The 1988 Iran massacre: crimes against humanity

September 1st is recognized by Amnesty International as the 'International Day in Remembrance of the Massacre of Political Prisoners' in light of the massacre of political prisoners in Iran in 1988. In the span of several months, thousands of political prisoners in what is now known as 'The 1988 Iran massacre' were brutally murdered.

Iranians, including former political prisoners like me, along with many international law experts, believe that this heinous atrocity, one of the most under—reported political mass killings of our times, qualifies the current Iranian leadership as perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

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The roots of the 1988 Massacre go back to the early years of the mullahs' rule when the newly established theocracy began to crackdown on the democratic opposition forces. Soon after the 1979 revolution, the paramilitary forces and state—sponsored fanatic vigilantes regularly attacked political rallies and the offices and publishing houses of opposition groups. Many newspapers were shut down, and Friday prayer sermons became a place to spew out venomous invective against any voice calling for the fulfillment of the promises of democracy and freedom, branding the opposition groups as "hypocrites," "anti—Islam," and "pro—American."

By the early 1981, there was nothing left of the republicanism of the "Islamic Republic." The theocracy was in full swing, and Iran was suffocating under the weight of another dictatorship, this time under the cloak of religion.

On June 20 1981, in a major public display of peaceful dissent, nationwide demonstrations organized by the vast network of Iran's main opposition group, the Mujahedeen—e Khlaq organization (MEK), brought several million people to streets of Iran's main cities. In Tehran alone, half a million people converged in the capital's main thoroughfares, chanting slogans against the regime and demanding political freedoms.

Under direct orders of the criminal Ayatollah Khomeini, the regime's forces moved to crush the march. In addition to machine guns, knives, clubs, cutters, and acid were the weapons of choice for the attackers. Women were particularly brutalized. Many had their faces slashed or burnt by acid. In many intersections, security forces used tear gas and even opened fire on peaceful demonstrators.

I was among the protestors in a provincial capital south of Tehran. Right in front of my eyes one of the mullahs' agents stabbed a female protestor in the chest. Another female protester's face was repeatedly slashed with a cutter. A few yards away, several agents were beating two teenage girls two death. I came very close to losing one eye when I was hit by a rock. On that day, hundreds of men and women were killed and wounded on the scene.

The next day, the summary trials began. Firing squads were formed and gallows were erected. Khomeini had realized that without an all—out suppression of political dissent, the next nationwide demonstration could possibly bring his regime down.

I was arrested in 1982 at the age of 14, on the charge of distributing opposition newspapers and speaking in public against the dictatorship. During my years in prison, I witnessed the execution and torture of hundreds of prisoners, majority of them Muslims and supporters and members of Iran's main opposition group, the Mujahedeen—e Khalq (MEK). Many were my schoolmates and childhood friends.

The growing arrival of new prisoners had forced us to take turns sleeping and sitting. But that was the least of our sufferings. More than the pain of daily lashings and beating we had to endure, the defiant cries of other prisoners under torture tormented us. The stench of infection caused by deep torture wounds was everywhere. Seeing friends saying farewell before their execution and shouting 'Down with Khomeini, long live freedom,' with fists raised as they walked to the gallows, had become a part of our daily routine.

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Still, the executions and torture were not the only reality of our lives there. Resistance against the clerical regime continued even in the torture chambers. Despite the ever—present watchful eyes of the guards, prisoners sent accounts of the tortures they endured out to the opposition groups. They formed resistance cells in the prison to help other prisoners, particularly the newcomers, to resist the prison conditions and torture sessions, and help out those in dire need of medical attention.

Meanwhile, many former political prisoners, with extensive torture marks on their bodies, had made their way out of prison — and eventually Iran — with the help of resistance groups. Worldwide press conferences were held by international human rights organizations and Iranian opposition groups, in which these torture victims told the world about their experience.

The international community gradually began to realize the extent of horror behind mullahs' torture chambers. As a result of these revelations, and pressured by the families of political prisoners, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights began to push Iran to allow its representatives visit the prisons.

