The Islamic Republic’s ongoing concealment of the mass executions of 1988 and its refusal to tell families about the whereabouts of their loved ones’ remains is an ongoing crime against humanity, a new report by Amnesty international reveals. The organization has called for the United Nations to set up an independent investigation into the crimes and argues that the regime can help repair some of the damage by claiming responsibility now.
Blood-Soaked Secrets, published on December 4, says that because of the “ongoing official campaign to repress the commemorative efforts of survivors, families and human rights defenders, demonize the victims and distort the facts about the extrajudicial execution of political dissidents in the 1980s,” the crime is current and cannot be simply regarded as a chapter in history.
“The torture is ongoing,” says Raha Bahreini, Amnesty International’s Iran researcher.
She says there is a “burning sense for truth and justice” among those who have been robbed of their loved ones — as well as a deep sense of despair. As an Amnesty International short film prepared for the launch of the report shows, there is also a persistent disbelief that a son, daughter, husband or wife could be taken from them so suddenly and with impunity. It’s a feeling that continues to haunt these families today. For them, Bahreini says, those who disappeared are “somewhere between life and death.”
Iranians have now marked 30 years since the massacre, but the fact that no one has been held accountable, and that senior officials linked to the “death panel” of 1988 are still in positions of power and influence mean this is a very live issue. One of the panel members, Ebrahim Raeesi, ran for president in 2017 and is the head of Astan Quds Razavi, one of the largest industrial and financial conglomerates in Iran. Another member, Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, was a cabinet minister in both the Ahmadinejad and Rouhani administrations. In addition, the 2016 release of an audio clip in which Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, who sat on the panel and was once heir apparent to the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, can be heard telling his colleagues that if the executions took place, Khomeini would go down in history as a “bloodthirsty murderer.” According to Montazeri’s memoirs, 3,800 people lost their lives in the executions of summer 1988, but most accounts of the murders put the number at over 5,000. Amnesty International has recorded 4,672 cases.
Many of the murdered were members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK), and Kurdish prisoners and people from other opposition groups were also killed. Most of those who faced execution had already been handed down sentences and were serving them. But that year, Ayatollah Khomeini declared in writing: “All those who, in prisons all over the country, have persisted and continue to persist in their hypocrisy are at war against God and condemned to death.”
The families were never told about what happened to their loved ones. They have been blocked from holding ceremonies at the sites of mass graves that Justice for Iran and other organizations have identified across the country. Amnesty and Justice for Iran are aware of 18 of these mass graves, though there are probably more. “And Iranian leaders do not acknowledge even one,” says Raha Bahreini.
Amnesty International and other human rights organizations and advocates are calling for the regime to acknowledge the crimes and to inform the families where their loved ones are buried. Because the government and the political establishment refuses to do so, or to issue any official statement about the crime, these deaths are classified as enforced disappearances under international law.
But could the office that manages the estate of the late Ayatollah Montazeri, which was responsible for the release of the audio clip in 2016 that helped put the executions back into the limelight, play a further role in helping families and human rights advocates achieve justice? Raha Bahreini says Amnesty and others will continue to ask those with knowledge of what happened in 1988 to come forward with information, and this will include appeals to Montazeri’s office. Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International Secretary General, said he believed that some of those responsible for these crimes will have what they had done etched on their conscious. He appealed to those “with power” — international bodies like the UN, governments around the world, lobby groups, and of course the Iranian regime — to do the right thing. “Ask yourself: if this was your son, your father, your daughter or mother, would you want to die without knowing what happened to them?”