Opening of the Case by Professor John Cooper QC
Prosecutor of the Iran Tribunal
The Peace Palace, The Hague, 25 October 2012
Mr President, distinguished members of the Tribunal.
In the dark summer of 1988, prisoners in Gohardasht communicated with each other in Morse code. By tapping on the cold walls of their cells, they spread the news of the arrival of the mysterious "Death Commission", whose mission it was to investigate the piety of jailed political prisoners. The tapping continued: an unprecedented spate of executions were unleashed. Today, the men and women whose only means of communication some twenty-four years ago was the sound their fingers could make on concrete, today and previously in June, can speak to this court without fear. Their determination to expose the barbarities of their unrelenting oppressors has not waned; in fact, it has over the years become stronger. Now, they may speak loudly and with confidence, as the Iranian people listen and await historic justice with bated breath.
In June, a Truth Commission was held in London and we are grateful for, amongst others, the assistance and support of Amnesty London, in providing the venue. It heard evidence from 75 brave witnesses, some of them presented oral testimony, others presented written evidence, all of it compiled in the Commission’s Report, which I will respectfully and hopefully briefly refer this court to in a moment. Each and every one who gave evidence at the Commission were victims, victims of the Iranian regime, say this prosecution. They pieced together a harrowing tale of unimaginable torture, abuse and executions. The Commission was humbled by their courage and we express, on their behalf, the deepest gratitude to all those who have supported the pursuit - and still support the pursuit - of international justice.
The Commission received international support from people from all over the world, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who sent the Commission at the start of these proceedings a warm and supportive message. Honourable Judges, I commend the Truth Commission's extraordinary diligence in the composition of its Report, and commend this historic document to you. It is the tip of an iceberg of evidence of the Crimes Against Humanity that the Islamic Republic of Iran inflicted on its people in the 1980s. The Prosecution here today expresses its full faith in the integrity and accuracy of the Truth Commission's work. During the course of this opening to you, I will be referring to the Truth Commission document, which I hope the court and each individual Judge has before it. It is important to begin, perhaps, with reference to the procedure at that Commission, so that this Tribunal can with satisfaction be comfortable with the findings that were made.
Can I take the Court immediately, please, to this document and to page 9, please, of the document, paragraph 25. I am not going to, on the paragraphs I refer to during this opening, read every single paragraph I refer to verbatim, the Tribunal is more than capable in due course at a later stage, to absorb and peruse the document, which I know they have already read and considered, but to assist this court paragraph 25 is of assistance when the Court considers the procedure adopted by the Commission. It is important to emphasise that that Commission developed its own procedure. The Steering Committee established the framework for bringing people together. It was the Commission’s sole responsibility - as indeed it is this Tribunal’s sole responsibility - for establishing that procedure. There the Court will see that each witness submitted a written statement which was distributed to the members of the Commission in advance. The statements were originally written in Persian and translated for the benefit of the Commission. Accuracy of that evidence was vital. Indeed, accuracy and comfort of witnesses giving evidence are vital and we have ensured not only at that Commission, but the proceedings before you over the next few days, that the primary objective for us and witnesses that we are presenting to you is the comfort of the witnesses and the easiest possible way for them to deliver their evidence to you accurately and as best evidence.
The prosecution invite this Tribunal to accept in due course the report of the Commission and to ratify it as its own fact-finding inquiry. You will find that this report sets out in chilling detail, we submit, how the Islamic Republic of Iran systematically terrorised its people as it sought to consolidate the Islamic Revolution; how it abducted dissidents in the dead of the night; how it subjected them to kangaroo courts; how it viciously tortured them; and then how it murdered them in cold blood and dumped them in mass and often shallow graves.
Every fact stated in the main body of the Report that we commend to you is supported by a comprehensive set of references in Part E of that Report, which points those who read it directly to the relevant witness statements, some of which I will précis, I reassure the Court, by no means the totality, but some of which I will précis appears in Exhibit 3 of this Report.
In February 1979, in the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran, there was a crumbling in the face of the revolution. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was swept into power. In November, a referendum approved the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran: the new theocratic state vested the Supreme Leader, and the Supreme Leader alone, with the power to interpret the will of God.
