“When it comes to a people who rise up amid a storm of events, conspiracies and various pressures, defends itself, fights against its enemies, and is naturally also after an originality, we call this defending human rights, and we don’t consider this to be against human rights.”
This was the cryptic response of Mir Hossein Mousavi in December 1988 to a question by a German journalist about “new reports of human rights violations” in Iran.
The four-minute interview clip was broadcast in the immediate aftermath of a state-sponsored mass murder of thousands of political prisoners that had taken place in Iran just months before. At the time, there were no other reports of human rights violations in Iran circulating in the international media. But Mousavi elected to answer the question as opaquely as it had been asked.
More than 30 years on, the shockwaves from the unspeakable act of institutional barbarism that took place in 1988 are still keenly felt by millions of Iranians across the world: not least the families of the victims themselves, who still do not know how their loved ones were killed or where their remains are buried.
Amnesty International has released a full transcript of the interview in a new briefing, which was issued on September 9 in response to recent fresh questions over how much Mousavi, who was then prime minister of Iran, knew about the atrocities that took from late July to early September 1988.
In its new Q&A-style report, Amnesty reiterated that regardless of whether Mousavi knew about the killings before they took place – the evidence for which is inconclusive at best – he and others should still be held criminally responsible for failing to act after reports of the massacres surfaced and caused international outcry.
As the Iran-Iraq war drew to a close, as many as 5,000 political prisoners were forcibly disappeared, tortured and secretly murdered in Iran. Amnesty says it has “serious concerns” that Mousavi and his government were made aware of the first wave of killings in August 1988 and pursued an official strategy of “denial and distortion” in the aftermath – and then for years to come. According to international law, this could in itself make them liable for prosecution.
“In the aftermath of the prison massacres of 1988,” Amnesty’s new report states, “the failure of top government officials to investigate and reveal the truth did not just entrench impunity.
“It also facilitated the ongoing commission of the crime of enforced disappearance against the families of those killed, which continues three decades later on a widespread and systematic basis and constitutes a crime against humanity.”
How Could Mousavi Have Not Known?
In late July 1988, thousands of political dissidents in prisons across Iran were forcibly disappeared. Among them were members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), other leftists including members of the Tudeh Party, Kurdish prisoners and followers of religions other than Shia Islam. In the weeks that followed, distressed families approached various government bodies – including the office of the prime minister – seeking answers about location and fate of their loved ones.
Based on survivors’ testimonies, the first wave of political executions that followed had taken place by August 16, 1988 and the victims buried in mass graves. From August 16 onward Amnesty International mobilized its members around the world to send telegrams, faxes and letters to the Iranian authorities about what was happening.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Summary and Arbitrary Executions then cabled Iran’s foreign minister about the situation for the first time on August 26. Based on this and other communications, Amnesty says it has “serious concerns” that Mousavi and members of his government could not fail to have been aware of the allegations of crimes and human rights violations taking place in Iran.
Denial and Distortion as Crime Against Humanity
Under international law stemming from the Nuremberg trials, top officials can be held responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates if they knew – or should have known – of the crimes and either failed to prevent them, or to punish those responsible.
As Iran’s prime minister from October 1981 to August 1989, Mir Hossein Mousavi oversaw the work of both Iran’s the ministry of justice and the ministry of foreign affairs. Both divisions were contacted by diplomats and the international community immediately after the first wave of killings.
Mousavi should have thus ensured that allegations of crimes against humanity of this magnitude, occurring on Iranian soil, were investigated. But no such examination took place and instead, senior government officials and diplomats outright denied the mass killings to hide the truth about what had happened.
The ripple-effect of this inaction is hard to quantify but due to the lack of rigorous investigation in Iran, senior officials linked to the “death panels” of 1988 are still in positions of power and influence in the country today. One of them, Hussein Ali Nayeri, was promoted to the head of Iran’s Supreme Court in 1989 and remained in post until 2013. Another, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, was minister of justice from 2014 to 2017 while Ebrahim Raeesi was appointed Iran’s new head of judiciary last March. Instead of being prosecuted, these individuals have been allowed to shape policy in the Islamic Republic for decades to come.
Amnesty has also long held that the Islamic Republic’s refusal to provide information about the victims’ killings to their families and survivors is tantamount to a form of torture. By not launching a full investigation at the time, Mousavi and his government may have helped set the stage for a crime against humanity that is still ongoing today.
Mir Hossein Mousavi has been under arbitrary house arrest in Iran for 10 years after the outcome of the 2009 presidential election. Amnesty has raised concerns with Iran about the human rights violations committed against him – even at the same time as it continues to call for a competent, independent “truth commission” to be set up to establish the truth about the atrocities of 1988, one with the power to compel both current and former Iranian officials, including Mousavi, to testify.
“Those who ordered, planned or carried out the prison massacres,” the report states, “are not the only people who must be subject to criminal investigations.
“All former and current officials who have contributed to the climate of secrecy and denial facilitating the continued commission of the crime enforced disappearance against those killed and their families must also be held to account for their own actions.”