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Iran: I Survived A Massacre The World Wanted to Ignore

Victims of 1988 Massacre in Iran
Victims of 1988 Massacre in Iran

BY Asghar Mehdizadeh

It has now been three months since Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated as president of the Iranian regime. I am appalled to find that much of the international community still remains silent about his long history of human rights abuses, even after countless members of the Iranian diaspora have sought to bring attention to his reputation as the “butcher of 1988.”

That was the year when 30,000 political prisoners were systematically executed in prisons all across Iran. It was also approximately the halfway point of my 13 years of detention which stemmed from my activism on behalf of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). That affiliation made me a prime target of the “death commissions” that were in charge of the 1988 massacre. It is practically a miracle that I survived, having been detained throughout the course of that massacre in Gohardahst Prison, where Raisi wielded much of his authority.

Very few of my cellmates and fellow political prisoners were so lucky. Considering all that I experienced personally during those several weeks, it should be easy for a person to hear it and imagine the hell that preceded so many victims’ executions.

Years before the massacre began in earnest, I bore witness to the death by torture of a fellow activist who was with me at the time of my arrest in 1982. Others died by similar means in the ensuing years, and officials threatened to have me killed by firing squad in absence of a capital sentence. In retrospect, such threats and actual killings were previews of the massacre that was then looming – a massacre that was initiated by a 1988 fatwa targeting the MEK.

With that edict, then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini branded all members of the leading opposition group, MEK, as enemies of God and urged subordinate officials to kill them without mercy and without delay. Ebrahim Raisi played a key role in carrying out that order as one of four officials on the Tehran death commission. That body directly oversaw executions in Gohardasht Prison and also in Evin Prison, as well as helping to set the pace of proceedings in all other detentions facilities throughout the country.

That pace was utterly shocking at the time and might have been deemed literally unbelievable in the aftermath if not for the testimony of survivors like myself, as well as the MEK’s tireless efforts to uncover details of the massacre and focus international attention upon it. At the height of the massacre, I personally witnesses 15 groups of between 10 and 15 prisoners being taken to the Gohardasht death hall. When I myself was taken in, I fainted at the sight of a dozen prisoners being hanged simultaneously upon an elevated platform.

The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: Eyewitness Accounts, Asghar Mehdizadeh

There are countless stories just like mine, as well as other stories that will never be told. Certain prison facilities and political wards were emptied of their entire population during the 1988 massacre, leaving no one to give an account of either the scale of the killings there or the brutality of the proceedings that underlay them. The MEK has gone to great lengths to provide the fullest accounting of the massacre presently available, but it has also long emphasized the need for a United Nations commission of inquiry on the subject.

This need has only become more urgent in the wake of Raisi’s appointment to the presidency. In the wake of a formal international investigation, the stage would surely be set for Raisi’s prosecution at the International Criminal Court. In absence of that investigation and resulting prosecution, the Raisi administration and the entire Iranian regime would be left with a stronger sense of impunity than ever before and would exploit it in ways that severely harm the Iranian people and reduce the chances of anyone being held accountable for one of the worst crime against humanity since the end of World War II.

Already, the chances of accountability have been somewhat diminished by the Iranian regime’s efforts to destroy the sites of secret mass graves where many of the 1988 massacre’s victims are interred. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have repeatedly warned about this phenomenon, noting that with each passing year it becomes more difficult to develop a full picture of the massacre. The silence of the international community will no doubt embolden the regime to accelerate this process.

Worse still, that silence will also embolden Raisi and other officials to accelerate the current pattern of political repression which calls many Iranians’ minds back to the 1988 massacre. The world had a glimpse at the consequences of silence in 2019 when, several months after being appointed head of the judiciary, Raisi oversaw key aspects of the crackdown on a nationwide uprising that saw the shooting deaths of 1,500 peaceful protesters and the systematic executions of thousands more.

When I think of such incidents, I am once again reminded of my own ordeal in the 1980s. No one deserves to experience such torment or even to witness it, least of all if they do so as a consequence of expressing their political beliefs or advocating for democratic governance. I know that Western policymakers agree with this in principle, but I also know they will be turning their back on that principle if they do not act quickly to properly investigate the 1988 massacre and hold Ebrahim Raisi accountable for his role.