Between 9-16 January 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran destroyed by bulldozer, hundreds of individual and mass, unmarked graves in Khavaran cemetery, south Tehran. The site was partially covered by soil and trees were planted. The Iranian authorities are aimed at destroying evidence of gross human rights violations and depriving the families of the victims of the 1980s killings of their right to truth, justice and reparation.
Between August and September 1988, the Islamic regime carried out a massive wave of executions of political prisoners. There are no numbers of the exact amount of victims, as a result of harsh censorship and a harsh political climate in Iran. But, to this day, there are around 5,000 known names of victims. These prisoners had survived the mass executions of the early years of 1980s and were in the process of serving their long sentences. It is estimated that over 20000 political prisoners were killed in Iran between 1981 and 1988. The Iran Tribunal campaign has provided some sixteen thousands names.
Khavaran mass graves under threat
Last month, the Iranian authorities began bulldozing the site of mass graves in the district of Khavaran in southeast Tehran, planning to turn it into a public park. They have already covered a large area with soil – having possibly removed bones – and planted rows of trees. In these unmarked graves lie thousands of political prisoners killed by the Islamic regime in the 1980s – most of them during a secret mass massacre in the summer of 1988.
Amnesty International is calling on the Iranian authorities to “immediately stop the destruction of hundreds of individual and mass, unmarked graves in Khavaran, south Tehran, to ensure that the site is preserved and to initiate a forensic investigation into the site as part of a long-overdue thorough, independent and impartial investigation into mass executions which began in 1988.”
Iranian human rights advocates, including Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, have also condemned the destruction of the graves. The Centre for the Defence of Human Rights, headed by Ebadi, issued a statement recently condemning “this ugly and appalling act and (noting) that everyone, including the authorities is required to maintain the dignity of the dead,” according to Agence France-Presse.
The area being destroyed in Khavaran is a desolated plot next to the cemetery of religious minorities. Families of the victims call this place “the rose garden of Khavaran” – for a rose, in a culture where it is often safer to use poetry, represents a fallen freedom fighter. The Iranian leadership calls it the “place of the damned” or the “graveyard of the infidels”.
There are no gravestones, monuments or markings there because the government hasn’t allowed any, but families of the victims have quietly gathered at the Khavaran cemetery every September over the last 20 years to commemorate what they call “the national catastrophe” – the largest state crime in Iran’s modern history.
Families of the victims fear that the building work will irremediably destroy all evidence of the massacre and render identification of their loved ones impossible. “The authorities don’t want this place to become a symbol. They are afraid of the bones because the bones can testify of their crimes,” says Monireh Baradaran, a writer who survived the massacre and now lives in exile in Germany.
Amnesty International agrees: “The organization fears that the actions of the Iranian authorities are aimed at destroying evidence of human rights violations and depriving the families of the victims of the 1988 killings of their rights to truth, justice and reparation.”
Families of the victims and human rights activists are circulating a petition addressed to Ms. Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, demanding she uses all her power to stop the destruction of Khavaran. “For us as well as for the families of the victims, Khavaran represents the resistance and struggle of a revolutionary generation killed by the Islamic regime. Destroying this landmark would be whitewashing a crime,” says Babak Emad, International Secretary of the Association of Iranian Political Prisoners (in exile).
Throughout the 1980s, the Islamic regime carried out waves of executions of political prisoners. They culminated in a secret massacre in the summer of 1988, during which thousands of men, women and children – all prisoners of conscience – were put to death in prisons across the country.
The Islamic regime has never acknowledged these executions, revealed how many were killed (Amnesty International estimates the number of victims between 4,500 and 10,000), explained why they were killed nor told relatives where the bodies have been buried. Families of the victims only discovered Khavaran mass graves after heavy rain unearthed some remains in the months following the massacre.
The execution of such a large number of people within such a short time, without any due process, violates many international human rights treaties to which Iran is signatory. The Iranian authorities have the obligation to investigate the massacre and bring to justice those responsible, Amnesty International says. “Destruction of the site would impede any such future investigation and would violate the right of victims, including families, to an effective remedy.”
Amnesty is also urging the Iranian government to let the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions visit the country and the Khavaran site.
“We need justice,” says Rakhshndeh Hosseinpoor, whose husband and two brothers were killed by the Islamic regime. She now lives in exile in Germany. “I want those who have committed these crimes to be put to trial. I’ve lost three members of my family, but some families have lost six or seven. So many children are without fathers and mothers, so many young widows, so much pain that never goes away.”
Veronique Mistiaen is a London-based journalist writing about social and humanitarian issues and human rights. She has researched the 88 massacre over the past few years.