Babak Emad
September 2009

During the summer of 1988, thousands of Iranian political prisoners were taken from their cells and executed.  All over Iran, men and women were blindfolded and shot, or hanged in exercise yards or prayer halls.  None of them was taken to trial, instead they were asked a few questions by what became known as the “Death Commission”, and sentenced to death according to their responses.(1)  These prisoners had survived the mass executions of the early years of 1980s and were in the process of serving their long sentences.  

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 which have been documented by families, political parties and organizations.  Many of those who were killed had served their sentences, but were still in prison as they would not agree to the conditions of their release.  Victims were either shot by a firing squad or were hanged.

Their bodies were buried in mass graves, the locations of which remain undisclosed.  To this day, many families do not know where their loved ones are buried.  The Islamic Republic of Iran refuses to give any information about where the graves are located, but a number of graves have been discovered by the families.  The most well-known graves were found in Khavaran cemetery in the southwest suburbs of Tehran, the capital of Iran.  Khavaran is an abandoned Bahai cemetery.   

The massacre was the climax of a massive elimination process from 1981 to 1988, under which around 20,000 dissidents disappeared, either dying under torture or being executed by firing squads.  According to political prisoners who survived the killings, young girls were raped with support from the Sharia laws before they were executed by firing squad.  A woman’s rape is frequently the last act that precedes her execution in Iran.  Under Sharia law in Iran, virgin girls are not allowed to be executed.  This practice has been documented by families, former political prisoners, the Iranian opposition and human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Over the years since these terrible massacres took place, family members of the victims, former political prisoners, opposition political parties and human rights organizations have attempted to bring to the attention of the world the murderous campaign of the Islamic Republic of Iran by various means; publishing statements and statistics and holding seminars and demonstrations.

In spite of all these efforts, the world at large is not aware of the extent of this human tragedy.  Family members, especially the children whose parents were killed, have only had one wish over all these years; to bring to justice the murderers of their loved ones. Their lives have been deeply affected by this tragedy, but they cannot seek justice in Iran.  Investigating the killings and holding the perpetrators of these murders to account is practically impossible in Iran, as long as many of the perpetrators continue to occupy seats of power.  In Iran, independent judicial institutions are non-existent; the judiciary has been directly and indirectly an accomplice in these crimes, and is itself seen as one of the instigators of suppression in Iran.  

Investigating people’s grievances against their governments is not within the jurisdiction of international courts because they operate within government frameworks and, as such, would not be able to preside over such cases.  Courts in Western countries operate within well-defined laws and, with the exception of a few individual cases, do not deal with complaints against governments.  Cases of genocide and crimes against humanity committed by governments do not fall within the remits of these courts either.

According to international penal laws, the mass executions of the early years of the 1980s and the massacre of the political prisoners in the summer of 1988 constitute crimes against humanity.

According to international penal laws, a crime against humanity is defined as part of a systematic or widespread attack against civilians.  Widespread means an attack is a “massive”, frequent, large scale action, carried out collectively with considerable violence and directed against a multitude of people.  A systematic attack is also a qualitative term, pointing to the organised nature of the act of violence and improbability of its random occurrence.

The 1988 killings were certainly widespread and part of a comprehensive organized illegal action that began in June 1981 with mass executions and lasted until September 1988 with the massacre.  They were geographically dispersed across the country and the number of victims is estimated to be 20,000, although the exact figure is open to debate.  And they were systematic.  The “crimes” committed by these prisoners consisted of expressing their non-violent political beliefs, perhaps by selling newspapers or attending meetings or demonstrations.

Political prisoners, whether in the early years of 1980s or in the summer of 1998, were not afforded anything even remotely resembling a trial, let alone a fair trial.  They were arrested on very vague charges, tortured, and then taken to a room where their charges and sentences were communicated to them.  The whole process lasted only a minute or two.  No legal process was followed.  No defence was allowed.  No appeals.  No safeguards.

Family members, children in particular, who were able to leave Iran and settle in western countries have, on different occasions, pleaded for justice, but no governments or justice departments are willing to take up their cause.  For this reason, until a real process is undertaken to seek justice in Iran, a group of individuals composed of the families of the victims, former political prisoners, survivors of this human tragedy, political, labour and human right activists, women´s rights activists, lawyers, students, children´s rights activists, writers and journalists have been holding regular meetings since October 2007 to assess the possibility of setting up an internationally symbolic tribunal, where the Islamic Republic of Iran would be called to account for its crimes against humanity.  This peopleinquest will have the authority to bring this human tragedy, concealed and unacknowledged for so long, onto the world stage, where the brutality and cruelty of the Islamic regime can at last be examined, exposed and judged.

