Following a fatwa handed down by the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini in mid-July 1988, ‘Death Commissions’ were set up in prisons across Iran that sent thousands of political prisoners to their deaths.
More than 30,000 political prisoners, mostly affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), were secretly mass executed over several months after mock trials lasting just five minutes. Their corpses were doused with disinfectant, packed in refrigerated trucks, and buried at night in mass graves across the country.
Rt Hon David Jones MP, a lawmaker from the UK, told the conference that he wrote to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab earlier this month pointing out: “The FCO is aware that almost three decades ago, close to 30,000 political prisoners were executed extra judicially in prisons across Iran during a few weeks in the summer.”
Jones added that the international community had inexplicably failed to “uphold and defend international law enacted specifically to prevent genocides and massacres.” This, he said, highlights a “worrying culture of impunity for serious human rights abusers in Iran.”
Former Italian Foreign Minister, Giulio Terzi told the event: “There is no doubt that 1988 killings were crimes against humanity: the clear beginning of a vast political and ethnic genocide, that is still the real ‘work in progress’ for the Iranian theocracy against all opposition groups and religious and national minorities.”
“Many of the perpetrators currently hold key positions: The head of the Iranian judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi; and the Minister of Justice, Alireza Avaei, were members of the ‘Death Commissions’; Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, was also a member of the “Death Commission” and now is a close advisor to President Hassan Rouhani,” Terzi added.
Baroness Verma of the UK House of Lords told the event: “If we consider the developments in Iran since the beginning of 2019, the human rights situation is deteriorating for the worst as the regime has resorted to a brutal crackdown to crush popular protests and silence the growing popular dissent in the country.”
“We had the killing of at least 1500 protesters and arrest of thousands others during the 2019 November protests, we had the shooting down of a Ukrainian flight over Tehran in January 2020 which sparked more popular protests and in recent months we have had death sentences and even execution of individuals who took part in the protests in recent years.”
“One of the reasons for this deterioration is the decades-long impunity that the regime officials have enjoyed and are enjoying at home and abroad. Not only that, the regime officials are rewarded based on their participation in the human rights atrocities. Take for example the Judiciary where both the current and former chiefs are known for being members of death committees that carried out and supervised the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners in Iran. The same goes for the current justice minister in Iran,” Baroness Verma added.
Former UN human rights official Tahar Boumedra, who represented the London-based NGO ‘Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran’ (JVMI), told the webinar that the persecution of political prisoners in Iran on the ground of their political, religious and ethnical belongings is an “ongoing crime” that must stop and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.
“After 32 years since the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, it is clear that the Iranian officials are unwilling to act on the calls of the UN to investigate and reveal the truth.”
He pointed out that the families of the victims have several avenues for recourse including “universal jurisdiction.”
“As most Iranian suspects in the commission of crimes against humanity are already listed for terrorism offences and other crimes under international law by EU member states, USA, Canada and others, it is possible for a national court of these states to accept jurisdiction over an act categorized as a crime against humanity. Although, political considerations are generally taken into account in accepting or rejecting such a jurisdiction, it is the responsibility and the raison d’être of the human rights defenders to insist and to facilitate prosecutions and make them happen, by searching, documenting the evidence and placing it at the disposal of the jurisdictions willing to prosecute.”
“The second avenue is for the human rights defenders to facilitate the conditions for the Chief prosecutor of the ICC to initiate on her/his own initiative after seeking the permission of the concerned chamber of the ICC to undertake a preliminary investigation of the most serious crimes,” added Boumedra who himself was the former head of the UN human rights office in Iraq.
Professor Alfred de Zayas, a former UN independent expert for the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, told the event that he and a number of the UN Special Rapporteurs have sought an independent commission of inquiry into the 1988 massacre.
Former European lawmaker Struan Stevenson told the conference: “The 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran is an example of both a crime against humanity and a genocide based on international conventions. Neither crimes against humanity nor genocide are allowed to expire with the passage of time. At a time when the Iranian people have shown with their consecutive and nationwide protests that they are sick of the current regime and the ongoing violation of human rights, it’s surely the duty of the international community and especially the United Nations to respond by supporting their call for justice.”
At least 13 survivors of the 1988 massacre and relatives of the victims testified during the event.
Other renowned international speakers included Prof Jean Zeigler, former Vice President of the Advisory Committee serving on the United Nations Human Rights Council; Prof Eric David, prominent international law expert; Dominique Attias, President of European Law Society Federation from October 2020; Kirsty Brimelow, former Chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales; and Bob Blackman MP, a Member of the UK House of Commons.