Not two weeks ago on Saturday, July 19, Ebrahim Raisi was declared the winner of Iran’s 2021 presidential election. The victory was more or less assured, but what the Iranian regime might not have banked on was the extent to which his role in the 1988 mass execution would be a topic of focus in international coverage.
Then on Monday, June 28, Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, called for an independent inquiry into Raisi’s role in the 1988 massacre.
"I think it is time,” Rehman said in an interview with Reuters, “and it's very important now that Mr. Raisi is the president [-elect], that we start investigating what happened in 1988 and the role of individuals.”
Raisi was a member of the Tehran “death panel” which, on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, sent thousands of already-jailed political prisoners to their deaths in the summer of 1988.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have been calling for decades for a UN-led inquiry into the atrocity. IranWire spoke to Ladan Bazargan, a human rights activist and the sister of 1988 massacre victim Bijan Bazargan, and with Mehdi Aslani, a former political prisoner who came out alive, about their impressions of this latest development.
Since Ebrahim Raisi secured the presidency, a plethora of global human rights champions have demanded he be investigated for crimes committed in 1988.
Hours after the result was announced on Saturday Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International and the UN’s former Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, issued a statement demanding an inquiry now take place.
Since 1988, she added, “As head of the Iranian judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi has presided over a spiraling crackdown on human rights which has seen hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained.
“Under his watch, the judiciary has granted blanket impunity to government officials and security forces responsible for unlawfully killing hundreds of men, women and children and subjecting thousands of protesters to mass arrests and at least hundreds to enforced disappearances, to torture and to other ill-treatments during and in the aftermath of the nationwide protests of November 2019.”
During Raisi’s first news conference as president-elect, a reporter for Al Jazeera asked him about the allegations of crimes against humanity against him in connection with the 1988 mass executions. Raisi responded by stating that those who were executed were “criminals” and claimed his own record was “praiseworthy.”
In his interview with Reuters, Javaid Rehman made it plain that he was serious. Over the years, he said, his office had gathered testimonies and evidence about the 1988 massacre and stood ready to share them if the United Nations Human Rights Council or another body was prepared to set up an impartial investigation.
Could Ebrahim Raisi be Investigated at Last?
Ladan Bazargan’s brother Bijan was executed in the summer of 1988, nearly seven years into what was supposed to be a 10-year prison sentence.
“What follows this call for an independent inquiry,” she told IranWire, “depends on the will of the international community and the global political standing of the Islamic Republic. Iran and the US are currently negotiating to revive the nuclear agreement and we do know that Biden wants to reach a deal. But fortunately, they have not done so as yet.”
This, Bazargan believes, means there may be a chance. She points out that Hamid Nouri, an Iranian prosecutor alleged to have played a role in the mass executions, was arrested by Swedish authorities in November 2019 and his own trial is to take place soon.
“We might think there are no international mechanisms to deal with people such as Hamid Nouri, but there are,” Bazargan goes on. “In 1987, the US banned the Austrian President [Kurt Waldheim] from entering the US for his cooperation with the Nazis and the SS.
“We must remember that the International Criminal Court and the UN Security Council were created by human beings. Therefore, human beings can also change their internal rules – in a way that would make apply to Raisi –by pressuring governments. The only question is how much pressure we can put on them.
“As family members of the 1988 massacre victims, as seekers of justice, we do not pin all our hopes on the law. The same way that we shamed those who participated in the election, we shall stand against Raisi at all international assemblies, so that he does not dare travel abroad. We shall tell European and American citizens that their tax money is being spent on protecting the perpetrator of crimes against humanity.”
Not Optimistic but Not Pessimistic, Either
Mehdi Aslani is a survivor of the 1988 massacre. He was summoned before the Tehran death panel twice but evaded execution and was finally released from Rajaei Shahr Prison in 1989, whereupon he moved to Germany. He recalls seeing Raisi on the death panel on August 31, 1988.
“Raisi was the Tehran prosecutor’s deputy,” he says. “This is something that cannot be denied. His voice can be heard in the audio recording of the meeting between the panel and Ayatollah Montazeri.”
The referred-to audio clip was released in summer of 2016 by the office of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was once the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini but then fell out of his favor after 1988.
It contains the details of a meeting held in August 1988 between Montazeri and the four members of the Tehran death panel. The cleric expressed deep concern about the atrocities being committed at Evin and Gohardasht Prisons, and asked that the panel stop systematically executing people during the holy month of Muharram.
The response Montazeri received was that they had killed 750 people already, and only just another 200 to go. Members of the Tehran death panel can also clearly be heard defending their actions in the recording.
