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Victims’ Families Urge Investigation into 1988 Massacre as Iran Moves to Destroy Graves

A group of Iranian expatriates has written a letter to UNSG urging UN to launch an investigation into the 1988 massacre of political prisoners

A group of Iranian expatriates has written a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, reiterating a longstanding call for the international body to launch an investigation into a massacre of political prisoners that took place more than 30 years ago in Iran. The letter was motivated by reports of the Iranian regime’s latest efforts to destroy evidence of the 1988 massacre by paving over the mass graves in which its victims were interred. 

The letter’s signatories identified themselves as relatives of individuals who were targeted in the 1988 massacre on the basis of their membership in the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). Nearly all of the estimated 30,000 victims were sentenced to death by hanging after being interrogated before “death commissions” that had assembled in various Iranian prison facilities in response to a fatwa from the regime’s founder and then-supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. 

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Referring to members of the MEK by the familiar pejorative “hypocrites,” Khomeini’s religious edict pronounced both them and their casual supporters guilty of “waging war on God,” thereby making them subject to summary execution. The fatwa brutally called to “destroy the enemies of Islam immediately.” 

To this day, the MEK as the main opposition group adherent to Islam has been the first and most powerful entity to reject Khomeini’s vision of a theocratic dictatorship in the wake of the 1979 revolution. While the MEK supported the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, it also promoted a transition to genuine democratic governance, based on free and fair elections. 

Since the time of the 1988 massacre, Iranian authorities have been trying to portray the MEK and the NCRI as insubstantial threats to the ruling system. However, that narrative has been undermined in recent years by a series of nationwide protests featuring demands and slogans that originated with the organized Resistance movement. This trend began in the final days of 2017, as a demonstration in the city of Mashhad spread to surrounding areas. By mid-January 2018, the protests encompassed well over 100 cities and towns, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared in a speech that the MEK had “planned for months” to bring about that outcome. 

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Such warnings about the MEK’s growing influence seemed to spur an increase in violent repression of dissent. This was especially evident when another nationwide uprising in November 2019 was immediately met with gunfire from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. A report by Amnesty International noted that the hardline paramilitary had been “shooting to kill,” and soon thereafter the NCRI announced that the death toll had reached 1,500 after only a matter of days. This figure was later confirmed by Reuters, citing multiple anonymous sources from inside Iran’s Interior Ministry. 

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The NCRI and other serious critics of the Iranian regime have pointed to such severe crackdowns on dissent as evidence of that regime’s assumption of impunity in matters of domestic human rights. The critics have further argued that this impunity is routinely reinforced by the lack of an international response to repeated calls for accountability with regard to the 1988 massacre. Furthermore, the ongoing destruction of mass graves and other evidence arguably makes it increasingly difficult to achieve that accountability through a thorough investigation of the killings and their context. 

The letter from victims’ families points out that Iranian authorities have already “destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.” Now, the regime has evidently set its sights on mass graves that are reputed to exist in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery. Plans have reportedly been announced which could lead to the imminent destruction of existing markers at the site, as a precursor to it being paved over and built upon. Previous projects have concealed mass graves beneath parks, roadways, and commercial buildings. 

As an explanation for the renewed push to conceal evidence, the letter describes the Iranian regime as being “paranoid of the repercussions of international scrutiny” of its past crimes and atrocities. The prospects for such scrutiny may have increased along with the international profile of the MEK in the wake of the 2018 and 2019 uprisings. The first of these apparently prompted the Iranian regime to initiate at least two terror plots against the NCRI and Mrs. Rajavi – one in Albania and one in France – both of which also posed a threat to Western political dignitaries who were in attendance at the target events. 

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The letter states, “The Iranian public and all human rights defenders expect the United Nations, particularly the UN Security Council, to launch an investigation into the massacre of political prisoners and summon the perpetrators of this heinous crime before the International Court of Justice.” 

The letter also emphasizes that the destruction of gravesites and the suppression of public discourse over the massacre constitutes an ongoing crimes against humanity, involving the psychological torture of thousands of individuals who survived the systematic executions or lost loved ones to them 

At times, the pressure on those individuals has even turned physical, as when memorial gatherings at known and suspected gravesites were forcibly disrupted by security agencies and the IRGC. Such gatherings constitute another likely motivating factor in the regime’s push to destroy evidence since the remembrance of martyrs is often a starting point for new social demonstrations in Iran 

By requesting that the international community help to prevent the further destruction of mass graves, advocates for the victims of the 1988 massacre are not only keeping open the window of opportunity for a thorough investigation into that incident but are also helping to safeguard sites that may have powerful symbolic significance to the participants in forthcoming uprisings. In recent weeks, the NCRI has publicly speculated that such uprisings may be imminent. Although the coronavirus pandemic seems to have held public demonstrations to a comparatively small scale over the past year, recent protests have erupted across a number of cities, arguably following a similar trend as in the days preceding the nationwide unrest at the beginning of 2018.