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1988: The Crime that Won't Go Away

August 3, 2017
Aida Ghajar
8 min read
The execution of the Islamic Republic’s political opponents started immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution
The execution of the Islamic Republic’s political opponents started immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution

The families of political prisoners executed in the 1980s have appealed to the UN to publicize the truth about one of the Islamic Republic’s most horrific crimes against its people. 

Fifty Iranian citizens whose family members were killed in mass executions have written to Asma Jahangir, the UN's special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran. They appealed to Jahangir to work with the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to clarify what happened — and to force the Islamic Republic to acknowledge the crime. The letter demands for those responsible for the mass executions to be tried in a public court, and be charged with violating Iran’s constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The family members all currently live in Iran, and all put their names to the letter, a move that could have potentially been dangerous in the past. 

Widespread executions of political opponents of the Islamic Republic began immediately after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The trials of the victims lasted no more than a few minutes and those executed were not given a chance to defend themselves. The worst massacre took place in the summer of 1988, with a mass execution occurring only a few days after the Islamic Republic accepted the UN Security Council’s resolution to end the eight-year Iran-Iraq War.

Amnesty International and other human rights organizations estimate that between 4,500 and 5,000 men, women and children were killed in the summer of 1988 in prisons across Iran. In many cases, victims had already been given prison sentences, and some of those executed had even completed their sentences at the times of their deaths. The true number of dead, however, is still unknown, since the executions were carried out in secret. Their bodies were buried in mass unmarked graves, mostly at Khavaran Cemetery in southeastern Tehran, and the families were not informed. Even today, the families face harassment when visiting the graves of their loved ones. For decades, the Islamic Republic has made enormous efforts to erase the memory of the massacre.

Now, almost three decades after the executions, many family members have given up any hope that the Islamic Republic will willingly provide them with information about what happened. Their appeal to Asma Jahangir is a fresh attempt to persuade the international community to hold Iran to account.


Futile Appeals for the Truth

The families, the letter states, have made a number of appeals to Iranian authorities to provide them with information — including the number and names of those executed, their wills, where they are buried, when they were executed, when they were tried, on what charges and how long the trials lasted — but have received no answers. The families are also asking for an international delegation to inspect conditions in Iranian prisons and to interview political prisoners and the families of those executed.

Families launched their first appeal for information shortly after the 1989 executions, writing to Hasan Habibi, the Justice Minister at the time. They made a similar appeal to President Mohammad Khatami in late 1998. Most recently, they wrote to President Hassan Rouhani. They asked him the same questions, and got the  same result — silence.

In February 2009, bulldozers were dispatched to Khavaran Cemetery to destroy traces of the graves, even though it had never been clear who had been buried where. Afterward, the families were prohibited from visiting the cemetery.

In February 2017, a political inmate at Evin Prison serving a 15-year sentence urged the UN to question the Islamic Republic on the cases of her brother and sister, who were both secretly executed in 1988. The prisoner, Maryam Akbari-Monfared, had originally filed a formal complaint with Iran’s Judiciary in September 2016, demanding an investigation into the extrajudicial executions of her siblings, Abdolreza and Roghieh Akbari-Monfared. After receiving no response from the judiciary, Akbari-Monfared appealed to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.


The Forgotten Families

In recent years, authorities’ harassment of the families of the victims has actually increased. Monireh Baradaran, who spent nine years in prison in the 1980s and was tortured while held there, told IranWire that interrogations, arrests and threats against the families still occur regularly. 

“In recent years people have been talking more about what happened in the 1980s,” she says. “Even some elements from the government have criticized the events. As a result, the 1980s has found a stronger presence in people’s minds, so they have increased the pressure.” Baradaran says that although people do talk about the 1988 killings, “unfortunately the families and what they have been going through have been forgotten — in spite of the fact that it was the families who kept the memories alive.” She says authorities have successfully isolated and so silenced the families. “As long as they remain isolated, this wound will continue to fester.”

