Iran: the specter of a little-known genocide
By Hamid Enayat
Hamid Enayat explores the repercussions and impunity over a mass killing in Iran’s prisons
A much ignored yet gruesome massacre in Iran’s prisons in 1988 came to the light following two unrelated events.
The first event, the ascent to the country’s presidency of Ebrahim Raisi, who in 1988, sat as deputy prosecutor general in a four-member committee codenamed the “death commission” which was charged with purging Tehran and Karaj (a city close to Tehran) prisons of political prisoners still staying loyal to the banned opposition MEK (People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran). Several thousand prisoners already condemned and serving time were thus re-examined and mostly executed in a matter of months on orders issued by him as well as his three colleagues.
The second event, the arrest of a certain Hamid Noury, in Stockholm’s Arlanda airport in October 2019, planning to revisit Sweden on touristic purposes. He was revealed to be Hamid Abbassi, a notorious prison official who played a pivotal role in Karaj’s Gohardasht prison in the summer of 1988 in tandem with the death commission in which Raisi had an important role. Some 40 former political prisoners who survived the massacre were plaintiffs in Noury’s case that begun in September 2021 and continued until May 2022. He is the first Iranian official tried within the boundaries of the international jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. The prosecutor asked for life imprisonment. The court is to announce the verdict on July 14.
The Swedish court’s prosecutor indictment against Hamid Noury reads: "[Ruhollah] Khomeini [the supreme leader of the Iranian regime from 1979 to 1988] issued a fatwa or decree [in the summer of 1988], stating that all prisoners in Iranian prisons who were affiliated with or supporters of the MEK and who were faithful in their beliefs, were to be executed. Shortly thereafter, mass executions of supporters and sympathizers of the Mojahedin who were imprisoned in Iran's prisons began.
Documents registered with the Swedish Prosecutor Authority and existing in the case file include the list of 444 PMOI prisoners who were hanged in Gohardasht prison alone, a book entitled "Crimes against Humanity" with the names of more than 5,000 Mojahedin, a book entitled "Massacre of Political Prisoners" that was published by the PMOI 22 years ago, which includes a list of a considerable number of agents and perpetrators of the massacre, including Hamid Abbasi (Noury), in addition to the memoirs of a number of PMOI members and sympathizers".
Helpless and frustrated from the growing wave of protests, especially among women, girls and the younger generation, in the hot summer of 1988, Khomeini committed a crime against humanity with an unparalleled Fatwa in hard-heartedness: the killing of political prisoners, mainly from the MEK. Khomeini’s Fatwa led to the killing of 30,000 political prisoners, primarily supporters and members of the Mujahideen. It took forty years and needed thousands of testimonies and hundreds of documents for only a part of the international community to realize this horrific crime.
Even before the court, in a report published in 2017, Amnesty International wrote:
“Former prisoners from Evin and Gohardhasht prisons refer to a pattern of threats, interrogations, classification procedures and transfers of prisoners between Evin, Gohardasht and other prisons in the months leading up to July 1988, well before the PMOI’s armed incursion on July 25.”
Another pattern that some survivors believe indicates the pre-planned nature of the killings is a massive wave of arrest of hundreds of prisoners, who had been released several years earlier, during the weeks leading up to July 1988 and shortly after the PMOI’s armed incursion on July 25, 1988.
Culture of impunity
Although the massacre was noticed in 1988 and even the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) condemned the extrajudicial executions in December of 1988, the general reaction to such a crime never came close to any significant magnitude. While the extent of the crime was not known at the time, the inaction by international actors was surprising. A culture of impunity was thus formed in the country.
An official letter by seven UN experts to the government of Iran in September 2020 and later published as official UN document on the affair reads as follows:
“To date, no official in Iran has been brought to justice and many officials involved continue to hold positions of power including in key judicial, prosecutorial and government bodies responsible for ensuring the victims receive justice.”
“There is a systemic impunity enjoyed by those who ordered and carried out the extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances,” continue the experts.
The UN experts conclude: “The situation was not referred to the Security Council, the UNGA did not follow up… and the UN Commission on Human Rights 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.”
On March 1, 1989, Le Monde newspaper wrote: “Imam Khomeini summoned the revolutionary prosecutor, Hojjato-Islam Khoeiniha, to order him to have all the Mujahedin executed, whether in prison or elsewhere, for going to war with God. The executions followed summary trials. The trial consisted of using different pressure methods to force the prisoners to repent, change their opinion or confess. Among the very young Mujahedin executed were some of those who were imprisoned for eight years, when they were only 12 to 14 years old, for having taken part in public demonstrations.”
