Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The 1988 Massacre in Iran

By non sequitur

Here's an important article about a horrendous massacre of Iranian dissidents in 1988. As the author points out, it meets all the requirements to be formally classified as a crime against humanity, but is still almost entirely unknown outside of Iranian dissident circles. The author, Kaveh Sharooz, has done a lot of the important and original research into this massacre, and published some of his findings in the Harvard Human Rights Journal. The article contains a link to that piece.

Here's a brief account of the massacre, from the article (because of the length of the quote, I'm not going to use the usual quoting mechanism here).


In late 1987 and early 1988, prison officials began the unusual process of interrogating political prisoners again and separating them according to their party affiliations, religiosity, and length of sentence. In Tehran, this meant that some prisoners were moved between Evin and Gohar-Dasht prisons. This preliminary segregation of prisoners strongly indicates that there were pre-existing plans for mass killings. Furthermore, the filtering process belies the notion that the 1988 executions were in response to armed attacks on Iranian territory.

At the end of July 1988, shortly after Iran had accepted a cease-fire in the war with Iraq, and days after its military had soundly repelled an attack by the Mojahedin-e Khalq on Iran's western border, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave two unprecedented secret orders(2) to begin the re-trial of all political prisoners across the country and to execute those who remained steadfast in their opposition to the Islamic regime. To give effect to Khomeini’s order, a commission was assembled -- called the "Death Commission" by the prisoners -- consisting of a representative from the Judiciary, the office of the Prosecutor, and the Ministry of Intelligence. In Tehran's Death Commission, those government agencies were represented by Jaafar Nayyeri, Morteza Eshraghi and Mostafa Pourmohammadi respectively, although others also played a role. The task of the Death Commission was to determine whether a prisoner was a Mohareb ("Combatant against God") or Mortad ("Apostate") -- and to execute both groups. In the case of most Mojahedin prisoners, that determination was often made after only a single question about their party affiliation. Those who said "Mojahedin" rather than the derogatory "Monafeqin" ("Hypocrite") were sent to be hanged. In the case of various leftist prisoners, the Death Commission asked about religious belief and willingness to cooperate with the authorities. Sample questions included: "are you a Muslim?", "do you pray?", and "are you willing to clear minefields for the military of the Islamic Republic?" If a plurality of judges felt that the prisoner was a Mohareb or Mortad, the prisoner was sent to hang immediately.

Several thousand political prisoners were killed in a matter of two months. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri estimates that the number killed was somewhere between 2,800 and 3,800. Others believe the number is higher. Even those who survived the questioning of the Death Commission did not always fare well. Some could not bear the emotional pain of what they had witnessed, or the physical pain of the regular floggings they received, and simply committed suicide. The prison guards are said to have encouraged that decision.

To add insult to injury, the Iranian government did not inform the victims' families about the re-trials until the executions had been carried out and the bodies had been buried in mass graves. Once informed, the families were not told of their loved ones' burial spots and were ordered not to erect any monument or hold any ceremony. When asked about the killings by the Western press, representatives of the Iranian government -- Abdollah Nouri, Ali Khamene'i, and Hashemi Rafsanjani -- flatly denied them. The Iranian government continues to deny the 1988 elimination of opposition prisoners.


As mentioned at the outset, the murder campaign of that summer is a crime without parallel in Iran's tumultuous modern history. In fact, the executions have all the elements required by international law to be labeled as crimes against humanity: The murders were widespread and systematic, they were directed at a civilian population, and, as made clear by Ayatollah Montazeri in his memoirs, they were a policy preconceived at the highest ranks of the Iranian government. The sheer magnitude of the 1988 massacre makes it too large to ignore, even after twenty years.


(Please read the whole thing, including the proposals for action.)

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