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Blood-Soaked Fatwas: How Khomeini Turned Homicide Into Policy in Iran

June 9, 2022
Aida Ghajar
13 min read
Ayatollah Khomeini's proclivity for massacring perceived transgressors over 10 years of rule left an indelible mark on the way the Islamic Republic is governed today
Ayatollah Khomeini's proclivity for massacring perceived transgressors over 10 years of rule left an indelible mark on the way the Islamic Republic is governed today
Every year on June 3, the anniversary of his death, official efforts are made to whitewash Khomeini's crimes by presenting him as a kind and just old man
Every year on June 3, the anniversary of his death, official efforts are made to whitewash Khomeini's crimes by presenting him as a kind and just old man
Sadegh Khalkhali, Khomeini's first chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, sentenced 30 people to death on his first night in the job
Sadegh Khalkhali, Khomeini's first chief justice of the Revolutionary Court, sentenced 30 people to death on his first night in the job
On Khomeini's order, thousands of political prisoners were executed over two months in 1988 and buried in unmarked graves. The ultimate resting place of many of them is still unknown
On Khomeini's order, thousands of political prisoners were executed over two months in 1988 and buried in unmarked graves. The ultimate resting place of many of them is still unknown

Every year on June 3, the anniversary of the 1989 death of Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian state and, by extension, its propaganda apparatus strain to portray the Ayatollah as a kind and just old man who lived a simple, ascetic life. The old myth that people saw the image of his face on the moon before he flew from Paris to Tehran is wheeled out. Tears are shed. All this pageantry has absolutely nothing to do with the man it is meant to commemorate.

This alluring portrayal of Khomeini prevents those whose hearts still beat to the old slogans of the Islamic Republic from criticizing him – or the state – in any way, even though he laid the blueprint for the deeply troubled way Iranian affairs are managed today. In fact, for a decade, Iran was ruled by a man for whom bloodshed was not only easy and a given, but a religious duty.


An Accelerated Platform

Islam is a religion of blood,” Ayatollah Khomeini once said. “Islam grew with blood. The great Prophet of Islam had the Quran in one hand and a sword in the other: the sword to destroy the traitors and the Quran to guide. The Quran was the guide to those who could be guided. The sword was for the heads of traitors who could not be guided. We are not afraid of blood.”

Back in 1963, the Shah had had Khomeini arrested after he delivered a speech against the then-government. The clergy and the seminaries feared he might be executed. At the time,  Khomeini was a clergyman but not a mujtahid, “a source of emulation” or Shia religious authority, which would have afforded him some protection.

So the Ayatollahs decided to secretly write a statement declaring he was a mujtahid in a bid to keep him safe. Among the mujtahids who signed this statement were Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari – whose kindness Khomeini later repaid by placing him under house arrest until he died — and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, his future heir apparent, who fell out of favor in the end for taking a stand against his inhumane policies.


February 15, 1979: Executions on the Rooftop

Following the Islamic Revolution, on returning triumphant to Iran from exile in Paris on February 2, 1979, Khomeini was initially put up at the Refah School: a former elementary school for girls in Tehran. The next day he was moved to Alavi High School so that devotees could more easily visit him.

The Refah School was then appropriated for a darker purpose. On February 11, one floor of the school was turned into an early incarnation of the Revolutionary Court. On February 13,

Khomeini appointed Sadegh Khalkhali as chief justice.

On his very first night as chief justice, Khalkhali tried 30 officials of the Pahlavi regime and sentenced them to death. When Khomeini learned about this, he summoned Khalkhali and after being assured that the verdicts were final, he told Khalkhali to execute them not all at once but gradually. The first executions of Shah-era military leaders duly took place on February 15 on the roof of Refah School.


August 17, 1979: The Killing of Journalists and Writers Begins

“We would have avoided these troubles if, from the very first day after we crushed that corrupt regime, we had acted in a revolutionary way, broken the pens of all the press, shut down all corrupt magazines and publications, put their bosses on trial, outlawed corrupt parties, punished their masters, raised scaffolds in the big squares and decimated all the corrupting and corrupted people.”

So announced Khomeini in a speech after a series of quarrels with the newspaper Ayandegan. In May 1979, in an interview with French daily Le Monde after the assassination of the clergyman Morteza Motahari, head of Council of the Islamic Revolution, Khomeini had said the leftists had no part in the assassination. But after Ayandegan quoted this statement in its headline, Khomeini announced on May 10 that he would no longer read it.

The next issue of the paper was published with just one article and three blank pages. Four days later it stopped publishing altogether. The formal closure was announced on August 7. It was on August 17 that Khomeini delivered his speech about “breaking pens”; over the next three days, at least 23 more publications were shut down on his orders.

