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Witnesses in Albania Highlight Scale of Iran’s 1988 Massacre

Proceedings in the trial of Hamid Noury, a former Iranian prison official, are due to return to Stockholm in the coming days after having been temporarily relocated to Durres, Albania. That change in venue was requested by Swedish prosecutors in order to hear from seven eyewitnesses who currently reside at the Albanian compound established in 2016 by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. The MEK has been the leading voice for democracy in Iran, and in 1988 it was the prime target of a systematic massacre of political prisoners in which Noury took part. 

Each of the witnesses at Durres, and several other witnesses in Stockholm, recalled direct interactions with Noury before, during, and after the 1988 massacre. Hassan Ashrafian, described Noury as having ordered large numbers of guards to beat political prisoners believed to be affiliated with the MEK in the year preceding the massacre. He also noted that Noury was present alongside the head of Gohardasht Prison, Mohammad Moghiseh, when the latter boasted about the extent of the killings and the potential for them to resume after the massacre had subsided. 

The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: Eyewitness Accounts, Hassan Ashrafian

“We killed all of them and we will kill the rest of you later,” Ashrafian quoted Moghiseh as telling a small group of survivors at Gohardasht. “The era where you could protest and stage strikes is over. Don’t think our hands are tied. We can execute you like the rest anytime we want.” 

Another survivor, Akbar Samedi, told the Durres court that he was personally threatened by Noury in the midst of the killings, then encountered him months later and heard Noury lament that Samedi and others had “slipped through the fingers” of prison authorities. Such recollections suggest that Noury not only willingly carried out orders to facilitate mass executions, but did so eagerly and continued to defend the massacre afterward. 

While Noury is in custody, the main perpetrators of the 1988 massacre remain in power at the highest levels of the regime, including in the presidency. Ebrahim Raisi officially took over that office in August. The vast majority of Iran’s eligible voters refused to participate in the regime’s sham election, with many openly protesting Raisi’s endorsement by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

In 2019, Khamenei appointed Raisi as head of the judiciary, thereby providing him with a stepping stone to the presidency and also reinforcing the legacy of the 1988 massacre, in which Raisi was a leading participant. The former member of Tehran’s death commission used his role as judiciary chief in order to oversee key aspects of a crackdown on dissent immediately following a nationwide uprising in November 2019. 

Exhibition in Ashraf 3, Albania: Gohardasht Prison Death hall in the 1988 massacre in Iran

That crackdown claimed at least 1,500 lives, making it one of the worst instances of mass killing in Iran in recent years, though it fell far short of the impact of the 1988 massacre. Over 30,000 political prisoners were executed and buried in secret mass graves between July and September 1988, and some of the witnesses in the Noury case even went so far as to say that this is a conservative estimate, relying largely on testimony regarding prisons and prison wards in which some detainees survived the massacre. 

Even where there were survivors, they generally constituted a tiny proportion of the overall prison population. This was affirmed not only by the survivors who directly testified in the Noury case but also by those who took part in conferences and demonstrations that coincided with it, and who spoke to the press around the same time. Around 1,000 former political prisoners took part in a gathering at the PMOI’s compound, Ashraf 3, last weekend, 12 of whom delivered wide-ranging speeches on the massacre and the prospects for holding perpetrators accountable. 

Iran: A Fatwa Which Took the Life of 30,000 Political Prisoners in 1988 Massacre

One of those speakers, Mohammad Raputam, recalled that 154 PMOI members were transferred from Gohardasht Prison to Evin Prison ahead of the massacre, and that he was one of only seven who survived. Hassan Zarif, who was also detained at Evin during the massacre, noted that there were thousands of political prisoners in that facility along when the massacre began, and within several weeks that number dwindled to 90. 

In testimony at Durres on November 10, Mohammad Zand recalled spending three months in solitary confinement at Gohardasht, emerging in the aftermath of the massacre, and speaking to someone from the general prisoner population who said of prisoners from Zand’s political ward, “As far as I know, you’re the last one.” Zand clarified for the court: “There were 160-170 prisoners in that ward before.” 

More of these stories are sure to follow as the Noury trial returns to Sweden, coming both from witnesses who reside in that country or are able to travel to it, and from participants in public gatherings like those that have shadowed every session since the trial began in August. A verdict in Noury’s case is not expected until April, but given the preponderance of evidence already presented and the lack of any meaningful defense, conviction seems all but certain. 

Noury’s conviction should set the stage for a broader international inquiry into the 1988 massacre, ultimately leading to the prosecution of other current and former officials who played a much larger role in it than Noury. This includes Raisi, who enforced a fatwa that aimed to “annihilate the enemies of Islam” make him guilty of genocide targeting the MEK which present a challenge to the Iranian regime’s fundamentalist theocracy.