The new regime wasted no time, we submit, in liquidating the old regime. Within a year of the adoption of the new constitution, a decade-long war with Iraq was underway. It took less than a year from that point on for the Islamic regime to turn its guns on the very political groups alongside which it had fought in the revolution. Many witnesses mentioned the infamous demonstrations of 20th June 1981 as a watershed moment, when there began the systemic elimination of all political dissent.
The Report, as this esteemed Tribunal knows and will further realise in the days ahead, makes for discomforting reading, to say the least. Chapter I of that Report, which I will refer the Court to now, begins at page 13 of the document. The Court will see that it identifies three distinct manners in which political dissidents were arbitrarily arrested and bundled away to prisons. In the first instance, dissidents forcibly disappeared; when their families attempted to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones, they were refused information, thrown red herrings, if you will, or directed to dead ends. In the second instance, dissidents were arrested after their houses were besieged by overwhelming man and firepower in the dead of night, and this Court will read within the Commission’s documents harrowing and direct evidence from people who underwent that terrifying ordeal, their contents ransacked and their inhabitants brutally attacked. In the third instance, they were arrested after being set-up by former associates, who were, themselves, acting under duress, from inside prison. This, we submit, is a continuing trend as far as the activities of those oppressors were concerned. For as time went on prisoners would be turned upon prisoners, to the extent even of killing each other. The duress and torture was not straightforward.
There is zero evidence of any due process in the arrests we refer to: there were no warrants, no explanations and no identifying documents. Some people were blindfolded and abducted after they were asked to accompany the Revolutionary Guards to the station for questions.
Suspects were detained - says the evidence before you in this document to be developed further in the next few days - the suspects were detained for long periods - the longest in the evidence we present to this Court being eighteen months - without trial, in prisons, detention centres or overflow facilities throughout Iran and in, as you will hear and read, appalling conditions. They were then interrogated blindfolded and subjected to the most, we submit, senseless torture, most commonly to force them to confess or to divulge information. Without exception, suspects were subjected to graphic torture. Can I take the Court to page 146 of the Commission document? There the Court will see the evidence of Saleh Sharafi. This witness’s occupation at the time of arrest was high-school teacher; the date of arrest was 1981.
The Court will see at page 146 what we submit is a graphic and helpful list of just some of the instances of torture that witnesses either endured or witnessed directly, whilst being held in the establishments they speak of. They are listed in 1 to 18 in the document. I will not read them all, but some give a flavour of either direct graphic and violent torture or more insidious methods, all designed to reduce the will of the individual, who is subjected to them: being held in cells with high humidity and moisture conditions; being severely hit by electrical cable; either being held in a cell in total darkness or in very strong lights. At 5, this Court will see prisoners being tied to gallows for a long duration of time during the cold winter or hot summer months; being forced to listen, at number 8, or see whilst other prisoners were being tortured or being kept in the torture room or rooms adjacent to it. At 10, a regular, so we submit, form of torture operated at this time - Ghapani style torture - the method of handcuffing where one hand over the shoulder to the back is handcuffed with the other hand. The body is hanged from some height and the pressure usually, says the witness in this piece of evidence, breaks the shoulder. There are other items of torture there that this court, I know, will read, including deprivation of hygiene, medicine and other basic requirements. Ghapani, of course, is just one example of a medieval torture method, we submit, which is used. There are, we sadly have to submit to this Court, others.
Psychological torture during this time was also every bit as agonising. Solitary confinement and intimidation barely scratched the surface of a description within the evidence of this category of torture. Shockingly, and memorably, evidence was presented to the Commission of mock executions and we can only imagine how it must have felt to those who thought, on numerous occasions, according to the evidence we have, that they were about to be executed right to the final moment of the trigger being pulled. One can only guess as to the effect that that would have on any human being. Adding to that, experiences attested to of people being forced to watch fellow inmates being tortured or, perhaps, most appalling, we submit, tortured in the presence of their own crying children. One would be hard pressed to find a single moment in those prisons, we suggest, that could be defined as anything other than cruel, inhuman and degrading. Prisoners were packed like animals to the slaughter into cells so overcrowded that they had to sleep in shifts. Sanitary conditions were, suffice it to say, non-existent, medical assistance and food were deliberately denied. Prison officials - and I emphasise again all this is based on the evidence we present to you - prison officials used forced labour, inmates were pressured to participate in televised confessions or recantations. To erode the morale of the prison population this was a regular device and there was no escape from indoctrination classes, which with a savage irony, we submit, preached the treatises of the Supreme Leader.