Three decades later in 2019, Reporters without Borders (RSF) would unveil a leaked file from the Iranian judiciary that indicates the executions of journalists and writers started in the early years after the Islamic Revolution. Among those listed as victims are:

Simon Farzami, 70, editor of the French-language Le Journal de Téhéran, executed in December 1980 Ali Asgar Amirani, 67, editor-in-chief the weekly Khandaniha, executed in June 1981 Saeed Soltanpour, 41, poet and playwright, executed in July 1981 Rahman Hatefi Monfared, journalist, executed or died under torture in 1983

In total, RSF found that no fewer than 860 journalists and citizen journalists were arrested, prosecuted, imprisoned and in some cases executed in Iran between 1979 and 2009. In the same speech in 1979, Khamenei had asked the forgiveness of Iranian people and even God for not having killed more of them.


August 19, 1979, Kurdistan: Khomeini’s Order and the First Massacre

“’Those with him [Prophet Mohammad] are ruthless against the infidel, merciful among themselves’ [Verse 29, Surah Al-Fath, the Quran]. These subversives are infidels. They are among the infidels in Kurdistan and other places. Government must deal with them harshly, the gendarmerie must deal with them harshly, the army must deal with them harshly... We shall deal with them harshly. We want to carry out God’s order and we shall.”

This speech by Khomeini has become known as his “jihad fatwa”. It marked the start of military operations in Kurdistan and the first state-sponsored massacre of many under the Islamic Republic. On the same day that he delivered this speech, August 19, 1979, 11 people were executed in Paveh, Kermanshah province. On August 27, after a drumhead court martial at Sanandaj airport, Iranian Kurdistan, another 11 political prisoners were killed by firing squad, followed by 20 more the next day, in the city of Saqqez.

Khalil Bahrami, a reporter for the newspaper Ettela’at who, with the photographer Jahangir Razmi, had accompanied Judge Khalkhali on his trip to Sanandaj, wrote: “At the airport, 10 handcuffed men were sitting on a wooden bench, facing Khalkhali. The eleventh man was injured, lying on a stretcher... No evidence was presented and everything was conjecture. After close to 30 minutes, Khalkhali announced that these 11 men were ‘corrupt on earth’”: guilty of ill-specified but capital crimes. For his heartbreaking picture of the execution of these 11 men, Jahangir Razmi won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News.



September 27, 1979: Executions of Sex Workers

After the revolution, a group of “revolutionary committees” were set up within Shahr-e No, Tehran’s red light district, to gather information about sex workers. A number were identified and executed before the neighborhood itself was razed to the ground, and ultimately built over with a park and hospital. One of those killed was Sakineh Ghasemi, better known as “Tall Pari”.

In an interview with Khomeini on September 27, 1979, the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci asked him whether it was right to have shot a “poor prostitute” like her. “If your finger suffers from gangrene, what do you do?” answered Khomeini. “Do you let the whole hand, and then the body, become filled with gangrene, or do you cut the finger off? What brings corruption to an entire country and its people must be pulled up, like the weeds that infest a field of wheat... We have to eliminate corruption.”


June 1981: The National Front Is Declared “Apostate”

In June 1981, after the Iranian parliament approved qisas, or “retribution-in-kind”, as a form of criminal punishment, the National Front, the oldest pro-democracy coalition in Iran, announced that this Sharia measure was “inhumane”. The group called on people in Tehran to join a demonstration against the legislative change on June 15.

A few hours before the scheduled rally, Khomeini went on the radio to declare that the National Front was condemned “as of today”. All opponents of qisas, he said, were apostates. He even threatened the leaders of the Front with the death penalty if they did not “repent”. Those who had gathered for the protests were cowed into silence and left.


September 27, 1981: Montazeri’s Protest Against the Execution of Children

On June 20, 1981, vast anti-government demonstrations were launched in Tehran. They were violently suppressed, and a group of members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MEK) – including children and teenagers – were executed in prison. Their names and pictures were published in Iranian newspapers.

On September 27, Ayatollah Montazeri, who was then still Khomeini’s deputy, wrote a letter to him condemning the executions in general, and the executions of minors in particular. He called it “horrible and painful” that unarmed girls of 13 of 14 who had not even participated in the demonstrations had been executed only because of their “sharp tongues”. He also warned Khomeini that “intolerable” torture was on the increase.

Khomeini never answered the letter. But Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi, chief prosecutor of the Revolutionary Courts at the time, had this to say in response: “First of all, nobody under 16 was among those who were executed. Secondly, these words cannot change our resolve in any way... I hope that hypocrites [the term used by the Islamic Republic to refer to members of the MEK] will soon be uprooted by our resolve against them.”


February 1985: Ordering Judges to Kill

“Why don’t you read the Verse of the Sword [on using violence against the pagans]? You always read the verses on Divine Mercy. The Quran treats those as brothers those who are Muslims and believers and have faith in God. About those who are the opposite, it says kill team, beat them, throw them in jail.”

In 1985, torture and executions were on the rise in the back rooms of the Islamic Republic’s prisons. Opponents and critics of Khomeini’s regime were arrested, brutalized and sent to the gallows. In this speech to judges, the Ayatollah pointed to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the first Shia Imam, as the role model justifying these crimes: “If the Commander of the Faithful [Ali] was nonchalant all the time, he would not have drawn his sword and he would not have killed 700 in one breath. The last people who rose against him were against Islam so he killed them to the last person.”


