Plans are underway to destroy a section of Tehran’s main cemetery that is host to the graves of many political prisoners who were executed in the early 1980s, IranWire has learned.
The management of Tehran’s “Heaven of Zahra” cemetery has told the families of those buried in Section 41 of the graveyard that the area will be bulldozed and paved over, according to one of the relatives, who spoke to IranWire on condition of anonymity.
Section 41 has been badly neglected on purpose, and is already full of broken and destroyed gravestones. The area had been a burial place for people from a range of backgrounds, although they all shared something in common: They were all executed in the early years of the Islamic Republic. Among those buried in Section 41 were supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), who were mostly in their late teens or early twenties at the time, and Baha’is executed for observing their peaceful faith. One of the best known people buried in Section 41 is Sakine Ghasemi, popularly known as Pari the Tall, a prostitute who was executed in 1979 along with some of her associates. Two well-known Marxist figures, Taghi Shahram and Saeed Soltanpour, used to be buried here, but were later transferred to the Khavaran cemetery in eastern Tehran. Kharavan later became host to the remains of thousands killed during the mass executions in 1988.
The families of Section 41 have long suffered because of the poor treatment of their loved ones’ graves.
“When my brother was executed in 1981 at the age of 20, they didn’t give us the corpse or show us a gravesite,” the sister of the man, who was buried in Section 41, told Iranwire. “They later showed us a heap of dust and said he was buried there. From then on, whenever we’ve tried to put [up] a gravestone, they’ve destroyed it. Last year, we planted a tree, which they also uprooted and destroyed.”
But things got worse when the victim’s 92-year-old father recently went to the cemetery to say prayers on the anniversary of his execution. He was disturbed to find the grave had been destroyed once again. The sister of the dead man said the family were told that “the entire Section 41 will be bulldozed and paved over.”
Another relative told IranWire: “For years, every week, they take irons rods to destroy the graves; axes to cut all plants there.” Any attempt to improve the area where their family members are buried is immediately met with hostility. “Based on orders, staff are not allowed to water any plants in Section 41 and now they want to take bulldozers there? What sin have the survivors committed? Can’t they go to the graves with their broken hearts to say some prayers from time to time?”
A similar fate was meted out to the graves of political prisoners in the southwestern city of Ahvaz. In June, Amnesty International and London-based Justice for Iran issued a statement, revealing evidence of the destruction of the mass grave near Ahvaz’s Beheshtabad cemetery. As with Kharavan, it is the final resting place for people killed in the 1988 mass executions.
The destruction of cemeteries has a long history in Iran. In 2005, there were plans to destroy Section 33 of the main cemetery in Tehran, where many socialists and Marxists killed by the shah’s government were buried, including iconic figures Bijan Jazani, Marzie Ahmadi Oskooyi and Khosro Golsorkhi. International and domestic protests put an end to those plans. The founders of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) — some of whom are even revered by some of the Islamic Republic establishment — are also buried there.
Section 41 is well known among Iran’s youth today. Just a few months ago, Gallery O in Tehran hosted an exhibition of photos by Amin Talachian entitled “Section 41.”
But since Section 41 is the burial place for people executed by the Islamic Republic, actually saving it will prove to be more difficult. Last year, Mehr News Agency, an outlet close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), wrote a report on what it called “the most isolated section” of Tehran’s main cemetery.
“History testifies that you come here to look for hypocrisy, treason and terrorism,” the report read. “Of those who muddied the sweet taste of the revolution’s victory with chaos and insecurity.”
All of the “Heaven of Zahra” cemetery is overlaid with history. Right next to Section 41 is Section 24, host to some of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic who were killed in the early 1980s, often in MEK attacks. In sharp contrast to Section 41, an elaborate mausoleum commemorates those killed by a bomb attack on June 28, 1981, including then Chief Justice Mohammad Beheshti. The irony is that the Section 24 mausoleum was designed by Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the revolutionary architect who led Iran as prime minister during the 1980s. Today he remains under house arrest because of his leading role in the Green protest movement in 2009. Not too far away are sections 50, 29, 26 and 53, where dozens of Iranians who died in Syria, fighting for the survival of the autocratic President Bashar Assad, are buried.
Every section of the cemetery is a symbol of a brutal chapter of Iran’s troubled history. Destroying Section 41 seems to be part of a larger plan to further sanitize the history of the blood-stained republic.