Eyewitness testimony on Iran’s 1988 massacre should spur formal international inquiry


This is the eyewitness testimony of Mahmoud Royaie, who among few survivors of the 1988 massacre in Iran. Here is an opinion editorial from Royaie

Recently, I and 16 survivors of the 1988 massacre in Iran recounted our harrowing experiences. Still, the troubling eyewitness accounts barely scratch the surface of a massacre in which 30,000 dissidents, 90 percent belonged to the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), were murdered.

Perpetrators of the massacre in places like Evin Prison in Tehran emptied out entire cells housing dozens of people, as well as entire halls housing hundreds. But in certain other prisons, political detainees were fully isolated from the general population and then wiped out completely, leaving no one but the prison authorities to describe what had happened.

The regime has gone to great lengths to maintain a veil of silence over the 1988 massacre, threatening the arrest for anyone who would criticize it publicly or host memorials for the victims. The former designated heir to the regime’s supreme leader Khomeini, Hossein Ali Montazeri, was stripped of his position after he objected to the killings.

Montazeri died under indefinite house arrest, but not before leaving behind evidence of the massacre, including an audio recording that was leaked in 2016. In it, Montazeri condemns members of the so-called Death Committee for their role in the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.” He confirms key details of the massacre including the fact that its victims included pregnant women and children as young as 13.

These details had been widely shared by eyewitnesses previously, but the Montazeri recording seriously challenged the regime’s conspiracy of silence. Some perpetrators even saw fit to respond to the leaked tape by publicly defending the legacy of the Death Committees on which they had served, including then-Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi and the man who became the regime’s president this year, Ebrahim Raisi.

Sadly, neither those public statements nor the revelations spurred much new action from Western powers or the United Nations, which has never conducted a formal inquiry into the 1988 massacre. Seven UN human rights experts, however, condemned this inaction in a letter that was published last December. In it, the authors urged Tehran to lift the veil of silence and halt their practice of intimidating the victims’ families, but also emphasized that if the regime took no action, the responsibility to investigate would fall to the international community.

The letter also indicated that such multilateral action would make up for the UN’s dereliction of duty in the months following the massacre, when it passed a resolution condemning the killings, but did not refer the matter to the Security Council or the Human Rights Commission. “The failure of these bodies to act,” the authors said, “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… a strategy of deflection and denial.”

The organized Iranian opposition, particularly the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has ceaselessly attempted to counter that deflection and denial by continually brining attention to the 1988 massacre through eyewitness statements, and reports about the location of secret mass graves, among other revelations. But these efforts can only do so much in the absence of the political will to confront the Iranian regime’s culture of impunity as a whole or the current officials who were directly involved in this crime against humanity.

Raisi’s presidency is the clearest sign to date of the regime’s confidence in its own impunity. If that impunity remains unchallenged by the UN and its leading member states, there is little doubt that Iranian officials will continue to deny the scale of the massacre while carrying out more massacres and abhorrent human rights violations.

The surest way to challenge Tehran’s impunity in this matter is by launching the sort of formal inquiry that the NCRI has been demanding for years now. Other human rights defenders, such as Amnesty International, have joined in that effort while emphasizing that the longer the massacre goes unexamined, the more evidence the regime will manage to sweep under the rug. Already, several of the mass graves have been hidden underneath roadways and large-scale construction projects, even as activists inside Iran have sought to expose them to the world.

Those efforts underscore the fact that there is ample information already available, which could serve as the foundation for a formal international inquiry. Vital details about the theocracy’s crime against humanity will remain hidden until the UN and the international community muster the political courage to confront Tehran. As some international human rights experts have noted, the massacre should be designated as a genocide and crime against humanity, a formal inquiry should be launched, and the perpetrators, particularly Raisi, must be put on trial for their horrendous crimes.


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