July 1988: The Massacre Fatwa

At the close of the Iran-Iraq war, the 1988 massacre of political prisoners became the apex of Islamic Republic’s crimes against humanity in that decade. In a fatwa issued through his son, an ageing, ailing and humiliated Khomeini ordered that all MEK members held in Iran’s prisons be eliminated.

Over the course of August and September that year, thousands of members of the MEK and, subsequently, leftists, most of whom had already been sentenced to standard prison terms, were executed in batches after single-question “trials” before Khomeini-appointed “death panels” around the country. In Tehran, one of the death panel members was current president Ebrahim Raisi, hence his nickname: “Ayatollah Massacre”.

The homicidal fatwa was not dated but was probably dictated on July 28, 1988. It took aim at MEK supporters because many of them had escaped to Iraq during the war, and with Saddam Hussein’s support, had recently launched their own, ultimately foiled military incursions in western Iran. Those who were in prison by and large had had nothing to do with the attacks; some had been jailed for as innocuous a “crime” as leafleting. They were shot by firing squad, hanged in groups from cranes, packed into refrigerated trucks and later buried in unmarked mass graves around Iran. Many of their bodies have never been located.



January 29, 1989: Death as Punishment for the Wrong Role Model

One of Khomeini’s last fatwas was issued on January 29, 1989, and defied satire. The day before, a radio broadcast marking Women’s Day in Iran had seen the host ask a group of female guests: “Who is the role model of Iranian women today?”

Most of them answered Fatima Zahra, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad and the wife of Ali, the first Shia Imam. But, to the surprise of all, one answered: “Oshin is the proper role model for Iranian women.”

Oshin was the lead character of a Japanese TV series of the same name, which in those years was periodically shown on Iranian TV. In the series, the old Oshin tells the story of her difficult life from childhood onward.

The next day, in a letter to the then-head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Khomeini ordered TV bosses to expel and punish those involved in making the program. He wrote: “If it is proven that the intention has been to insult, the insulter must be executed.”

Mercifully, four of those involved in making the program were each sentenced to four years in prison and 40 lashes instead.

February 14, 1989: Death to Salman Rushdie

Even in the final months of his life, Khomeini continued to demand the murder of perceived transgressors of all types. His death fatwa against the British author Salman Rushdie became his most infamous globally, outstripping even that of the 1988 prison massacre.

On February 14, 1989, Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to murder Rushdie for supposedly insulting Islam in his book The Satanic Verses: “I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses , a text written, edited, and published against Islam, the Prophet of Islam, and the Quran, along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death,” he said.

“I call on all valiant Muslims wherever they may be in the world to kill them without delay, so that no one will dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth. Whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, God willing. Meanwhile if someone has access to the author of the book but is incapable of carrying out the execution, he should inform the people so that [Rushdie] is punished for his actions.”

Rushdie went into hiding for almost 10 years while several of his book's translators and publishers were killed in reprisal attacks.

Religious Tyranny is Anti-Human

The deep impression, and the trauma, that Khomeini’s 10 years of leadership left on the Islamic Republic for the subsequent three decades are clear. Mohammad Javad Akbarin, an Iranian journalist and scholar of religion who now resides in France, told IranWire there was nothing “revolutionary” about Khomeini’s homicidal tendencies.

Before the revolution, he noted, Khomeini would use selected parts of religious texts that talked about compassion and justice. But after Shah’s regime was toppled he exclusively used those parts which deal with violence, so obsessively that some of the old stories that he recounted were historically inaccurate.

 “It makes no difference which historical period we are in,” Akbarin said. “The moment the powerful establishment and the religious establishment become one and the same, a tyranny is formed that uses everything at its disposal to destroy human identity, dignity, and life.

“After the establishment of the Islamic Republic with a faqih [Islamic jurist], Khomeini, at its head, he used every term in Islamic jurisprudence to purge and execute his opponents: terms such as ‘apostasy’, ‘insulting the sacred’, ‘war against God’ and ‘hypocrite’ [‘Muslims in name only’], all of which serve that purpose.

“Khomeini both put Islamic jurisprudence at the service of his government and destroyed the principles of justice, and even Islam’s own judicial system. Islamic justice says a verdict issued from a position of anger and hatred is invalid. But, in his fatwa for the massacre of summer 1988, he said: ‘I hope you win God’s approval by your revolutionary anger and hate toward the enemies of Islam.’”

Khomeini had never concealed his manner of thinking. But it had been ignored before the revolution. On August 24, 1979, he had announced: “All throughout the ages, Islam has advanced by blood, the sword and weapons. Yes, we are reactionaries. You are intellectuals and you do not want us to go back to 1400 years ago. You are afraid that we will educate young people like [they did] 1400 years ago. Yes, we are reactionaries.”



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