The witnesses at the Truth Commission were asked about their trials. One laughed: "When you say 'trial', I think you have something European in mind." We submit that it goes further as far as torture is concerned. When you say "torture" I think that you have something European in mind. For those of us who, perhaps, are more used to looking at violations of Article 3, as far as the European Convention on Human Rights is concerned, and seeing torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, often argued and defined as a slap or a punch, appalling though that is, this Court will be stepping into a whole new world of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment which even the forefathers who drafted Article 3, surely, would never have had in mind.
Let me take you, perhaps, to just a few examples of witnesses within the Truth Commission document on this matter. Page 115, please. This is the evidence of Saleh Bakhtiar, who was 27 at the time of his arrest, and perhaps a common theme in occupation, another teacher. Can I ask the Court - and obviously I commend every word of these witnesses to you - to look at page 115, the paragraph just under halfway down which begins with "During the ‘trial’". "During the ‘trial’" - which is put in inverted commas by this witness - "the judge had his underage son sit on his lap. Apparently this boy had been to many such sessions because on a number of occasions he would interrupt his father and say, ‘Dear dad, execute him too’, to which his father responded, ‘All right, dear; we’ll execute him as well’. When I was taken out of the room, my interrogator/torturer told me", says this witness, "that he would be the one who would fire the final shot at my execution".
Hearings lasted sometimes no longer than two minutes. Victims would be herded into court in packs, with whole hearings dealing with numerous people - because that, of course, is what they are and were - being dealt with in a totality of eight or so minutes. There are and is a wealth of information and it is conveniently summarised beginning at page 26 of the Commission’s Report - I will not refer to it, but it is there for the Court to peruse in due course - which deals with trial.
not in a single case did any individual accused have access to legal representation. The defendants could not talk, they were limited to answering two or three questions from a judge, who inevitably and invariably convicted them. The whole process took minutes.
Chapter II of the Commission’s Report explains executions. I have one reference to make here. Please look at page 359 of the Report. At the bottom of page 359, the Court will see this: "The executions in Evin Prison took place being Ward 4 twice a week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. The prisoners were lined up in a group and executed. Prisoners in Ward 4 could hear gunshots and by the number of gunshots they could say how many prisoners were executed. Up to 400 prisoners were executed weekly during my imprisonment". This is the evidence of a witness who gave evidence at position 62 in the Commission, whose name has been redacted. "Up to 400 prisoners were executed weekly during my imprisonment ... from November 1981 to February 1982".
Chapter II explains these executions which dotted the map of Iran with blood. The Commission was presented with hundreds upon hundreds of names; before 1988, some prisoners were hanged or killed under torture, but the overwhelming majority of executions were, as witnessed by witness 62, conducted by firing squads.
I move swiftly on to Chapter III of the Commission’s Report, which provides a detailed and thorough account of what particular abuses were committed in each of the tens of prisons and detention centres, for it was not simply one centre. The sheer scale, we submit, of the operation, for want of a better expression, cannot be understated: the Commission heard evidence of 32 separate prisons, half of which received only one mention from among 75 witnesses.
Again, moving without any disrespect to that category of evidence, to Chapter IV in the Truth Commission’s Report, which outlines the experiences of a specific group of people imprisoned in the jails of Iran during this time. Women were treated, we submit upon the evidence, with particular disgust and cruelty. Children were imprisoned with their parents and held in the exact same squalid conditions as the adults, left in the charge of their bloodied and brutalised parents. Page 211, please, of the Commission’s document. Can I refer this Court to the second entry, "In Sanandaj, the witness was flogged as her interrogator held her baby girl, who was crying, ‘No, mum! No, mum!’ She fell unconscious and woke up in a pool of her own blood in which her little girl was sitting; the girl tried to hide the blood from the guards. Nobody took the witness to the doctor, although she was bleeding heavily; eventually she was transferred". That is the witness Azar Alekanan. It is but one example of what we refer this court to.
Can I take the court over the page to page 213, the last entry, "’So many’ women were raped. When the witness was first imprisoned, she met Foziyeh, who had sores all over her body, was mentally disturbed and refused to shower because she feared that the judge would look at her naked." She describes that she had been raped and then she was taken by her main interrogator to a mental asylum. The reading, as we have indicated before, beggars belief.
