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Iran Must Take Responsibility for its Crimes Against Humanity

December 9, 2020
Natasha Schmidt
4 min read
Justice for Iran and Amnesty International published a report about mass graves in April 2018
Justice for Iran and Amnesty International published a report about mass graves in April 2018

United Nations human rights experts have appealed to the Iranian government to stop international law violations linked to the secret massacre of thousands of dissidents in 1988, in particular the crime of forced disappearance. 

In a formerly-private letter that was published on December 9, on the eve of International Human Rights Day, seven members of UN working groups and special rapporteurs have called on the Iranian authorities to acknowledge the 1988 mass executions, saying they could constitute a crime against humanity.

The Iranian authorities’ continued refusal to provide information about the location of the victims’ remains, the UN representatives say, amounts to a further crime. The effort to relegate this dark period to history or deny it happened in fact renders it a “live” or current crime, and one that is still in effect being perpetrated.  

If the Islamic Republic of Iran does not respond to the specific demands of the letter, which was initially sent as private correspondence in September 2020, the UN experts say they will demand an international investigation. 

Amnesty International has described the move for accountability as a “turning point in the long-standing struggles of victims’ families and survivors” and a “momentous breakthrough.”

Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement: “Top UN human rights experts have now sent an unequivocal, and long overdue, message: the ongoing crimes of mass enforced disappearances resulting from the secret extrajudicial executions of 1988 can no longer go unaddressed and unpunished.”

During the summer of 1988, thousands of political prisoners were murdered in secret on orders of Ayatollah Khomeini’s extrajudicial “death panel”. Many of those killed were already serving politically-motivated sentences handed down by Iranian courts. The decision to convert these sentences into death sentences for immediate action not only undermined Iran’s judicial credibility, but was an illegal move. 

The UN representatives’ letter outlines that in addition to the massacre, Iranian authorities have repeatedly blocked attempts by family members and human rights groups to find out the location of the remains of their loved ones – and in addition, have often punished them through the courts or through intimidation, pressure and censorship for seeking information. In 1988, families were banned from grieving in public, and they are still targeted for doing so today. 

The consortium of UN representatives also asks whether the Iranian government even holds all the names of those executed and the location of their burials. If it does, it should provide them to the UN. They also ask the authorities to comment on what steps they have taken to guarantee the families of those killed the “right to truth," and explain why they have blocked families’ attempts to obtain death certificates and other documentation pertaining to the massacre up until now. 


The Fallout from the 2016 "Death Panel" Audio Clip

Raha Bahreini, a human rights lawyer and Amnesty International's Iran researcher, says since an audio clip was released in 2016 in which the so-called "death panel" is heard discussing the plans for execution, "the authorities systematically crack down on any critical public discussion around the 1988 massacres and their ongoing legacy. Families are not allowed to gather peacefully at mass grave sites and commemorate their loved ones; any critical discussion of the subject in the media is banned."

In fact, she says, Iranian authorities are stepping up efforts to control the narrative about what happened. "The release of that audio recording sent shockwaves across the country  ... as a result it intensified authorities' campaigns of denying and destroying the truth. State media outlets in Iran are flooded with articles that deny the mass killings or distort its scale or context, or even celebrate the mass executions as a major defeat of the state enemies."

Amnesty International has compiled a list of figures with direct or indirect involvement in the enforced disappearances and executions of 1988 who hold top positions in Iran’s political establishment today. Among them are the current head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raeesi and Mohammad Hossein Ahmadi, a member of the Assembly of Experts.

In 2018, another human rights organization, Justice for Iran (JFI) launched a bi-lingual multimedia mapping project called PainScapes, which focused on the 1988 atrocity and the missing remains of the victims, as well as those of dissidents killed during a previous crackdown earlier in the 1980s.

“There is complicity among the ruling class of the Islamic Republic, whether they are reformist or conservative,” Shadi Sadr, Justice for Iran’s co-founder and co-director, told IranWire in October 2016. “They all stand against any kind of accountability because they want to protect their place in the spectrum of power.”


List of UN signatories to the letter dated September 3, 2020 and made public on December 9, 2020:

Luciano Hazan
Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

Agnes Callamard
Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution

Clement Nyaletossi Voule
Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

Javaid Rehman
Special Rapporteur  on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Fionnuala Ni Aolain
Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism

Nils Melzer
Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Fabian Salvioli
Special Rapporteur  on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence


Related coverage: 


Montazeri and the 1988 Massacre of Prisoners

“The Skeletons in These Graves Could Change the Future”

A Map of Pain, A Map of Resistance


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