In September, a group of UN human rights experts conveyed a document to Iranian government officials in which they reiterated longstanding concerns over an incident that has been called the Iranian regime’s worst crime, and even one of the worst crimes against humanity to take place anywhere in the world during the latter half of the 20th century. The statement went public this week, following a 60 day period during which the signers said they would wait for a response from Iranian officials.
There is no indication that any such response was offered, but this likely came as no surprise to the human rights experts. Their communication specifically noted that the Iranian regime had refused to cooperate with a number of inquiries into the massacre of political prisoners which took place between July and September of 1988. Early evidence of these killings came in the form of unexplained disappearances of political prisoners, which were accompanied by an upsurge in interrogations and general strategies for suppressing dissent.
“When asked repeatedly by the UN Special Representative on Iran between 1988 and 1992 to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the prisoners, Iran either did not reply or stated the victims were ‘forgeries’, ‘non-existent’ or alive, working or studying in Iran or abroad,” the document says. These explanations were not taken seriously at the time, but only contributed to the Special Representative’s conclusion that the Iranian regime was enforcing “global denial” of mass executions, which persisted through the discovery of more and more evidence regarding the scale and the details of the massacre.
The UN experts’ document does not attach a specific death toll to the massacre but merely refers to “thousands” of hangings and secret burials. It does, however, acknowledge that there are likely to be many more mass graves associated with the massacre than have been identified in the more than 30 years since it was carried out. The document implies that some of the as yet undiscovered sites may be soon be lost to the regime’s ongoing cover-up efforts. Others have already suffered that fate, as authorities have opened parks, roadways, or genuine cemeteries overtop of some of the massacre’s victims.
While the cover-up may slow the pace of international investigations, many activists are pushing for those investigations while anticipating that their effect will merely be to confirm and elaborate upon information that has already been disclosed via independent research, leaked government communications, and oppositional intelligence networks. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has long placed the death toll from the 1988 massacre at over 30,000 individuals, most of whom were affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
The NCRI has also made it clear that the “death commissions” behind the massacre were indiscriminate in their application of the death penalty. This was confirmed in 2016 with the release of an audio recording from the time of the massacre. In it, Ali Hossein Montazeri former heir to the then-Iranian regime’s supreme leader, Khomeini condemned the “death commission” for supporting the execution of teenagers and pregnant women – actions that contributed to his determination that the mass killings constituted the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.”
These observations were highlighted anew in the UN experts’ statement. It pointed out, for instance, that in the city of Lahijan, “several dozen prisoners, most imprisoned for links to PMOI, some under the age of 18 and as young as 14 at the time of their arrest, were taken away from their cells in Malek Ashtar prison in late July 1988 and never seen again.” Elsewhere, the document noted, the death commissions evidently determined very elderly activists to be threats to the security of the theocratic system, and thus ordered the execution of prisoners in their 70s.
These and other chilling details of the massacre have been public knowledge for many years. Unfortunately, the availability of that information does not necessarily lead to adequate international attention, much less to enforceable calls for accountability from Iranian authorities. Efforts to raise awareness and spur those calls have been impeded by the Iranian regime’s deceptions and obstructionism, as well as by Western tendencies toward conciliation in their dealings with that regime.
The signers of September’s statement seemed to acknowledge both of these facts, insofar as they highlighted both Tehran’s dismissal of prior appeals and the UN’s failure to follow up on those appeals. Even after concerns about the massacre made their way into the UN General Assembly’s resolution on Iranian human rights issues at the end of 1988, “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,” according to the statement.
The human rights experts went on to say, “The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”
To this, it might be added that the lack of accountability has contributed to conditions that leave the regime ripe for further mass killings of activists and dissidents. Never was this clearer than in the aftermath of a spontaneous anti-government uprising that took place across nearly 200 Iranian cities and towns just over one year ago. The November 2019 uprising was seen as a direct follow-up to an earlier nationwide protest in January 2018, which regime authorities attributed to the growing social influence of the MEK.
Anxious over the implications of this trend, regime authorities ordered the most brutal suppression of the second uprising, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of peaceful demonstrators, killing approximately 1,500 over a period of just several days. The incident was as much a reminder of the mass executions of 1988 as it was a test of whether the regime’s impunity still persisted from that time. Sadly, the tentative answer to that question is yes, in light of the relative silence from the international community over the past year.
For human rights advocates and supporters of the Iranian Resistance, this raises serious concerns over the prospective of those who are still facing prosecution after being arrested during one or both of the uprisings, or during any number of other protest actions, or as part of the regime’s sweep of the activist community around the time of the November uprising’s anniversary. The possibility of capital sentences underscores the urgency of disincentives for the regime’s crackdowns on dissent.
For those disincentives to carry any weight, it is vital that the international community sends a message to Tehran that its era of impunity is over. Increased pressure over ongoing human rights abuses would help to achieve that aim, but no single gesture would have as much impact as the opening of a formal investigation into the 1988 massacre. That investigation would almost certainly lead to charges for current Iranian officials at the International Criminal Court. And this in turn would weaken their criminal influence over Iranian affairs at a time of mounting tensions between the clerical regime and the Iranian people.