It is, we submit, heart wrenching to hear how children, on the evidence, constructed their games around their experiences in the prison: one mother made her daughter a doll, only to find the girl playing 'torturer' with the doll and beating it viciously. Minors were arrested and executed as political prisoners in their own right: the youngest, on the evidence, was 11 years of age.
Chapter V of the Commission Report describes the ordeal of the families of the political prisoners, for it is evidence that we will submit to this Court that it is not only the victims, it is the bereaved and those close to the survivors. It tells, in Chapter V, of how they were viciously assaulted; how their visitation rights were curtailed; and how they were notified of their loved ones' deaths with astonishing insensitivity; sometimes the first confirmation they had that their relatives were in prison at all was that they were dead; how countless families were made to pay for the bullets used to kill their relatives, in order for those bodies to be released. Page 170, please, just over half way down the document, "After that, my father went to collect his corpse; where the families were asked for money in order to release their corpses, the money was for the bullets that riddled their bodies. The charge was based on the number of bullet holes in their corpses. I cannot exactly remember how much my father paid for my brother’s bullet holes". That is witness 17, name redacted.
Families were denied the opportunity to give the deceased dignified burials, and how their mourning ceremonies were violently disrupted. And this does not even go anywhere near touching upon the evidence of graves then dug up at a later stage, which this prosecution will say was to hide the evidence. I am aware from listening to the learned interventions of this Court during the course of the last submissions as to the Court’s interest, quite properly, in individual responsibility and I am not going to repeat the able submissions made by Professor Akhavan on that point, save to say, of course, they are based upon the approach taken at a very early stage by the Steering Committee as to how we suggest the prosecution process continues.
It can perhaps be best summed up by reference in the Commission Report on this point and to consolidate the submissions made before me by referring to the Commission’s document at page 64. In that document it is the conclusion of the Report signed in part by Maurice Copithorne, who will be giving evidence very soon in these proceedings, that it was the view, as this Court will see, in the attribution of the facts section - and I paraphrase - that the atrocities, as the prosecution submit, were devised, instigated, executed or caused to be executed by a single central authority - by a single central authority. Not only, say the prosecution, were those actions overt, but in the State failing to investigate clear evidence upon which blame may possibly be attributed to individual perpetrators, that in itself enhances, we submit, the culpability of the State. So we urge this Tribunal to consider to that extent the evidence against individual perpetrators as appears in the Commission’s Report in attributing what this Tribunal feels appropriate - comment, observation or judgment - as to what the State should have done, given what we submit is the wealth of evidence against certain individuals made within the Report.
Chapter VI, indeed, is the chapter dealing with individual perpetrators - judges, prison officials, prosecutors and torturers, amongst them - identified, so we submit on the evidence, of - shall we put it as neutrally as possible? - having a case to answer.
There was a dramatic turn of events in 1988, when the guns fell silent on the Iraqi front. After eight years of war, the Islamic Republic accepted the cease fire imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 598. And the fatwa referred to in Appendix A of the document, which I will not take the Court to verbatim, it is there for the Court to see, was issued, in which a call was made for the elimination of political prisoners with "revolutionary rage and rancour". Ayatollah Khomeini then established panels, dubbed the "Death Commissions", to issue the execution orders: the prisoners were at war with God, it was suggested, and were to be eliminated. Part of the terms of the fatwa, which I say I do not cite in detail, is as follows: "I hope that you satisfy the almighty God with your revolutionary rage and rancour against the enemies of Islam" and officials were instructed to "show no doubt or concern with details" and to act "ferociously". And so they did. Prisons went into lock down and all communication with the outside world was suspended and the atrocities began again. Prisoners were hauled in front of the Death Commissions: they were grilled, interrogated and pressed and tortured about their faith, and then dispatched. Over 5,000 people in that early period were hanged in the space of a few months. There are, of course, enduring legacies of this abuse which live today; some of which the Court will hear of. Survivors bear physical scars, and even deeper psychological ones. They have outlived (it has to be said) countless inmates who long ago succumbed to their horrific injuries, physical or psychological ones. Those traumas drove some, and a significant number, to suicide. The nightmares that they speak of and have spoken of (and will speak of) haunt them during the day and they haunt them during the night and will do for the rest of their lives. One witness was five when her mother was executed; she still has recurring nightmares in which her house is under attack, and she begs the Revolutionary Guards to spare her mother, whom she loves and needs. These are just as much, we submit, harms, torture and damage caused as the physical and bleeding wounds that will be brought to the Court’s attention.
