprising when Iranian authorities responded by opening fire on crowds and killing 1,500 people. This incident should stand out in the conscience of UN officials, American and European policymakers, and human rights defenders throughout the world. It should be joined there by the various appeals from survivors of the 1988 massacre and advocates for its victims. It is long past holding the Iranian regime to account for its numerous crimes against humanity. The International community must stop dealing with this regime as if it is a legal regime, and every engagement with this regime must be conditional on the Human rights of the Iranian people.