In late July 1988 political prisoners were killed en masse in a months-long wave of executions across Iran. By the time it stopped that autumn, 30,000 individuals had been slaughtered, the overwhelming majority of them activists of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Most of these victims had already served their prison terms but were never released. And by July 1988, any sense of mercy had vanished from the Iranian courts. All those who had been detained in excess of their prison sentences were executed. Very few political prisoners in Iran were spared and very few eyewitnesses survived.
Isolation, Interrogation, and Execution
In the final days of the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini felt that his regime’s defeat was imminent and decided to take revenge on political prisoners and stop the political fallout of the defeat in the war. He issued fatwas (religious decrees) ordering the massacre of anyone who had not repented his opposition to the regime and was not willing to totally collaborate with the regime.
The massacres began and everyday hundreds of political prisoners were hanged and their corpses were buried hurriedly in mass graves all over major cities, particularly Tehran.
Khomeini decreed: “Whoever at any stage continues to belong to the Monafeqin (PMOI/MEK) must be executed. Annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately.” He went on to add: “… Those who are in prisons throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for MEK/PMOI are waging war on God and are condemned to execution…It is naive to show mercy to those who wage war on God.”
Khomeini assigned an “Amnesty Commission” for prisons. In reality it was a Death Commission comprised of three individuals: a representative of the Ministry of Intelligence, a religious judge and a prosecutor. The Intelligence Ministry official had the final word on whether prisoners lived or died. The Commission’s trials consisted of a few minutes of interrogation focused on whether the inmate had any allegiances to the PMOI/MEK. The PMOI/ MEK prisoners made up more than 90 percent of the prisoners. If prisoners were not willing to collaborate fully with the regime against the MEK, it was viewed as a sign of sympathy to the organization and the sentence was immediate execution. The task of the Death Commission was to determine whether a prisoner was an Enemy of God or not. In the case of Mojahedin prisoners, that determination was often made after only a single question about their party affiliation. Those who said “Mojahedin” (PMOI/MEK) rather than the derogatory “Monafeqin” were sent to be hanged immediately.
The haste behind these executions was so abhorrent that some of Khomeini’s closest confidantes, most notably his heir apparent Hossein Ali Montazeri, could not tolerate it. In letters to Khomeini, Montazeri urged leniency and recommended slowing the pace of execution of MEK activists. But Khomeini declared that mercy should be shown to no one, not eve teenagers. He said that pregnant women should neither be spared nor allowed a chance to give birth to their children, and should be executed immediately.
The actual execution process began in the early hours of July 19, 1988 with the isolation of political prisoners from the outside world. Prison gates were closed, scheduled visits and telephone calls were canceled, letters, care packages, and even vital medicines from the outside were turned away. The main law courts went on an unscheduled vacation. Even relatives of prisoners were forbidden to congregate outside the prison gates. Total isolation of the prison system continued for three months.
Inside the prison, cell blocks were isolated from one another and cleared of radios and televisions. Places where prisoners gathered communally, such as lecture halls, workshops and infirmaries, were all closed down and inmates were confined to their cells. Prison guards and workers were ordered not to speak to prisoners. One prisoner constructed a homemade wireless set to listen to the radio news from the outside but found news broadcasters were saying nothing at all about the lockdown.
The Iranian regime did not inform the victims’ families about the re-trials until the executions had been carried out and the bodies had been buried in mass graves. Once informed, the families were not told of their loved ones’ burial spots and were ordered not to erect any monument or hold any ceremony.
In the following years, family members who visited the unmarked mass graves, searching for their loved ones or paying tribute to them, were arrested by the regime’s officials.
