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Iran: Unless Challenged, Regime’s Impunity Will Intensify Under New Presidential Administration

1988 massacre
Photo exhibition across the US Department of State, displaying the 1988 massacre, October 2020

By Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Iran, Javaid Rehman, presented his latest report to the United Nations General Assembly this week and highlighted a persistent “climate of impunity” in the wake of the Iranian regime’s new president Ebrahim Raisi’s August 5 swearing-in.
In 1988, Raisi served as deputy public prosecutor for Tehran when the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa that declared that the main opposition, the Mojahedin-e-Khaleq, MEK, was an instance of “enmity against God”, a charge that carries the death sentence. In response to that edict, a “death commission” was assembled in Tehran to oversee the interrogation and capital punishment of anyone deemed to be “holding onto their beliefs” regarding the MEK. Raisi was one of four men assigned to that commission, and as the ensuing massacre went on, his personal jurisdiction was extended to regions beyond Tehran.

Raisi, Butcher of 1988 Massacre in Iran

In light of his leading role in that massacre, Raisi was responsible for many if not most of the 30,000 hangings and deaths by firing squad that took place during a roughly three-month period in the summer of 1988. Many critics describe Raisi’s virtually uncontested presidential campaign as an expression of the regime’s unrepentant attitude toward the massacre and as a likely sign of expanded crackdowns on dissent under his administration.
This perception was reinforced by the facts surrounding Raisi’s stint as judiciary chief, a position given to him by the Supreme Leader in early 2019 as an apparent stepping stone toward the presidency. His leadership of the judiciary overlapped with the outbreak of a nationwide uprising in November 2019, which featured explicit calls for regime change and slogans such as “death to the dictator.” The unrest was largely attributed to the organizing efforts of the MEK, which had been the main target of Khomeini’s fatwa. This fact seemed to justify levels of violent repression not seen since the time of the massacre.
Within days of the protests erupting spontaneously across nearly 200 cities and towns, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of protesters and killed roughly 1,500. More than 12,000 activists were arrested amidst those incidents and later reports from human rights defenders, including Javaid Rehman, confirmed that many of the arrestees were subjected to torture at the hands of Raisi’s judiciary over a period of several months.
Calling attention to his role in that crackdown as well as in the 1988 massacre, Amnesty International described Raisi’s presidential election as a reminder of the fact that “impunity reigns supreme in Tehran” and lamented the fact that he had continued climbing through the ranks of the regime instead of facing prosecution for crimes against humanity. Rehman’s latest report seems to affirm that sentiment while focusing on other means by which the regime expresses confidence in its own impunity, especially where the 1988 massacre is concerned.


“The Special Rapporteur is concerned at reported attempts by the authorities to continue to destroy evidence of past violations, including the reported mass extrajudicial executions of political dissidents in 1988,” the report said. This destruction of evidence has been the subject of numerous calls to action by Amnesty International, Rehman, and various other human rights defenders over the years. It includes a number of government-backed construction projects taking place on the suspected sites of mass graves where many of the massacre’s victims were quietly interred.
In September 2020, Rehman was joined by six fellow UN special rapporteurs in calling attention to this and other issues related to the 1988 massacre by way of a letter sent to Iranian authorities. Three months later, after it became clear that Tehran had no intention of responding to the appeal for transparency and accountability, the letter was published for an international audience. Its text made clear that the UN experts expected the international community to take up the cause of accountability in the absence of the regime’s willingness to change its attitude toward the massacre.
The letter also rightly emphasized that the international community had previously been derelict in this duty, as when it addressed the spate of killings in a human rights resolution at the end of 1988, yet failed to follow up in any meaningful way or take action that might have led to accountability for leading perpetrators of the massacre. In fact, Rehman and his colleagues even went so far as to say that this inaction had a “devastating impact” on the overall situation of human rights in Iran and helped to entrench the regime’s expectation of impunity and its strategy of covering up human rights abuses.

Violation of Human Rights in Iran

Unfortunately, the international reaction to Raisi’s presidential “election” has so far given the impression that Western leaders have learned very little from the UN experts’ criticisms. If anything, those leaders have only further reinforced Tehran’s sense of impunity by lending undue legitimacy to a president with a record of severe human rights violations spanning from no later than 1988 to no less recently than 2019. Raisi’s inauguration ceremony was attended not only by representatives of the Iranian regime’s partners and allies but also by the likes of Enrique Mora, the deputy political director for the European External Action Service.
It is understandable if the presence of Western officials leads the Raisi administration and the regime as a whole to conclude that they will face no additional scrutiny for past human rights abuses, no matter how much Tehran defends and justifies them today. If this was not what the European Union intended in dispatching Mora to Raisi’s swearing-in, then neither it nor its member states can afford to delay in correcting the record.
They can do this by clarifying their support for the calls-to-action that rapidly proliferated in the wake of Raisi being put forward as the Iranian regime’s next president. The EU should end its long-time policy of turning a blind eye to the regime’s violation of human rights and it should pursue a thorough, international investigation into the 1988 massacre and hold the many current officials involved in it to account. Such an investigation will set the stage for prosecutions at the International Criminal Court, provided that leading world powers have the political will to demand accountability from criminals who currently hold influential government positions.

If the nations of Europe and the Americas wish to continue being taken seriously as defenders of universal human rights principles, no one should be considered off-limits for prosecution, sanctions, or other accountability measures, least of all when they are responsible for so clear a crime against humanity as Iran’s 1988 massacre.

Dr. Alejo Vidal-Quadras

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)