The families’ letter to Asma Jahangir outlines the injustices they continue to face, and the importance of keeping them in the public eye. “We have been deprived of the freedom to hold commemorative ceremonies at our homes, so we have chosen to meet at a deserted and unmarked cemetery and keep their memory alive,” the letter reads. But authorities have denied them “even this simple right.” Police, they say, carry out “constant raids” and use violence against the families. “Many family members of those killed have been threatened and arrested or have been expelled from their jobs. This situation continues.”

The letter also talks of a “disappointing impasse” between the judicial, political and security systems of the Islamic Republic on one hand and the international legal system, which has no appropriate way of dealing with their complaints, on the other.


Breaking Down Taboos

For many years, discussing the mass executions of the 1980s was considered a taboo, a red line drawn by the Islamic Republic. For the most part, the families kept the memories alive and continued to demand justice, but they were the only ones. In recent years, however, the silence has been broken — it has been the subject of films, and even prominent figures have raised the issue. 

The Supreme Leader has also issued statements about the events of the 1980s, though not in the way the families would like. Then, in this year’s presidential election, Ebrahim Raeesi, who sat on the three-man panel that decided the fate of executed prisoners, was put forward as President Rouhani’s main rival, re-igniting discussion on the matter and the controversy around it. 

But even before Raeesi’s candidacy, another revelation put an end to the silence, catapulting the horrific events back into the political limelight. In August 2016, the office of the late Ayatollah Montazeri, once Ayatollah Khomeini’s heir apparent, released an audio file of a meeting between Montazeri and the “death panel” Khomeini had selected to carry out the executions, which included Raeeisi. Montazeri voiced his strong objection to the plan, and said that Khomeini would be remembered as a “bloodthirsty murderer” if he allowed it to go ahead. Authorities sentenced Montazeri’s son Ahmad Montazeri to 21 years in prison for his role in making the clip public, but the sentence was later suspended


Aim: Intimidation

So why did the Islamic Republic authorities allow the silence to be broken? Baradaran believes it was because the forced silence did not achieve the results they had hoped for. “They wanted people to forget the tragedy,” she says. “But as time passed it was discussed more and more. When the Green Movement started [during the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election] even the young people who had been children or had not even been born at the time raised questions about the 1980s. Now the same authorities shamelessly defend the massacre.”

For example, on July 15, Ayatollah Khamenei praised the movie Midday Adventure, a distorted account of the arrest of the leaders of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), which Iran classifies as a terrorist organization. Thousands of MEK members were among those executed in the 1988 massacre. Khamenei also said that “something should be done” for Asadollah Lajevardi, one of the officials responsible for the mass executions in 1988. The MEK assassinated Lajevardi, who had the nickname “the Butcher of Evin,” in 1998. Khamenei’s  ambivalent comment suggests he thinks Lajevardi should be celebrated,  and that what he did was justified, although he did not directly say it. 

On July 17, former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian vigorously defended the executions, and said that the political prisoners “deserved” to be killed. And on July 21, Ahmad Khatami, Tehran’s interim Friday Prayers Leader and a member of the Assembly of Experts, called for those responsible for the mass executions [Persian link] to be decorated.

Baradaran says recent statements from Islamic Republic officials about the 1988 events have helped renew public interest in them. “But we saw the result during the election,” she says. “Many people voted so that Ebrahim Raeesi, who played an important part in the executions, would not get elected.”

At the same time, she believes the regime is intentionally raising the subject again — and its aim is intimidation. “When you listen to Fallahian shamelessly stating that all of them deserved to be killed,” she says, “or Khamenei praising Lajevardi, it means that this shadow is still around. And the candidacy of Raeesi shows that the 1980s are still not over, and can happen again.” 

But despite the prevalence of the ghosts of 1988, public opinion in Iran has changed, and so has society in general. “Now people are unhappy and no longer trust this regime,” Baradaran says.

In their letter to Asma Jahangir, the families sum up by asking for their “right to file complaints to be officially recognized.” This recognition is key, so that they can pursue the matter without being subjected to harassment from the security agencies of the Islamic Republic, and so they can move on with their lives. 



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