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Testimonials About Iran’s 1988 Massacre Highlight Destructive Effects of Impunity

This week, the National Council of Resistance of Iran posted to its website video testimonials from sixteen eyewitnesses to the Iranian regime’s massacre of political prisoners during the summer of 1988.  

These videos coincided with the regime’s new President Ebrahim Raisi’s first cabinet meeting, which state media described as conveying his appeal for the government to “improve people’s livelihoods” and defend the interests of the civilian population. Such statements have no credibility. 

In the summer of 1988, Raisi was one of four officials to sit on the Tehran “death commission” that was tasked with implementing Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa concerning the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and its challenges to the fledgling theocratic dictatorship. It was this role, more than anything else, that fueled widespread opposition to his presidency. Many protesters condemned Raisi publicly as the “henchman of 1988” and deemed him responsible for most of the estimated 30,000 deaths that occurred during the massacre. 

Based on recently published videos by the NCRI, many of the massacre’s eyewitnesses specifically recall Raisi being present during the cursory trials and interrogations that determined which political prisoners were “holding onto their beliefs” in the MEK and were thus guilty of the capital crime known as “enmity against God.”  

The survivors’ testimony frequently described Raisi as being especially committed to the broad application of the death penalty, and as moving through cases with mechanical efficiency, imposing the death penalty upon one prisoner after speaking to them for as little as a minute, then moving along to the next one. 

The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: Eyewitness Accounts, Farideh Goudarzi

Many survivors, such as Farideh Goudarzi, also recall Raisi being an enthusiastic participant in the torture and extrajudicial punishment of dissidents and activists both before and after the 1988 massacre. “Like all other political prisoners, I was taken to the torture chamber from the first hour of my arrest,” Goudarzi said in her video testimonial. “I was placed on a bed, and about 5-6 interrogation guards were above my head, and one of the guards was whipping my hands with a cable, and the other guard was slapping me. Ebrahim Raisi was standing in the corner of the room and was watching this process.” 

Some eyewitnesses, like Mahmoud Royaei, underlined that the estimated death toll of 30,000 political prisoners may be an undercount. “In some prisons,” he explained, “there were absolutely no survivors to give their testimonies about the events,” meaning that the true scale of the massacre cannot be known until there has been a thorough investigation conducted under rigorous international standards. 

The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: Eyewitness Accounts, Mahmoud Royaei

Unfortunately, Tehran made a concerted effort to limit the scope of any potential investigations. The regime has harassed and intimidated victims’ families and has ordered construction projects on the sites of some of the mass gravesites that have been identified in at least 36 cities by the MEK as part of their longstanding campaign for justice. The international community, meanwhile, has done little to stop such practices, which has only served to reinforce the regime’s sense of impunity and its commitment to a strategy of “deflection and denial.” 

This was the phrase that seven United Nations human rights experts used last year to describe the regime’s persistent attitude toward the massacre and toward human rights issues in general. They did so in a letter that was sent to Iranian authorities and later published for an international audience, which urged Tehran to change its behavior but also indicated that if the regime refused to do so, the responsibility would fall to relevant UN bodies and leading member states. 

In fact, the letter criticized those entities for failing to follow up on the issue of the massacre even after the wave of killings was recognized in a UN resolution at the end of 1988. This goes to show that the international community has been derelict in its duty for more than three decades. It remains as such even after Tehran reasserted its impunity by appointing one of the massacre’s main perpetrators as president, in defiance of the outcry by the Iranian public. 

More than simply ignoring that outcry, some Western officials have actually contradicted it by affirming Raisi’s legitimacy on the world stage. The European Union sent Enrique Mora, the deputy political director for the European External Action Service, to attend Raisi’s inauguration on August 5. Tehran cannot realistically be expected to take any other message away from this then that its impunity remains intact. But the EU must understand what that impunity means for the Iranian people. 

The video testimonials on the NCRI website offer chilling insight into the sort of barbarity the regime will resort to in its effort to suppress dissent if it thinks it can get away with it. Every policymaker who reads their transcripts should understand that it is their solemn responsibility to launch an investigation into the 1988 massacre and Raisi’s role, so as to challenge the regime’s impunity and reduce the risk of a similar crime against humanity being perpetrated by the new administration.