Raisi, Aslani points out, “has never denied this [crime] –and says he must praised. Two others have also officially confirmed he was on the death panel: Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who represented the Intelligence Ministry on the panel, and Ruhollah Hosseinian, a despised security figure who said in an audio recording that Raisi ought to be praised because he carried out the order of Imam [Khomeini]”.
Mehdi Aslani, however, is circumspect about the possibility of Raisi’s arrest. Convention dictates that sitting heads of state enjoy immunity while in office – although this can be set aside for the types of crimes Raisi stands accused of, as a previous IranWire analysis has noted.
In the meantime, he says, “The opposition must do its utmost to make it costly for Raisi to travel abroad. This does not apply only to the families of the victims, or people like me who got out alive; it is everyone’s social responsibility.
“Up until now, the Islamic Republic has been able to freely play at the big international gambling table with its huge pile of petrodollar chips, despite its regional interventions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and despite its nuclear program.”
Aslani believes that securing any form of justice or accountability for Raisi’s crimes will be an uphill struggle. “Not all of the international community is going to stand up and support this call. Everything depends on the political situation after Raisi’s inauguration.”
Even before Javaid Rehman, Ahmed Shaheed, the former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, was frustrated in his diplomatic efforts due to being barred from entering the country.
But despite all the obstacles, Aslani notes that Raisi’s ascension to the presidency has brought the world’s attention back to the 1988 massacre. “Raisi is an unvarnished criminal. Unlike other countries, which customarily hide their own criminals, the Islamic Republic has put him on full display.
“This is a great success; the wall erected around it [the massacre] is crumbling and now Islamic Republic officials are being forced to talk about it.
“The 1988 massacre is not the regime’s only crime. They started with rooftop executions and continues today with the execution of Navid Afkari [a young wrestler arrested during 2018 protests and hanged in prison last September]. But the fact that it has been talked about so much means it cannot disappear from memory.”
Laden Bazargan also observes that an inquiry would be an important step in addressing the inaction by the UN at the time of the atrocity. Its then-Special Rapporteur Reynaldo Galindo Pohl never visited the mass graves, and appeared to have been convinced by Iranian officials at the time that no further follow-ups were necessary.
“The families whose lives were in danger went to meet him,” Bazargan says, “but not only did he not meet with them or go to the prisons, but he wrote an unsatisfactory report about what he had seen and heard.
“The fact that Mr. Rehman has taken this step – and further, says he is ready to provide evidence for an independent inquiry – is a very good, important development.”
His Suits Were Still in the Closet
Ebrahim Raisi has long insisted that the political prisoners who were executed in 1988 were all convicts already on death row. This is known to be false, as was the claim by Khomeini that all of them were prisoners of war.
“Our loved ones had been sentenced to jail terms,” Bazargan says. “We were awaiting his [my brother’s] release. We had not touched his room because we believed he would be let out soon. All of his suits were still hanging in his closet; his clothes were in the drawers. We never believed they would kill him.
Mehdi Aslani adds: “I can personally testify that the overwhelming majority of my cellmates who were executed had been sentenced to prison terms. We even had inmates who had served their sentences but were still in jail because they had refused to give interviews, or repent, or things like that. There were also those who sentence was due to end in a few months, who the panel decided to execute.
“Neither Raisi nor the regime’s other lackeys mention the executions of the leftists [the second wave of killings after Muharram]. They say that Operation Mersad [July 26-30, 1988 towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war] was in progress, that the People’s Mojahedin had attacked inside the borders of Iran and some of the prisoners were going to join them, so they decided to put them on trial again. But it was nothing like that. By August 28, when they first took me to the death panel, they had finished with the Mojahedin and it was the turn of the leftists.”
“My Mother Was Spared Raisi’s Victory”
A little over a year ago, Laden Bazargan lost her mother. Until her last breath, she says, she had wanted justice for her son.
“Since my mother died,” she told IranWire, “I’ve always felt her absence. But when they made Raisi president, for the first time I felt glad that she was not alive to see this day. I feel she could not have dealt with it; I’m happy she’s not here to see a member of the death panel being rewarded like this.”
For Bazargan, Raisi’s victory is a “catastrophe” – if not entirely a surprise. “Khamenei did this to tell the international community: ‘I don’t care about human rights and I’ll make somebody sanctioned by the US for crimes against humanity the president.’ He is also sending a message to the people of Iran: ‘I’ll suppress people as much as I like’.
“But I am hopeful. I think that this was the best thing that could have happened. Al Jazeera’s reporter asked him about this crime, and he publicly confessed to it – and said he should be praised for it. This is big.
“Raisi’s appointment was the death of the reformist movement in Iran, and has destroyed the blockade that for 25 years had stood against seekers of justice.”
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