Inquiries into 1988 Massacre Showcase the Iranian Regime’s Culture of Silence

Monfared also explained that Iranian law codifies a technical procedure for addressing these cases of double jeopardy and other situations in which a person is unlawfully executed. In those cases, the next of kin supposedly have a legal right to call for an investigation into the matter. Of course, the relatives of persons killed in the 1988 massacre have never been afforded this right. Neither have they been permitted to publicly mourn their losses or otherwise acknowledge the incident, although this situation has reportedly changed somewhat in the wake of the August revelation of an audio tape, dating to the time of the massacre, in which then-heir to the supreme leadership Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri condemned the massacres architects for committing the “greatest crime of the Islamic Republic.”

Both the Montazeri recording and the Monfared letter were referenced in media that appeared on Thursday, also discussing the massacre and its legacy. The report pointed out that few people outside of Iran cared about the incident as it was going on and in its immediate aftermath. The international neglect was exacerbated by the fact that there were few sophisticated mechanisms for investigated cases of “enforced disappearances.” This term apparently describes the lens through which legal experts now view the massacre, at a time when groups like the NCRI and individual activists like Monfared are working to bring new international scrutiny to bear on its perpetrators.

News reports also points out that an organization called Justice for Iran is currently working to identify the numerous mass graves in which the regime secretly buried thousands of victims of the massacre. So far, it has confirmed the location of 11 such sites, but an additional 54 are alleged to exist, and that number could grow even larger.

The Monfared letter calls for domestic action to uncover the details of the massacre and burials, and to hold perpetrators to account. But of course, such action under the current regime is highly unlikely, considering the longstanding conspiracy of silence and the fact that many of those perpetrators remain in power to this day. Some, such as Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, have responded to the newfound notoriety of Montazeri’s criticisms by saying that they are proud to have carried out the massacre in their attempt to destroy the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.

The report thus describes Monfared’s letter as purely symbolic, and it adds that other countries that have witnessed similar such crimes have taken decades to address them. On the other hand, the issue may progress more quickly in Iran, provided either that the current regime is overthrown or that the international community gets intimately involved.

This involvement is, of course, something for which persons both inside and outside Iran are aggressively advocating. The US House of Representatives and the Canadian Parliament have both presented resolutions calling for a United Nations commission of inquiry into the massacre. And on Thursday, the NCRI reported that a group of political prisoners in the Iranian prison at Karaj had directly reached out to the recently-elected UN Secretary General António Guterres and the newly appointed special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir.

Their letter to these two officials urged the UN to demand that Iran disclose the names and burial sites of all the victims of the 1988 massacre. But the letter also called for the international community to address a range of other ongoing human rights abuses, including a world-leading rate of executions and the imprisonment of civil activists and political dissidents.

But although these abuses are well publicized outside of Iran, a conspiracy of silence hangs over them within the ranks of the regime, as it does over the massacre. This is at times enforced through repression of those calling for international attention, as by making it illegal for Iranians to speak to the UN special rapporteur.

It may or may not be coincidental that, also according to the NCRI, prison authorities in Karaj have recently begun a campaign of transfers of death row inmates, whom they have threatened with expedited implementations of their sentences. As many as 120 people in Karaj Central Prison have been sentenced to death, and their family members report that authorities have stated that all of those sentences will be carried out before the end of the Iranian year in March.

Although this may be intended as an intimidation measure, it also has limited reach and will not be alone sufficient to prevent inmates from reaching out to the international community or to domestic activists. But violent repression through mass executions is only one tactic that contributes to the atmosphere of secrecy regarding Iran’s human rights abuses and its treatment of political prisoners.

Perhaps the most obvious such tactic is to simply deny the political nature of certain arrests and prosecutions. Recently, perhaps in response to international pressure on the case, a group of Iranian members of parliament wrote a letter urging the judiciary to reconsider the case of prominent lawyer and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, whose 16 year sentence for her peaceful activities had been upheld on appeal. Attorney General Jafar Montazeri responded to their letter by insulting Mohammadi and accusing her supporters of failing to study her case before commenting on it.

Now, the NCRI reports that Mohammadi herself has responded to the attorney general’s comments, pointing out that it was the judiciary that insisted on keeping her case secret when she asked for a public trial. Mohammadi’s written response repeated that call for a public hearing so that the Iranian public could judge for itself whether her activities constituted a crime.

Though it remains to be seen whether the judiciary will respond in turn, it is clear that Mohammadi is not making her request within an environment of openness, either before the government or before the media. However, just as she has a handful of supporters in the Iranian parliament, there are also a few domestic lawmakers who have shown willingness to challenge this culture of obfuscation. In yet another report published on Thursday, the NCRI pointed out that Member of Parliament Parvaneh Salahshouri had publicly decried the fact that journalists and news outlets had been attacked and “dragged to court” for reporting upon government corruption, when the regime could instead utilize that exposure as an opportunity to address endemic problems.