On Saturday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran hosted a virtual conference on what has been called the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and the most egregious crime against humanity to take place in the decades after the Holocaust. The event emphasized that despite this reputation, little attention has been paid to the Iranian regime’s systematic massacre of political prisoners in the 32 years since it happened.
One of the guest speakers, Dominique Attias, the former deputy head of chair of the Lawyers Guild in Paris, pointedly contrasted the scale of the killings to the lack of a serious international response. “So many people, so many young people, men and women, were executed and murdered,” she said. “Thirty thousand people were murdered in 1988 and there is complete silence… total silence, while families need to know and recuperate the bodies, and the dead need to be buried and honored. These are crimes against humanity. It is inconceivable to ignore them.”
Her remarks called attention to the fact that many of the victims of the massacre were reportedly executed in groups of several dozen and then buried in secret mass graves. While some of these graves have been identified by local activists, others have been turned into the site of massive building projects by the Iranian regime, as part of an ongoing effort to conceal evidence and mitigate the impact of a potential shift from silence to action by Western governments and the international community.
If such a shift takes place, it will presumably be thanks in large part to the efforts of the NCRI and, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). Saturday’s webinar was only the latest of many, and each one has conveyed appeals for the United Nations to open a commission of inquiry into the scale and details of the killings. Similar appeals have come from separate sources over the years, including from Amnesty International, which specifically warned of the mounting challenges to an investigation which come from Tehran’s ongoing destruction of evidence.
Still, the regime’s attempt at a cover-up is in turn challenged by the eyewitness testimony that the MEK and NCRI have recorded from the families of victims and from the Iranian dissidents and activists who survived the 1988 massacre. More than a dozen of these individuals shared their memories and experiences on Saturday, often touching upon a much broader pattern of repression and political violence both before and after the massacre.
One Iranian expatriate explained that her aunt had been detained for seven years in the run-up to the massacre as punishment for putting up posters in support of the MEK. When the prisoner was scheduled for release at the age of 32, her niece and other relatives went to receive her outside the prison, only to be tossed a bag containing her belongings and told that she had been killed.
An elderly participant in Saturday’s conference told a similar story about his daughter, whom he described as not being politically active, but being targeted for arrest in retaliation for his own support of the MEK. Initially, this led to her being detained for a period of about two years. But sometime after her release, she was re-arrested, brutally tortured, and then abruptly executed after a brief hospitalization.
Accounts of torture feature in many stories from survivors of the massacre and from victims’ families. Some were apparently saved from execution solely by virtue of having been tortured so severely beforehand that they were not in their cells at the time of the purge. In those cases, the survivors have described chilling experiences of being carried out of severely over-crowded wards and then arriving back, just weeks later, to find them virtually empty.
One eyewitness explained on Saturday, “Only a handful of prisoners survived the 1988 massacre. Most of the truth of that crime is still hidden behind the curtain, especially in provinces other than Tehran.” This speaks to the amount of work that remains to be done by the United Nations Human Rights Commission or any other body that wishes to assume both the responsibility and the authority for investigating the worst crime of the Iranian regime.
Tahar Boumedra, former head of the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, noted that several European Union member states, the US, Canada, and others are able to assert jurisdiction over a crime against humanity in cases where they have already designated the suspected perpetrators as terrorists or violators of other international laws. And this is very much the case with perpetrators of the massacre, in part because so many of them remain in positions of power and influence within the Iranian regime.
Former members of the “death commissions” that passed sentence on the victims of the 1988 massacre include the current head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, and both the current and former Iranian Ministers of Justice, Alireza Avaie and Mostafa Pourmohammadi. Despite leaving this position after President Hassan Rouhani’s first term, Pourmohammadi has remained a high-level advisor to the president, during which time he has explicitly defended, and even praised, his role in the massacre.
In a 2016 interview following the release of a 1988 audio recording that confirmed many of the reported details of the massacre, Pourmohammadi described himself as being “proud” to have helped carry out “God’s command” of death for the MEK. Being so close to the upper reaches of the regime’s power structure, this sentiment poses a persistent danger. This was made especially clear less than two years after the interview, when the regime found itself in the midst of a nationwide uprising that the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei attributed to none other than the MEK.
The group was given similar credit for an even larger anti-government uprising that spanned roughly 200 cities and towns in November 2019. In that case, regime authorities responded with one of the worst single crackdowns on dissent since the time of the massacre. Roughly 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed in the streets, thousands of others were arrested, and several have since been sentenced to death. There is significant concern that these death sentences could proliferate if Tehran believes it still enjoys the sort of impunity that it did in the aftermath of the 1988 massacre.
“The International Community in its entirety knew and knows” about the massacre, said former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Giulio Terzi in his remarks at Saturday’s webinar. “The United Nations, the UN Security Council, the General Assembly, the UN Human Right Council, they all knew.” He said this illustrate that in his view, the 1988 massacre was consistent with other mass killings and genocides in the 20th century, in that it was enabled by cowardice or lack of political conviction from foreign governments and peoples.
He therefore joins with members and other supporters of the MEK and NCRI in urging the United Nations to open a commission of inquiry, with the ultimate goal of filing charges in the International Criminal Court against members of Iran’s death commissions. This act may help not only to end a 32-year deferral of justice but also to prevent the worst of Iranian regime’s crimes from repeating themselves in the context of the latest clash between the regime and its people.