In the summer of 1988 more than 30,000 political prisoners in Iran were systematically executed in a matter of a few months. The killings were not only horrific in scale but remain shrouded in mystery with the regime blocking all attempts to investigate the extent of the massacre.
The purge was ordered by a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Supreme Leader of Iran after the 1979 revolution. It was relentless and efficient.
Prisoners, including women and teenagers, were loaded onto forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of five or six at half-hourly intervals all day long. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to torture.
The victims were intellectuals, students, left-wingers, members of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK), other opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many had originally been sentenced for non-violent offences such as distributing newspapers and leaflets, taking part in demonstrations or collecting funds for prisoners’ families, according to a 1990 Amnesty International report.
Iran had killed a large number of political prisoners throughout the 1980s, so why the sudden increase in 1988? Eyewitness reports suggest the regime was worried about the large number of unrepentant political prisoners due to be released after the end of the war with Iraq, and so decided to cleanse its prisons of troublesome elements once and for all.
THE EMERGING EVIDENCE
In 1988, Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Montazeri was cast out for protesting the mass executions.
In 2016 an audio tape surfaced of Montazeri chastising members of the Tehran “Death Commission” as the executions were being carried out.
“The greatest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you [the members of the Death Commission],” Montazeri said to the group.
The 1988 massacre gave rise to the phenomenon of mass graves. Every day hundreds were being executed in Evin, larger numbers in Gohardasht and other prisons in Tehran, and in jails across the country.
Authorities sought burials in mass graves. This method had been used occasionally in Tehran and other cities since 1981, only to become systematic procedure in 1988 all over Iran.
According to Reza Malek, a former deputy of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, there are 170 to 190 mass graves across Iran, leaving many families unaware of where their loved ones are buried.
With no information as to where their loved ones may be, many people began visiting the Khavaran Cemetery in southern Tehran, in an attempt to mourn those who were executed. However, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) patrolled the cemetery and attacked anyone who came to mourn.
Homes were also raided during private commemoration ceremonies and family members were harassed or arrested when they attempted to locate their loved ones’ remains. In January of 2009, aiming to destroy any remaining evidence of the massacre, the Iranian regime went as far as bulldozing the Khavaran site.
THREE DECADES OF DENIAL & SILENCE
The Iranian regime continues to deny the 1988 elimination of tens of thousands political prisoners. None of the perpetrators have yet been brought to justice and not a single senior regime official, including the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have been held accountable.
Amnesty International has noted that 25 years after the massacre, Tehran continues to suppress any information about the killings and arrest family members who dare to speak out or visit mass graves at Khavaran. The trauma has been passed on to the younger generation as well.
The regime is fully aware the massacre was a violation of international and Iranian law, and that news of the executions would severely damage its reputation. Therefore, it made every effort to keep a lid on the interrogations and executions. It closed off the prisons from all visitors, announced public executions in an effort to divert attention, and lied to families and international investigators.
Family members informed of their loved ones’ deaths were not informed until October and November. Many families were never informed, and many of the victims were buried in unmarked mass graves.
THE DEATH COMMISSIONS
Death Commissions, in charge of supervising the executions, were comprised of a religious judge, a prosecutor, and a representative of the Intelligence Ministry. Individuals such as the deputy prosecutor and heads of prisons had direct roles in implementing Khomeini’s fatwa and cooperated with the Death Commissions. The religious judge and the prosecutor were appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council that was at the time headed by Abdul-Karim Mousavi Ardebili.
Key current office-holders in the regime were among the officials involved in the massacre. They include the current Supreme Leader, the Vice President of Iran for Legal Affairs, four members of the State Expediency Council, six members of the Assembly of Experts (the highest decision-making body of the regime, tasked with selecting the Supreme Leader’s successor), and at least 12 high-ranking Judiciary officials, including the current Justice Minister and top commanders of the Armed Forces. Additionally, some of Iran’s largest financial and trade institutions are run and controlled by the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre.
CALL FOR JUSTICE
It is high time the international community demands justice for the victims of the 1988 massacre and holds the regime accountable for breaches of international law and crimes against humanity.
The people of Iran deserve to know the truth about what happened in 1988, and the victims of this massacre deserve justice.
What happened in Iranian prisons back in 1988 remains a deep scar for the Iranian people. Only a comprehensive and independent investigation to identify those who abused their power to execute thousands of their ideological opponents would only heal this wound.
The pervasive silence of the past 29 years must come to an end. The UN should launch an independent investigation into the 1988 massacre, considered to be one of the most hideous crimes against humanity after the Second World War.