Published by Westminister News Online
Dealing with deceased and their relatives’ grief is always a sensitive issue. Brigitte Istim explores why Tehran is disturbed after Iran announced it wanted to turn mass graves into a park.
The reports began to filter through in January this year. Reports of families finding their relatives’ graves bulldozed and obliterated, covered with mounds of earth and newly-planted trees. These vanished graves have apparently fallen victim to a plan designed to turn part of Kharavan cemetery in southern Tehran into a park.
Creating a park sounds like an innocent act, a way of improving the environment in a city which, until recently, was notorious for its polluted air. But for many people in Iran and overseas the landscaping activities in Kharavan are both distressing and sinister.
Kharavan is the burial place for thousands of political dissidents, most of them executed in the 1980s. Their graves are often unmarked as the government prevented families from putting up headstones or other memorials. It is this part of the cemetery which seems to have been picked out for ‘redevelopment’.
Babak Emad is a softly spoken man who walks with a limp – the result of beatings received under two regimes, those of the Shah and the Islamic Republic. He now lives in Sweden and is international president of the Association of Iranian Political Prisoners (AIPP). Babak is extremely concerned by reports about Kharavan he has received from contacts in Iran.
“The destruction seems to have started around 6th January this year. There were earlier attempts to destroy the graves but they were resisted, very courageously, by the families. But this time the authorities seem to have been more organised. For about six months they have been preventing friends and relatives from going anywhere near the cemetery.”
Babak’s concerns have been backed up by Amnesty International who issued a public statement on 20th January, calling on the Iranian authorities “to immediately stop the destruction of hundreds of individual and mass, unmarked graves in Kharavan, south Tehran”.
The mass graves mentioned by Amnesty probably date back to the late summer of 1988 when the authorities organised a purge of political prisoners. Although, it is difficult to compile accurate figures Amnesty estimated that at least 4,500 to 5,000 political prisoners, men and women, were executed over the course of a few months.
Memories of persecution
Ahmad Mossavi, a left critic of the regime, spent 10 years in Iranian jails. He remembers the summer of ’88 only too well.
“I was in Rasht prison and I estimate that around 90 of my fellow political prisoners were simply dragged out of their cells and then shot or hung. I remember the sound of cell doors banging, then the silence which seemed to get deeper and deeper as the killings went on and on.”
For Kaveh Shahrooz, a young lawyer who has written about the 1988 executions in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, survivors like Ahmad and the people who lie buried in Kharavan are victims twice over. Speaking at conference organised by AIPP he said: “In the summer of 1988 the Iranian government committed two crimes – first a campaign of terror and murder and second the effort to completely erase this from historical memory…I believe this is almost a textbook example of crimes against humanity.”
If the reports about Kharavan are correct the Iranian government is far from being the first to try to rewrite history.
Gholam-Hossein Mahmoudi, Press Attaché to the Iranian Embassy in London, said he has no comment to make at present about Kharavan cemetery.