Thirty-two years ago, the Iranian regime attempted to destroy, in one fell swoop, its country’s greatest source of democratic opposition. Based on a fatwa issued by the regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini which declared political prisoners to be enemies of God Himself, “death commissions” convened in prisons throughout Iran and began interrogating inmates about their ideological views and affiliations. These faux trials sometimes lasted for as little as a minute and sent prisoners in scope of thousands to the gallows.
Most of the victims, were the members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI / MEK) who were imprisoned at the time, who chose death instead succumbing to the regime’s demands. Those who were hauled before the death commissions opted to proudly defend their work with the MEK and accept their own martyrdom, rather than attempt to spare their own lives by turning their backs on the future of the country. Tehran should have recognized this as a sign of the underlying movement’s resilience, and thus of the likely futility of the regime’s efforts to destroy it.
The death commissions ordered the deaths of over 30,000 political prisoners over the course of several months in 1988. It is known that the victims included teenagers and pregnant women, the regime’s henchmen hanged the victims in groups then took many of them away in refrigerator trucks for secret mass burials. A number of the gravesites have since been identified by Iranian activists, but others have been concealed under regime construction projects – a phenomenon that is still ongoing and has been acknowledged by Amnesty International.
That human rights group is one of entities pushing for a thorough independent investigation of what has been called the greatest single crime against humanity in the latter half of the 20th century. Amnesty warns that the regime’s destruction of evidence will continue unless confronted by the international community, thus impeding the chances of securing justice for the massacre’s victims and their families. The Iranian Resistance has variously suggested that delays to this justice increase the potential for Iran to attempt new crackdowns on a similar scale.
In 2017, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, launched the “Justice Seeking Movement,” for the victims of the 1988 massacre. This campaign ever since has been widely appreciated and answered to by the Iranian people and various human rights organizations.
In fact, due to the international community’s inaction, the regime has already been trending in that direction. Its political violence has seemingly grown in multiple dimensions during recent years, being manifest sometimes in accelerated activity by security forces and “morality police,” and sometimes in backlash against domestic protests, or attempted terrorist attacks on foreign dissident gatherings.
In June 2018, one such terror plot was thwarted when two would-be bombers attempted to gain access to an international gathering near Paris, held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. This was only one of several of the Iranian regime’s terror plots that were uncovered in the West and they came in the wake of the regime killing dozens of protesters during a January uprising that brought appeals for regime change into the mainstream.
The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was quick to blame the anti-regime message on the MEK. But in so doing, he undermined three decades of propaganda that sought to portray the Resistance as having been destroyed by the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Prior to the revelation of an audio recording that brought new light to the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic,” the regime rarely acknowledged the 1988 massacre. But this did not stop it from portraying that incident as the endpoint for most public advocacy for a democratic alternative to the theocratic system.
Whereas the reality of the situation is that the MEK rapidly recovered from the massacre and continued its growth forever thereafter, the regime’s propaganda dismissed the group as marginal, cult-like, and without serious support among the Iranian people. Those claims were rendered superficially plausible by the simple fact that the massacre had revealed that any public association with the MEK could be grounds for a death sentence. Naturally, much of its support was required to remain underground, but there it percolated waiting for opportunities to rise up, as it did in the 2018 uprising.
The regime’s oppression was only able to quell the Iranian society for a short period of time; but never succeeded in pausing the MEK’s “Resistance Units” activities, that played a leading role during the uprising. In addition, the NCRI’s president-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi called for a “year full of uprisings,” and much of the public obliged by organizing scattered, local protests that kept slogans like “death to the dictator” in mainstream circulation. This in turn set the stage for another uprising in November 2019, which proved to be even larger than its predecessor, encompassing 200 separate cities and towns.
The regime’s backlash this time was even fiercer. After only a few days, 1,500 peaceful protesters lay dead. The death toll was a testament to how little that regime’s behavior has changed since 1988. But the surrounding circumstances were an equally powerful testament to how much more of a challenge the MEK has become to the mullahs’ hold on power.
That message has been reinforced on several occasions since November. January was marked by widespread protests in multiple provinces, as the public reacted to the regime’s attempted cover-up of the missile strike on a Ukrainian airliner. In February, a MEK-led boycott of the nation’s parliamentary elections resulted in the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Mullahs’ regime. And in the more than five months since authorities officially acknowledged Iran’s coronavirus outbreak, activists and private citizens have routinely defied threats of lashings and imprisonment by leaking data that indicates the crisis is much worse than Tehran is letting on.
All of this serves to reiterate that Tehran failed in the objectives behind the 1988 massacre. And at the end of July, MEK “Resistance Units” brought the matter full-circle with a series of graffiti tags that brought renewed public attention to the enduring lack of accountability for those killings. Between July 29 and July 31, several prominent places came to display messages that partially attributed the recent uprisings to longstanding outrage over the massacre, and highlighted a call for the “prosecution of masterminds and perpetrators” of this “great crime against humanity.”
Less than two weeks earlier, that same call to action was expressed on the international stage by participants in the Free Iran Global Summit, an online conference organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Among those who delivered remarks at the event were former political prisoners and survivors of the 1988 massacre, along with hundreds of lawmakers and policy experts from the US, Europe, and much of the world.
Their support for prosecution of the massacre’s architects is a source of hope for Iranians who have clearly not forgotten the regime’s past crimes, and who still intend to hold it to account for them. Ultimate accountability may only be attained after another uprising leads to the ouster of the ruling ayatollahs. But in the meantime, enhanced international pressure could bring individual criminals face to face with the consequences of their actions while also empowering the Iranian Resistance to pursue its goals without fear that the regime will continue to enjoy impunity for its myriad human rights abuses.