This is why the prosecution now moves to this phase: to assert and prove as best we can responsibility for these grave, widespread and systemic violations of human rights that lie within the highest echelons of the Republic, upon, we submit, whose express orders they were carried out. To this end the prosecution will present the Tribunal with a series of expert witnesses, not just eye witnesses and survivors, who will testify on the nature of the involvement, so we submit, of the Iranian State. In order to refresh the minds of judges and interested parties around the world, this Tribunal will hear from ten witnesses who were imprisoned and tortured during the 1980s. I know that the Court have their statements before them and they will find them of assistance when these witnesses are called. Their stories bear the same depressing watermark of the 75 testimonies within the Report, but each makes a uniquely disturbing revelation, which we submit will assist this Tribunal in understanding the grave human impact of this dark and terrifying episode. The prosecution are indebted to witnesses - not all I name now through no disrespect to those I do not name, their time over the next few days will come - but I thank for instance the witness, Mohammad Reza Ashough, who the Court will see and hear, beginning at page 31 of the bundle of witnesses before this Tribunal. I am not going to pre-empt it. And there are others. We thank them for their courage in addressing this Tribunal.
The Tribunal will also hear from four witnesses with similar stories, but who have since established reputations for themselves on the very human rights violations to which they were subjected, prolific writers on the subject, those who have presented papers, learned academic tracks and other important documents since the abuse that was inflicted upon them.
The prosecution will also refer to witnesses whose family members were executed in the prisons of Iran and who have since conducted extensive research into this period. The depth of their knowledge, for instance that of Nima Sarvestani, a well-known Swedish Iranian filmmaker, who has produced a documentary about the mass executions; we shall be screening a scene from this film, in which Mr Sarvestani interviews a gravedigger who received a delivery of sixty bullet-ridden bodies in Shiraz. We will refer this court to an anthropologist and research scholar at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. She is currently investigating post-revolutionary violence in Iran and we submit that her insight will be invaluable to this Tribunal.
The prosecution will also call on Dr Hedayat Matine-Daftary, a member of the Steering Committee, but much more than that. He was a vice president of the Iranian Bar Association during the Revolution and was one of the founders of the National Democratic Front. His evidence will, we submit, produce invaluable assistance to this Court to demonstrate how the Islamic Regime dismantled the existing legal system and replaced it with inexperienced judges and how the very profession of the law was attacked and undermined, how there were detained members of the Iranian Bar Council who were replaced. This witness himself managed to escape, although a death warrant has since been issued against him.
These witnesses' testimonies will establish how human rights, we submit, were violated in Iran on an industrial scale, mercilessly, ruthlessly and systemically.
Finally, the prosecution will call on two members of the Tribunal's Truth Commission, both of whom are world-leading authorities on the human rights situation, we submit, in Iran: Professor Maurice Copithorne QC, a visiting professor of law at the University of British Columbia, who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran from 1995 to 2002, and Anne Burley, Amnesty International's Researcher on Iran during those years of 1972 to 1984. Conscious as we are that in a hearing like this one can only take a snapshot of the atrocities that the prosecution assert before this Tribunal or conscious that we are that there are many that will listen to the evidence being presented and ask why is their evidence not being presented, to that justifiable and heart-bending observation, we can only say that the choices were made not on the severity of what all these people went through, not on the torture, the pain, the heartache and the loss of what all these people went through, it was not a choice being made as to the worst, the evidence you will hear will be simply snapshots representing many hundreds of other people. And we do, and I have no hesitation in saying so, apologise in advance to those who feel, quite rightly so, that their voices, too, should be here and be heard and, had we got months and years to present this evidence to you, they would have been here. But we urgently heart-warmingly hope that they will bear with this Tribunal in the exercise that it is about to undertake.
Mr President, members of this Tribunal, that is our evidence, which we propose to call. Those are our witnesses.
It was the darkest of decades for those trapped in overcrowded and dank cells as they were tapping the concrete walls to communicate through the prison. Those days bore the smell of death. And with the full force of international justice, we now urge this Court to be part - and a crucial part - of the process which will now bring it to light.
Unless I can assist the Court any further, those are my submissions.