By: Gholam-Hossin Vakilzadeh
During the summer of 1988, more than 30,000 political prisoners were executed in Ayatollah Khomeini’s jails. A “movement for justice” is campaigning for the leaders of the religious dictatorship to face justice.
They are definitely the stars of Iranian politics. Not quite in their forties, they are still young. Neither the current government nor the opposition have managed to distance themselves from the 1980s, which were “crucial” to the Islamic Republic, as the Supreme Leader of the Theocracy, Ali Khamenei, says today. What was so “crucial” about them? Why did they come back with such a punch in Iranian news? Why is the population so attached to them?
In its latest report on Iran, published on 2 August, Amnesty International explains that “human rights defenders seek truth, justice and compensation for thousands of prisoners who were summarily executed or were killed by force during the 1980s and those who have to face new kinds of reprisals on the part of the authorities. This includes relatives of the victims, who have become human rights defenders out of necessity, and young human rights activists who have taken to social media and other platforms to discuss atrocities committed in the past1. The new crackdown has rekindled appeals for an investigation into the killing of several thousand political prisoners in a wave of extrajudicial executions in the country during the summer of 1988.” 2
Let us return to those early years of the Islamic Republic. Barely two years after the fall of the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini who, on his arrival in Paris in 1978, had sworn in an interview given to the newspaper Le Monde 3 to withdraw from power to continue his studies in Qom, is now unrecognizable. On his return to Iran in February 1979, he quickly forgot about his theological studies and a few months later, removed his too liberal Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. He started to rule the country with an iron hand. The first disagreements happened when he imposed in the Constitution the principle of the Velayat Faghih, the absolute power of a religious guide. He had already undergone two bloody repressions by Kurdish and Turkmen minorities. As for women, the agenda can be summarized as “a blow or veil on the head” and removing them from many administrations and key posts. The first legislative and presidential elections in the spring of 1980 were undermined by widespread fraud that left no room for opposition (not one seat in the Assembly). As for foreign policy, it had already resulted in two big booms: the hostage taking at the American embassy in Tehran (from 4 November 1979 to 20 January 1981) and the war against Iraq, which began on 22 September 1980, which the ayatollah considers “a divine gift” and in which he sent thousands of children to the minefields.
Opposition reduced to silence
It was in this context that 1981 began. Most opposition movements were silenced. Only one continued to gather crowds and defy the politics of terror which is already visible: the People’s Mojahedin (PMOI), who already deplore in their ranks some fifty militants murdered by the henchmen of the new power. This will not prevent them from launching a new appeal for a peaceful demonstration in order to claim the freedoms they lost when the monarchy had been overthrown.
On 20 June, 500,000 people marched through the streets of Tehran without resorting to violence. The old ruler panicked and responded by giving the order to open fire. Several dozen protesters were killed, creating ripples across the country. The prisons overflowed with opponents to the regime that were shot in groups of “400 per night,” according to survivors. Adults, young people, old people, women, no one was spared. In the list of assassinated individuals drawn up by the opposition there are even 13-year-old girls! “It was enough to sympathize with the movement” the former head of the secret service, Mullah Ali Fallahian, recently said in an interview4 about the 1980s.
In 1988, the Khomeini war machine was running out of steam. “No one was fighting on the front,” said General Saïd Ghassemi, one of the military commanders at that time. After eight years in which he repeatedly said that he would continue the war against Iraq “to the last stone in the capital,” Khomeini is forced to capitulate. And he is too attached to power not to understand that this withdrawal will cost him dearly. Without a war that justifies everything, from poverty to the assassination of opponents, the ruling theocracy cannot avoid a social explosion. The old hermit then launches a fatwa to get rid of all the regime’s opponents that are in prison, even those who have already been serving a sentence. The logic is simple: dissent can be controlled if there is no opposition to manage protests.
It is with this logic that more than 30,000 political detainees, mostly People’s Mojahedin militants, were massacred during the course of a few weeks in the summer of 1988 and buried in mass graves. According to Hossein Montazeri, who at that time was set to be Khomeini’s successor, among the victims were pregnant women and adolescents5. This is a true genocide that has affected many families in Iran, but none have been allowed to mourn. An obscure silence fell upon the country for many years because of this massacre.
In 2016, the Iranian opposition is freed from its main concern: to free thousands of militants threatened by another massacre at a camp in Iraq called Liberty. After years that cost many human lives, frequent attacks by militias and Iraqi forces under Iranian control, the operation to free them succeeded with the assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and in September 2016 the last political refugees in the camp were transferred unharmed to Albania. Relieved, the PMOI could then take the offensive and launch a movement for justice for the victims of the 1988 genocide.