Khomeini required total conformity from the regime’s officials
Any person with a measure of authority in the regime at the time of the massacre was complicit in it. If they were not, they would had been sacked or disposed of. After lodging his protests, Ayatollah Montazeri fell from Khomeini’s graces and was sacked in March 1989. In December 2000 Montzaeri published his memoirs and revealed shocking documents on the massacre. What gave weight to the revelations is that they were made by a man who was, at the time of the executions, the officially ordained successor to Khomeini and the second highest authority in the land. But even from such a figure as this, not even the slightest dissent was permitted by the supreme leader of the Iranian revolution.
Rouhani’s role in the massacre
Hassan Rouhani, who was elected to the presidency of Iran last year, was Deputy Commander-in-chief of the regime’s armed forces at the time of the 1988 massacre. Furthermore, since 1982 he had been a member of regime’s Supreme Defense Council and a member of the Central Council of War Logistics Headquarters.
In those positions, he would have been fully cognizant of this hideous crime and obviously was in full conformity. This certainly belies the notion that Rouhani is either a moderate or a reform minded politician. All those who retained their positions in the regime during the massacre were ideologically pure in Khomeini’s eyes.
Little international attention has been given to this crime against humanity.
In 2008, twenty years after the massacre, Amnesty International “renewed its call for those responsible for the ‘prison massacre’ to be held accountable.” It continued: “There should be no impunity for such gross human rights violations, regardless of when they were committed… Those responsible for the killings – one of the worst abuses to be committed in Iran – should be prosecuted and tried before a regularly and legally constituted court and with all necessary procedural guarantees, in accordance with international fair trial standards.”
Justice not yet served
The massacre of 1988 remains as one of the darkest stains in the recent history of mankind, and yet one of the least exposed and discussed.
The darkest irony of this appalling episode is that amidst all ofits human rights violations the Iranian government has been particularly successful at keeping the 1988 killings a secret from the international community and from many Iranians. By now, virtually everyone knows of the reign of terror that immediately followed the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government’s assassination campaign abroad, and the “Chain Murders” that targeted opposition intellectuals and activists in the late 1990s. Tragically, however, there is very little public awareness of the 1988 executions. Not only has there been no prosecution of the criminals who orchestrated and carried out that summer’s gruesome murders, but the government continues to deny that they even occurred.
It is time that the pervasive silence of the past quarter century be shattered. The UN should launch an independent investigation into one of the most hideous crimes against humanity after the Second World War.
MEK making inroads in Iran
Despite such a ruthless crackdown focused on the PMOI/MEK, there are signs that the MEK is making a significant comeback in the Iranian political landscape. In recent months the clerical regime has been talking much more frequently about the MEK and its activities, warning about its impact. While for years, mentioning the MEK was forbidden in Iranian press, it seems there has been a shift in the state policy.
According to one study, in the past couple of years the Iranian regime has published more than 300 books and publications against the MEK in Iran, particularly aimed at Iranian youth.
According to the same study, between 2012 and 2013, in order to tackle MEK popularity and specifically to prevent the youth from being attracted to the opposition group, the MOIS has staged widespread anti-MEK exhibitions across the country. According to the organizers, these exhibitions were held with “the aim of familiarizing the younger generation and especially the students with the crimes of the hypocrites (MEK).”
According to the information contained in the mullahs’ press and media, 120 such exhibitions were organized between April 2010 and December 2012. Some of these exhibitions were held for a day and some lasted for up to four days. These exhibitions were held in at least 36 cities across Iran.
Although most of these exhibitions against the MEK were held at universities and high schools, some were staged in government offices, mosques, seminaries and even military barracks.
According to the state-run Afkar News on May 8, 2014, in a book fair in Tehran’s great mosque a complete booth was devoted to anti-MEK publications. The organizer of the booth said “many of our teenagers and youth are ignorant of the real nature of this terrorist grouplet and unwittingly they would fall for MEK deceptive appearance.” According to the booth organizer, the MEK is a “serious danger to the new generation. Enemy is always enemy and the new generation may be affected by abusive propaganda.”
According to the Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Fars News Agency, a website dedicated to the anti-MEK campaign also participated in Tehran’s International Book Fair.