Obviously, the mullahs had a major problem on their hand: their prisons were filled with tens of thousands of unrepentant political prisoners whom the regime had no intention of releasing. They were a living testament to the clerics' barbarism and inhumanity.  Allowing free access of the UN to these dungeons and these prisoners was also out of the question.

The murderous patriarch Khomeini came up with a solution: Massacre them all. 

On July 16th 1988, Khomeini had reluctantly accepted a ceasefire in the war with Iraq, describing it as 'drinking the challis of poison.' Without the pretext of war to hide behind, and with his health declining fast, Khomeini became more determined to crush the resistance and eliminate every defiant political prisoner.

In a shocking fatwa in summer of 1988, Khomeini ordered the following:

"Those who are in prisons throughout the country and remain committed to their support for the [Mujahedeen], are waging war on God and are condemned to execution.... Destroy the enemies of Islam immediately. As regards the cases, use whichever criterion that speeds up the implementation of the [execution] verdict."

A special body, known to political prisoners as the 'Death Commission,' carried out the fatwa. During kangaroo hearings, prisoners were asked about their ideological and political allegiances. If there were even a slight hint of sympathy with the opposition, particularly the MEK, the prisoner was sent for execution.

The state—run daily Iran News on April 9, 2000, referring to the massacre, wrote that "Officials were astonished to see that these prisoners were still insisting on fighting the state and supporting the Mujahedeen."

According to testimony of Kamal Afkhami Ardekani, a former prison official in the notorious Evin prison, for most of July and August of 1988, prisoners, including juveniles, were loaded on three forklift trucks and lifted to six cranes and hanged from the cranes in groups of five or six at a time in half—hourly intervals from 7:30 am to 5 pm every day uninterrupted.

Within several months, tens of thousands of political prisoners, some having completed their prison terms, were executed. A close friend of mine, Sussan Khoshboee, was among the victims. She was in her teens at the time of her arrest on the charge of handing out MEK leaflets. She was executed along with her sister Sahar.

The scale of massacre was so horrifying that Khomeini's designated successor, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, complained to his mentor in a July 1988 letter:

"... Executions of individuals who have already been sentenced by courts to a lesser sentence, without any precedent and without any new activities [by them], disregard all judicial standards and verdicts... As you presumably will insist on your decree, at least order that women not be executed, especially pregnant women. Ultimately, the execution of several thousand people in several days will not have positive repercussions and is not without mistakes."

The exact number of the victims is not known, given the swiftness and secrecy with which the inhuman fatwa was carried out.  Estimates range from several thousand to 30,000. Montazeri's reference to the execution of 'several thousand people in several days' confirms the higher estimates.

Dr. Donna M. Hughes, an authority on women's human rights and Islamic Fundamentalism, recently told a FrontPage Magazine Symposium on Iran that,

'If one can measure the strength of fundamentalists by the depth to which they suppress women, then maybe one can also measure the strength of a resistance movement by how much the fundamentalists' hate it.'

This is so true in understanding the mullahs' atrocities toward the MEK.

Although the clerical regime treated all defiant prisoners with brutality, the exceptional hatred of the tyrant mullahs for the MEK was on full display in our prison cells. In the eyes of the mullahs, we were told in the prison, the Mujahedeen were the ideological and political antithesis of their theocratic rule.  Thus, these dissidents were condemned for 'waging war on God' and subjected to the mullahs' unimaginable savagery

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By any measure, the massacre of 1988 constitutes a crime against humanity. Many officials presently holding senior posts in the government of Iran were actively involved in conducting this hideous crime, and they must be brought to justice.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then the mullahs' president and currently the supreme leader, tops the list.  Khamenei was present in the meeting of regime's most—trusted top officials where Khomeini ordered the massacre. As the highest ranking executive authority in 1988, Khamenei authorized unlimited governmental resources to be used in implementing Khomeini's edict.

Late 1988, in a radio interview, he defended the massacre and said:

'Do you think we should give sweets to a prisoner who has connections with the activities of the Mujahedeen? If his connection with that group is revealed, what should we do to him? He is condemned to execution and we will execute him.'

