Two weeks ago, a group of Iranian activists gathered in Tehran’s Khavaran Cemetery to protest the ongoing lack of accountability for an incident that has been described as the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and one of the worst crimes against humanity to take place anywhere in the world during the latter half of the 20th century. Virtually all of the participants in the demonstration were personally affected by the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, and many believed that their lost loved ones were secretly buried in the cemetery where they were gathered.
The protesters in Khavaran Cemetery carried signs calling Ebrahim Raisi the “henchman of 1988,” underscoring his key role in the Tehran death commission, responsible for a majority of the total number of executions.
It has been widely reported that Ebrahim Raisi is the favored candidate of the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the sham Presidential election. Raisi has explicitly defended the legacy of the massacre and the underlying fatwa with which Khomeini called for the systematic killing of MEK members and other opponents of the theocratic dictatorship.
Khavaran Cemetery is the only location out of many that are believed to be the site of a secret mass grave. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), whose members comprise the overwhelming majority of the massacre’s victims, have identified such sites in at least 36 localities. Collectively, those sites are believed to hold the bodies of as many as 30,000 people who were killed by regime authorities over a period of several months. The Khavaran protest served to bring attention to the fact that a full account of the massacre’s impact has yet to develop, while the prospects of such an account diminish as a result of a coordinated cover-up by regime authorities.
The location of the protest is also the alleged focal point of the most recent cover-up efforts, being slated for development that could destroy the area of the mass grave and impede future demonstrations. The families of some of the massacre’s victims, including participants in the Khavaran demonstration, wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres two weeks earlier, in which they called for international action to prevent such desecration. The letter also noted that the UN and its leading member states have failed to intervene in the past, and as a result, regime authorities “destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.”
This troubling lack of intervention has a very long history and includes accounts of Western policymakers brushing aside warnings about the massacre while it was still ongoing. At the time, governments in Europe and North America had largely settled upon policies that sought to deal with the Iranian regime by reaching out to so-called reformists within the ruling system. This, in turn, made them wary of taking highly critical positions that might have alienated the system as a whole.
The consequences of this situation have rarely been acknowledged in the ensuing three decades, but seven UN human rights experts seemed to provide a notable exception last year. In fact, their letter to Iranian authorities was described as a “turning point” and a “momentous breakthrough” by Amnesty International after it was published for international consumption in December. The letter began by urging the Iranian regime to release its own information about the 1988 massacre and to cease their harassment of survivors and victims’ families. But it ultimately emphasized the notion that the international community would have to assume responsibility for the issue if Tehran refused to do so.
The letter also implied that this is something the United Nations and other relevant bodies should have done in 2018. It noted that the General Assembly passed a resolution in December 1988 which acknowledged the recent upsurge in politically motivated executions. “However,” the letter explained, “the situation was not referred to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly did not follow up on the resolution, and the UN Human Rights Commission did not take any action. The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”
The MEK, its supporters, and other advocates for the victims of the massacre have been working tirelessly ever since to counteract this strategy. Amnesty International’s praise of the UN experts’ letter is a testament to the fact that such statements have been inexcusably rare for more than 30 years, but the letter itself is a hopeful sign that the persistent activism of relatively small groups is beginning to pay off.
Still, there is a long way to go before obtaining any sense of justice for the victims of the 1988 massacre. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity is narrowing for a full account of those killings and the subsequent burials. The demonstration in Khavaran adds to the sense of urgency behind appeals from the families’ international supporters. More than 150 of these, including 45 former UN officials, signed their names to a statement this month which called upon the UN Human Rights Council and High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to “end the culture of impunity that exists in Iran by establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the 1988 mass extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances.”
Currently, that impunity is expressed in part through the regime’s open desecration of victims’ graves and the often violent harassment of those who would use sites like Khavaran Cemetery as venues for memorials and demonstrations demanding public accountability. It is also expressed through the systematic promotion of officials whose early exploits involved direct participation or open complicity in the 1988 massacre.
In recent years, the massacre’s leading perpetrators have been rewarded with appointments to positions including Justice Minister and chief of the federal judiciary. With next month’s sham presidential election, the current occupant of that latter position may be further rewarded by being elevated to what is arguably the second-highest office in the regime, short of the supreme leadership.
In recognition of Raisi’s role in the killings, participants in the Khavaran demonstration took direct aim at him, chanting slogans that identified him as “Henchman of 1988” and holding signs that demanded prosecution and accountability for him and other perpetrators. This sort of domestic activism shows that Raisi’s record of brutality is common knowledge within the Iranian community. Now, in recognition of prior failure to hold such figures accountable for their crimes, Western governments and human rights defenders should take steps to ensure that knowledge is shared throughout the world and the regime must be held to account for its crimes.
Furthermore, in any relation with the Iranian regime, the International community must realize that they are dealing with a brutal regime that has committed crimes against humanity, and the upcoming sham presidential election in Iran is just a power struggle between the mass murderers.