The United Nations special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, recently reiterated a longstanding call for investigations into an overlooked crime against humanity perpetrated by the Iranian regime.
That call was rendered more urgent on June 18 by the “election” of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s next president. The current judiciary chief is considered one of the chief participants in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, and his ongoing lack of accountability is fueling concerns that his presidency might exploit the perceived impunity in order to further accelerate crackdowns on impunity.
Such conduct is easy to imagine as coming from a Raisi administration, in light of the president-elect’s record as judiciary chief. Starting in November 2019, about eight months into his tenure in that position, Raisi oversaw the violent repression of activism believed to be connected to that month’s nationwide uprising against the theocratic dictatorship.
Within days of that uprising emerging across nearly 200 cities and towns, approximately 1,500 people had been killed in shooting incidents mostly carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
For months afterward, the judiciary interrogated and tortured many of the over 12,000 individuals who were arrested in the midst of the unrest, adding to the death toll and highlighting the possibility of further mass executions modeled after the 1988 massacre.
In that case, “death commissions” throughout the country provided judiciary and intelligence officials with the authority to declare the main opposition group the Mojahedin-e-Khalq of Iran guilty of “enmity against God” and to impose capital sentences on them, to be carried out immediately.
Raisi was a key figure in the death commission that operated in Evin Prison, home to the country’s single largest political ward. As such, he arguably bears responsibility for the largest share of the estimated 30,000 killings that took place between July and September 1988.
But neither he nor anyone else has ever been held responsible for the incident that has been referred to as the “greatest crime of the Islamic Republic” and one of the worst crimes against humanity to take place anywhere in the world during the late 20th century.
The ongoing lack of accountability was a key point that Javaid Rehman emphasized when speaking to the media about the massacre and Raisi’s election on Monday. His remarks expanded upon those that had been delivered directly to the Iranian regime last September by himself and several other UN human rights experts, before being released to the general public in December.
Their letter demanded an end to the cover-up surrounding the massacre, as well as to the intimidation of survivors and victims’ families. Notably, it also referred to the prior failure of international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council to follow up on contemporary reports and highlighted the need for rectification of this oversight in the event Tehran takes no action on its own.
The international publication of last year’s letter was a signal that the Iranian regime had declined to respond to it and thus could not be expected to change its position regarding past human rights abuses.
That position includes the outright defense of the 1988 massacre and other violent crackdowns on dissent – something that another death commission member and former Iranian Minister of Justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, referred to in recent years as “God’s command.”
Raisi personally contributed to that defense in his first press conference as president-elect. When directly challenged over his role in the 1988 massacre, he declined to acknowledge it directly but asserted that everything he had done in his career was justified as being motivated by the desire to safeguard and promote the Islamic revolution and protect “human rights” as the regime understands them.
But that understanding has proven time and time again to be twisted beyond all recognition. The Iranian judiciary maintains its own so-called human rights monitor, but the office has only ever contributed to that topic by denying objective reports of Iranian authorities’ abuses and insisting that foreign adversaries are guilty of the same or worse crimes.
At the same time, Tehran has explicitly rejected international human rights standards on numerous occasions, as with its recurring executions of persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their alleged crimes.
Toward the same end, the judiciary has defiantly carried out executions like that of champion wrestler Navid Afkari even when they were the subjects of massive, global campaigns highlighting a lack of due process and evidence of the executions being thinly-veiled reprisals against political or social dissent.
All of these incidents could very well be placed right alongside the 1988 massacre in any appeal for an international investigation into Tehran’s past conduct, especially now that Raisi is poised to take over the presidency. If no such investigations take place, the Raisi administration will begin life with a renewed sense of impunity.
And if, after the fact, it is not subjected to greater pressure over human rights than any of its predecessors, that impunity will find an outlet in more intense crackdowns on dissent. These could conceivably rival the scale of the 1988 massacre, especially if the regime finds itself under greater duress than it has in recent years.
That influence will be highlighted anew for the international community when the Iranian expatriates hold their annual gathering the “Free Iran World Summit” between July 10 and 12.
The multinational live stream, will also present evidence of growing unrest and discuss the ways in which Western policies and pressures from the United Nations can help the Iranian people in their push to throw off Iran’s theocratic dictatorship and establish a truly democratic system based on free and fair elections unlike the sham process that over 90 percent of citizens rejected in June.