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Speaker of Parliament, and Acting Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, also is on the list. He was present in the infamous meeting with Khomeini. As Acting Commander in Chief and the regime's de facto Number Two after Khomeini, Rafsanjani oversaw the enforcement of Khomeini's edict and reported to him on the progress of the massacre.

Several years earlier he had said:

'God's law prescribes four punishments for them (the Mujahedeen). 1— Kill them. 2—Hang them, 3— Cut off their hands and feet 4—Banish them. If we had killed two hundred of them right after the Revolution, their numbers would not have grown this big. I repeat that according to the Quran, we are determined to destroy all [Mujahedeen] who display enmity against Islam.'

The mullahs' current president Mohammed Khatami also participated in the meeting during  which Khomeini discussed his decision for the massacre. As state—run daily Ressalat has reported:

'This edict was issued and enforced when Mr. Khatami was Director of Cultural Affairs at the Armed Forces General Command and he resolutely defended His Holiness the Imam's decision.'

Another state—run daily Gozaresh, dated April 9, 2000, reported:

'The Arya daily was closed down on the explicit, personal order of President Khatami... after it carried a story about the massacre of political prisoners in 1988.'

About a dozen former officials, many of them still holding official positions, must be added to this list. They include individuals such as Ali Younessi, first deputy to the Judicial Organization of the Armed Forces, and religious judge in 1988, who has been Minister of Intelligence in Khatamis' cabinet since 1999. Then there is  Seyyed Hossein Mortazavi, Governor of Evin Prison in 1988, who sat on the 'death committee' during its sessions in that prison.

Mortazavi is currently the infamous Tehran Prosecutor, implicated in the murder under torture of Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi. The list should also include Morteza Eshraghi, Tehran Prosecutor and chair of the death committee in Tehran. Also,  Jaafar Nayyeri, presiding Judge of Revolutionary Tribunal in Tehran and Chairman of the central 'death committee' in Tehran. Another implicated party is  Mostafa Pourmohammadi, then Deputy Minister of Intelligence and member of the 'death committee' in Tehran. And the list also must include Mohammad Moussavi Khoeiniha, the Chief Revolutionary Prosecutor in 1988 and the leader of the 'Students Following the Line of the Imam' who held American diplomats in Tehran hostage in 1979.

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With the 1988 massacre, the mullahs sought to extinguish the flames of resistance against their tyranny. They have not succeeded, but their reign of terror continues. At home, the mullahs murder, torture, rape and maim to silence dissent. Abroad, they offer lucrative deals to their trade partners, or threaten them with terrorism, to coerce them into blacklisting opposition groups.

We should not be an unwitting accomplice to Tehran's efforts. Conversely, we must lift all diplomatic or political restrictions from the anti—fundamentalist opposition groups to enable them to fight the mullahs on equal footing.

According to human rights organizations, MEK members comprised the vast majority of those massacred in 1988. The State Department has also acknowledged that the MEK members and sympathizers have been the main victims of Iran's brutality. Yet, in a goodwill gesture to the mullahs in 1997, The same U.S. State Department blacklisted the MEK.

For 16 months after the war in Iraq, the United States and law enforcement agencies interviewed the MEK members at their main Camp, Ashraf, in Iraq. Senior U.S. administration officials told the New York Times in July,

'The United States has found no basis to charge members of an Iranian opposition group in Iraq [the MEK] with violations of American law.'

The State Department also confirmed that the dissident group was not a belligerent during the Iraq war.

In light of these findings, the pressing realities in the post—war Iraq and the mullahs' rogue behavior, in recent weeks many former senior American officials and policy experts have called on our Administration to take a second look at this designation of MEK, and remove this anti—fundamentalist group from the terror list. Their call must be heeded since it is in the recognition of the same spirit of resistance for which tens of thousands of Iranians gave their lives in the summer of 1988.

Roya Johnson is the Vice president of the US Alliance for Democratic Iran, and a former political prisoner in Iran.