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Continuing a Lengthy Campaign, Experts Urge Investigation Into Iran’s 1988 Massacre

n the summer of 1988, more than 30,000 political prisoners, members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) were executed based on a fatwa of Ruhollah Khomeini.
In the summer of 1988, more than 30,000 political prisoners, members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) were executed based on a fatwa of Ruhollah Khomeini.

An organization called Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran has released a new statement bearing the signatures of more than 150 experts on law and human rights, including 45 former United Nations officials. The statement reiterates a longstanding call to action by critics of the Iranian regime and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). It emphasized the need for international pressure to disrupt a pattern of “systemic impunity” that has surrounded this issue for more than three decades.

“Many of the officials involved [in the killings] continue to hold positions of power,” the statement noted, referring in particular to Iran’s current Minister of Justice and the head of the national judiciary. This latter figure, Ebrahim Raisi, was appointed to his position by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In that capacity, he now oversees the regime’s response to protests and expressions of dissent, including public criticisms of the 1988 massacre.

Long subject to enforced silence, that issue gained a higher profile in Iranian society in 2016, following the leak of an audio recording from the time of the massacre, in which several of its leading perpetrators confirmed some of the most shocking details, such as the inclusion of teenagers and pregnant women among the victims. This prompted then-Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi to publicly defend his role in the 1988 “death commissions” by saying that he was following “God’s command” by systematically executing members of the MEK.

The MEK was and remains the most significant challenge to Iran’s theocratic dictatorship, and so it was the primary focus of Khomeini’s fatwa which declared the regime’s opponents to be guilty of “enmity against God” and thus subject to summary execution. The death commissions were established in prisons throughout the country in response to this religious edict, and within the space of several months, they were responsible for an estimated 30,000 killings.

Although the MEK was obviously constrained in its efforts to bring domestic attention to the massacre, especially prior to 2016, its exiled activists have been actively appealing to the international community since before the mass executions were concluded. Unfortunately, initial appeals were largely dismissed by Western policymakers whose priorities tended toward maintaining standard relations with the Iranian regime in hopes of promoting “moderate” voices within the regime.

This goal has been criticized over the years for relying upon an overestimate of factional differences, and the 1988 massacre’s legacy has been cited as a prime example of Iranian officials’ broad alignment in defense of malign activities.

Prior to making his remarks in 2016, Pourmohammadi had been chosen as Minister of Justice by the regime’s President Rouhani, whose 2013 election was regarding by some Western policymakers as a triumph of reformism. Unsurprisingly, that interpretation has not held up in light of Rouhani’s willful associations during both his first and his second term in office. After Pourmohammadi departed the administration following the 2017 election, he was replaced by Alireza Avaie, another known participant in the 1988 massacre.

Such developments continue to fuel calls for international action aimed at holding perpetrators accountable for the killings and preventing the regime from continuing to elevate figures who promote or allow human rights abuses and crimes against humanity. Toward that end, the latest statement from Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre says, “We appeal to the UN Human Rights Council to end the culture of impunity that exists in Iran by establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the 1988 mass extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. We urge High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to support the establishment of such a Commission.”

The 1988 massacre of political prisoners was in the introduction of a resolution to the United States House of Representatives which gives major emphasis to the 1988 massacre while cataloging the Iranian regime’s crimes and “expressing support for the Iranian people’s desire for a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran.”

The resolution also makes reference to a letter sent to Iranian authorities by seven UN human rights experts in September 2020, which was embraced by Amnesty International as a “momentous breakthrough” for the international community’s relationship with Iran over its human rights record. While the letter began by urging the Islamic Republic to conduct its own investigation and to release available documentation regarding the killings, it ultimately declared that in absence of a serious response from Tehran, the responsibility for that investigation would fall to the UN and leading member states.

The letter even went so far as to decry the prior failure of relevant UN bodies to follow up on early reports of an increase in politically motivated executions in 1988. Although references to these killings found their way into that year’s resolution on Iranian human rights abuses, “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.”

This neglect of responsibilities “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families” of the massacre’s victims, according to the UN experts. They then added that the overall situation of human rights in Iran has suffered from the resulting impunity, while Tehran has continued “to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial.”

That concealment adds a great deal to the urgency of appeals for international action today, as Iranian authorities are reportedly hard at work destroying mass graves in which many of the massacre’s victims were secretly interred. Several of these have already been paved over and turned into parks, roads, or commercial developments, but opportunities for investigation persist in light of the fact that the MEK has reportedly identified mass graves in as many as 36 cities.

Nevertheless, these opportunities are diminishing, as are the prospects for ever developing a complete understanding of the scale of the 1988 massacre or the identities and locations of its victims. Last month, the NCRI reiterated its own appeals for a UN-led investigation after reporting upon the regime’s imminent plans to destroy the mass grave at Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery.

“Prior to this,” the coalition explained, “the graves of the martyrs of the 80s and the massacre of 1988 in many other cities, including Ahvaz, Tabriz, and Mashhad were destroyed. Also in 2017, the graves of the martyrs in Behesht-e Reza Cemetery in Mashhad and Vadi-e Rahmat in Tabriz were destroyed, and in late July 2018, under the pretext of building a boulevard, the graves of the martyrs of the 1988 massacre in Ahvaz were demolished and cemented.”

NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi responded to the story by demanding that the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the UN Human Rights Council all forcefully condemn the ongoing practice and take action to prevent its recurrence. For such action to be effective, it would no doubt need to be prefaced by a thorough and unfettered investigation that establishes once and for all how many dissidents were killed in 1988, who they were, and where they were buried.

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