Condemned by history
Among Iranian regime officials, only Ayatollah Montazeri, who was supposed to succeed Khomeini, objected to the killing following Khomeini’s Fatwa. He stated his concerns: “How can a prisoner who has been sentenced and is serving his sentence be hanged?”
Khomeini did not welcome Montazeri's remarks. As a result, Montazeri was dismissed as his successor and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
In August 2016, an audiotape from Ayatollah Montazeri denouncing the massacre was released by his son. In the 40-minute audiotape recorded during a closed-door meeting between Montazeri and four members of the Death Committee, including current president Ebrahim Raisi, on August 15, 1988, Montazeri charged the attendees with conducting the “purge” of Iranian prisons. He told the Commission members that their action was
“The most horrific crime committed under the Islamic Republic and for which we will be condemned by history, you are the ones who committed it and that is why history will record your names as criminals”.
A wound that remains open
A justice movement has arisen in Iran and the Iranian diaspora abroad for the victims of this massacre. An Amnesty International report reveals the deliberate desecration and destruction of several mass graves, where the terrible 1988 massacre victims are buried. Numerous documents, including some satellite photos, support the evidence of the attempted demolition of these and other mass graves.
The report estimates that more than 120 locations across the country contain the remains of victims of the 1988 massacre. It identifies seven sites where destruction has been confirmed or suspected between 2003 and 2017.
Some victims’ relatives have also been prosecuted, imprisoned and tortured in turn, simply for seeking truth and justice. “The atrocities of the 1988 massacre in Iran are a wound that remains open three decades later. By destroying this vital forensic evidence, the Iranian authorities are deliberately reinforcing an environment of impunity,” said Philip Luther, Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
British lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, president of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, has spoken in-depth on the killings, which he calls "a crime against humanity that can be classified as genocide. He said in his speech: " The Fatwa issued by Khomeini shows clearly that a religious reason was the primary reason these people were killed. This is the principal reason, “waging war on God” and “Moharab.” These were the religious reasons. It goes on to reveal the political motivations of the massacre. Since its foundation, the MEK was distinguished from Khomeini’s ideology due to their diverse and liberal interpretation of Islam. Raisi, of his own will, deliberately followed it.
So here is a bureaucracy imposing the death penalty and goes on, kill them with revolutionary courage and rancor these enemies of Islam, must be most ferocious against the infidels,” Robertson declared in his speech last year to an online conference.
The internationally recognized expert on International humanitarian law professor Eric David declared "the crime committed in 1988 against the 30,000 members of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran is obviously a crime against humanity that meets all the criteria found in article 6,c of the statute of the Nuremberg tribunal, up to article 7 of the current statute of the international criminal court, which certainly appears to be the expression of customary international law. There is no doubt that the massacres of 1988 can legally be qualified as genocide" he added.
Contrasting tenants and values
The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) represents a political and religious thinking that is wholly distinct in substance and invariably distinct in many forms and customs, from the religious interpretations and functioning of the ruling system in Iran. This is what Khomeini and his regime's religious clerics referred to when using the derogatory epithet of "hypocrites" or "hypocrisy."
In the early years of its establishment in 1965, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) challenged the stale orthodoxy of mullahs' religious thought in various fields, particularly in the ideological sphere.
For instance, the MEK advocates for the equality of women and men in all political, social and economic aspects, something that the Khomeinist clerical establishment does not get close to. In Iran today, all the legal code is based on women being half the human beings that men are. A cursory look at Iran's civil and penal code lays bare this gender-based system of misogyny and refuting women's equal standing as human beings.
The MEK also believes that the only source and criteria for political legitimacy are the people's free exercise of the vote.
Khomeini, his successor Khamenei and their clerical base did not accept popular sovereignty as the basis for political legitimacy and rule. They claim to derive legitimacy from a self-made principle of ‘guardianship of the jurisprudent’, the highest religious authority that governs the fate of the people. The constitution and all their common law are also codified and enforced on this basis.
Regarding the involvement of religion in government, the MEK believes in the principle of separation of religion from state, an absolute heresy for the ruling theocracy.
Haunting the regime
Hamid Noury’s case in Sweden harmed the ruling clerics in Iran in several ways.
First, the daily coverage of testimonies of more than 30 victims of the horrible 1988 massacre, broadcast on several Farsi broadcasting satellite and online services into the country, turned the issue into a real social problem for the regime. Then, with the court supposed to issue its verdict in July, a precedent might be set which would prohibit Iran’s highest-ranking authorities from voyaging to Europe, or elsewhere in the free world.
Ebrahim Raish himself is one first victim. He was supposed to take part in the COP26 summit on the environment in Glasgow, when a complaint filed by five survivors of the 1988 massacre with the Police Scotland against him apparently made him change his mind.
Hamid Enayat is an Iranian human rights activist and analyst based in Europe