Khavaran Cemetery in southern Tehran, mass graves believed to hold many of those political prisoners, executed in 1988 massacre
On July 17, Morgan Ortagus, the spokesperson for the US State Department, offered brief remarks on the Iranian judiciary’s impunity in the wake of decades of human rights violations.
“All Iranian officials who commit human rights violations or abuses should be held accountable,” she said. “The United States calls on the international community to conduct independent investigations and to provide accountability and justice for the victims of these horrendous violations of human rights organized by the Iranian regime.”
Ortagus’ statement called attention to two specific such violations, one well-publicized in Western policy circles and the other long-neglected by the international community. In the first place, she noted that July 11 had marked the anniversary of the “brutal murder of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi,” who was arrested and tortured for covering popular demonstrations in Tehran in 2003. Ortagus then pointed to July 19 as another anniversary: the establishment of “death commission” aimed to massacre Iranian prisoners.
The death commissions were the product of a fatwa by the clerical regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini, which declared that organized opposition to that regime was an instance of “enmity against God,” and thus punishable by death. The regime quickly set out to eliminate major sources of such opposition, and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) became the main target of the ensuing mass executions.
The purpose of the death commissions was to interrogate political detainees at numerous Iranian prison facilities and determine whether they still harbored resentment toward the system that had jailed them for their political beliefs. In the case of the MEK, these beliefs were defined by advocacy for a democratic alternative to the fledging theocracy. And the notion of abandoning past resentments was rendered absurd for the organization by the death toll it had already incurred in the years before the death commissions.
In 1981, the MEK held a protest, with over half a million participants that marched on the parliament building to demand minimum freedom already deprived by the regime. Thousands of peaceful demonstrators were fired upon with live ammunition by security forces, and members of the dispersed crowd were arrested indiscriminately. This early clash between the regime and people established a pattern that would make itself known again and again, up through the week-long demonstration in 2003, 2009 protests, and three nationwide uprisings that have rocked Iran just since the end of 2017.
In the spaces between these incidents, all dissident, mostly the MEK’s members and supporters, have suffered from countless incidences of arbitrary arrest, politically motivated execution, and outright assassination. The PMOI alone has lost 120,000 members to this sort of political violence. But as much as one quarter of that number lost their lives at the hands of the death commissions, over the course of several months in 1988.
With the writing already on the wall regarding the regime’s track record of human rights abuses, many dissidents explicitly rejected the death commissions’ demands that they disavow their former affiliations and declare fealty to the regime. So they went to the regime’s gallows in staggering numbers, where they were executed in groups of several at a time until the total casualties had exceeded 30,000.
The true number of those casualties may never been known with certainty, because Tehran has generally enforced public silence on the issue of the 1988 massacre, and has sought to systematically annihilate evidence of its scope and details. As well as interring many of the victims in secret mass graves, some of these graves have since become the sites of construction projects which threaten to seriously impede any international efforts to identify and examine them, and clarify the numbers and identities of people interred there.
Fortunately, some of the mass graves have already been identified by Iran’s domestic activist groups. Many of the same activists have reached out to the international community over the years with eyewitness accounts of the 1988 massacre. It is largely thanks to those accounts that the international community has at least a partial grasp of the severity of the crime, which included the hanging of teenagers and pregnant women.
In 2016, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the opposition president-elect, started a “Justice Seeking Movement” for the victims of the 1988 massacre. This Movement has ever since received an international and domestic support.
Month after this campaign was initiated in 2016 a leaked audio recording from the time of the massacre shed light on some other dimensions of this crime. In it, Khomeini’s then-successor Hossein Ali Montazeri described the death commissions as being responsible for the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.” As a result, Montazeri lost his position and went on to spend the last years of his life under house arrest, while direct participants in the massacre were rewarded with ever more influential positions in the theocratic government.
These promotions underscore the fact that the entire regime continues to stand by its “worst crime.” And this in turn reveals the absurdity of certain Western governments’ past statements urging the regime to conduct its own internal investigation and hold the death commissions accountable under Iranian law.
Those statements have no practical value in appealing to Tehran’s conscience. Fortunately, there are tentative signs of evolution in the Western approach to Iranian human rights issues, following Morgan Ortagus’ statement on the 1988 massacre and the underlying operation of the Iranian judiciary.
The real test of this evolution will be whether the international community, see fit to endorse the State Department’s position and issue similar appeals of its own. Such a statement is frankly necessary for any nation that wishes to be taken seriously as a global defender of human rights. It is also especially imperative at this moment in Iranian history, when the regime has been escalating its political violence in response to domestic challenges from an organized Resistance movement that sees the era of Tehran’s impunity as coming to an end.