The world should know what took place in Iran in the 1980s – in the summer of 1988 in particular.  The horror and brutality was of such criminal magnitude that if it can be exposed, and we believe the evidence will be sufficiently convincing, then the Islamic Republic of Iran should be condemned and held to account.

The Tribunal has a clear historical precedentand will be modelled on the tribunals set up by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre in their 1965-1967 world campaign against the American atrocities in the Vietnam War.  In late 1967, the campaign planned two sessions in Paris and Copenhagen, but, due to the French government refusal, the Paris hearing was moved to Stockholm.  The Copenhagen session resembled a Truth Commission.  A panel of twenty five prominent legal experts, writers, poets, journalists, academics, philosophers, political activists and representatives of labour movements from eighteen countries was chaired by Russell and Sartre.  The tribunals were held in Stockholm and Copenhagen and attended by such world famous writers as Simone De Beauvoir and several noble laureates.

Our own task is different in many ways and more difficult, but the same responsibility remains.  How can such atrocities be prevented?  The procedures of a trial or a truth commission are impossible to implement.  We do not represent any state power, nor can we compel the perpetratorsresponsible for crimes against the people of Iran to stand accused before us.  We believe that these apparent limitations are, in fact, virtues.  We are free to conduct a solemn and historic investigation, unrestricted by the confines of state or other such obligations.

The proposal will allow tens of thousands of families of victims to have a voice.  We have learned from history if the account of an atrocity does not transcend the boundaries of a country, and if the world doesn’t hear about it, history will repeat itself and human society will witness such crimes again and again.

This Tribunal will examine all the evidence that may be placed before it by any source or party.  The evidence may be oral, or in the form of documents.  No evidence relevant to our purposes will be refused attention and no competent witness who wishes to testify at the inquiry will be denied a hearing.

Hundreds of family members of the victims are willing to provide the necessary information, including checking the accuracy and reliability of the information.  They offer to help by the production of evidence and attending the sessions.  The Islamic Republic of Iran will be invited to present evidence or cause it to be presented, and to instruct its officials or representatives to appear and state their case.  Our purpose is to establish, without fear or favour, the full truth about the bloody decade of the 1980s.  We sincerely hope that our efforts will contribute to world justice and to the establishment of a more secure world for oppressed peoples.

(1) How did the massacre happen?

During the winter of 1987 all prisoners were interrogated again: “Do you reject your organization?  Do you believe in the Islamic Republic?  Do you pray?”  The prisoners were divided into different groups depending on their answers to these questions. Mujahidin (1) were separated from the Leftists.  Prisoners were divided depending on the degree of their punishment.  Inmates with 10-15 year sentences and those with 15 years to life imprisonment were placed in different areas.  Prisoners who had served their sentences who had not accepted the terms of release were put into a separate location. This process was carried out in prisons across the country. 

On Friday, July 29, 1988 prisoners were not allowed to go out and get any fresh air, TVs were taken from their rooms, they could no longer acquire newspapers, family visits were suspended and patients were no longer allowed to visit the prison medical facilities.  

On Saturday, 8th August the “legal” process began.  It started with the Mujahidin.  Men and women were blindfolded and taken from their cells to wait in the corridor.  Then they were taken one by one into the room where the Death Commission members were waiting for them.  Four questions were addressed to the prisoners: “Do you believe in Mujahidin?  Will you reject your organization in an interview, in front of other prisoners?  Will you cooperate with prison officials against other prisoners?  Will you agree to walk through the Iraqi minefields?

The massacre began on this day and continued, relentlessly, day after day for weeks.

Finally, the Leftists and the Communists were the only ones left.  It was 25th August 1988.  Like the others before them, they were blindfolded and taken from their cells.

They were taken one by one into the room where they were “interrogated”.  The Death Commission was waiting to seal their fate.  The questions were: “Do you believe in your organization?  Are you a Muslim?  Do you pray?”  Negative responses were sufficient to result in a death sentence.  The pace of the trials was so fast that a prisoner was sentenced every few minutes.  The prisoners who acknowledged that they were not Muslims and those who did not pray had to step into a condemned line.  Beatings and whippings were commonplace in addition to the endless hangings and executions.  In pursuing such a violent campaign against political prisoners, the Islamic Republic of Iran succeeded in carrying out a massacre of epic proportions, totally in secret, burying the victims in mass graves around the country.