This movement quickly spread across Iran, mobilizing in particular all the families that had lost loved ones in the massacre. Amnesty International mentions the impact of the “audio recording of a meeting in 1988 during which leaders can be heard discussing and defending the details of their plans to carry out collective executions” in August 20166. The dissemination of the document triggered “an unprecedented chain of reactions on the part of the leaders who had to admit for the first time that mass executions in 1988 were planned in the highest spheres of government”. 7
Many young people who did not know about this page in history but who did not identify with the power in place or its ramifications also joined the movement which quickly took the form of a call for justice.
The 2017 presidential election
Ali Khamenei, the head of the Tehran dictatorship, had long been considering manipulating the 2017 presidential election to ensure that one of his closest collaborators, Mullah Ebrahim Raisi, became president of the Republic. The Supreme Leader’s mistake was to have underestimated the extent of the justice movement that was already spreading across the country.
Ebrahim Raisi was one of the main protagonists of the 1988 massacre, a member of Tehran’s “death commission” formed by Khomeini to ensure the “smooth” running of events in the prisons regarding the fatwa that ordered the executions. His candidacy resulted in a real public outcry, the main slogan on the walls and on social media being “neither executioner nor charlatan” (the executioner: Raisi, the charlatan: Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president [ Re-elected on 19 May 2017]).
Khamenei’s second big mistake was to not understand that the slogan meant a third protagonist would join the game – the people with the opposition, a protagonist that could undermine the rest. It is because he did not grasp this change in times that Khamenei was not able to influence Hassan Rouhani’s removal from power, urging him to play his last card … that of the massacres of 1988.
“The Iranian people do not want those who, during the last thirty-eight years [since the revolution in 1979], only knew how to hang and throw people in prison,” Rouhani said on 7 May at an electoral meeting in Orumiyeh (north-western city), in a hidden allusion to the massacres of political prisoners. Ironically, Rouhani’s sinister Minister of Justice during his first term was Mostafa Pourmohammadi who was also involved in these mass executions. Pourmohammadi has even congratulated himself on having “executed the order of God” in 1988 to preserve the regime.
Moreover, the Supreme Leader’s clan did not fail to remind Rouhani that he himself had occupied key positions in the fields of security during the last thirty-seven years and that he is therefore not innocent either. Rouhani, however, wanted to remind the Supreme Leader of the dangers he was taking by dismissing him, until a post-election insurrection was triggered, as in the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election in 2009.
As for the popular movement, it continued to gain momentum during the campaign and the slogans against Raisi multiplied: “the 1988 killer” was beginning to become viral in the capital and in major cities.
Justify the massacres
It was therefore very late on that the leader of the theocracy perceived that he had underestimated this movement for justice. He then tried to turn the tide in his speech marking the anniversary of Khomeini’s death on 4 June. “The 1980s were crucial years in the history of the Islamic Republic. Our policy is being questioned by some loudspeakers,” said Khamenei, who justified the massacres by claiming that his regime would have been overthrown if Khomeini had not acted in this way, that is to say as cruelly as he did.
Since then, demonizing the opposition to justify the repression of the 1980s has become official propaganda business. This goes from a whole filmography that tries to justify the 1988 massacre to the positions taken and interventions by a group of dignitaries and imams during the Friday prayers throughout the country. Ahmed Khatami, a member of the Council of Experts [the deciding body of the Islamic Republic] and a very close collaborator of Khamenei, said during prayers on July 21st that “we must decorate all those who killed the PMOI members on the orders of Imam Khomeini”.
But the regime cannot detach itself from the shadow of the victims. In the composition of his new government, Rouhani dismissed Pourmohammadi to replace him with … Alireza Ava’i, another member of the “death commission” involved in the 1988 massacre in the Khuzestan province!
In this context, calls to the UN by the families of victims to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for these killings are growing in Iran as well as abroad. A series of exhibitions to mark the anniversary of the massacre was organized in Paris this summer (16 and 17 August at the Mairie of the 1st arrondissement and on 30 and 31 August at the Mairie du IIe) in the presence of the survivors and members of the families of those who died.
In the meantime, on the walls of Tehran and other major Iranian cities, calls for justice for the victims of the 1980s are abound. Cries that seem to catch up with the mullahs who thought they had succeeded in forgetting their crimes!
A Swiss citizen of Iranian origin living in Neuchâtel, Gholam-Hossin Vakilzadeh was born in the city of Shiraz. AN activist against the abuses of the Iranian regime, he is a member of the Association of Iranian experts in Switzerland and president of the Association of the families of the inhabitants of Ashraf, these Iranian opponents mortally attacked several times in Iraq and who succeeded in fleeing to Albania.