His report, “The massacre of political prisoners in Iran 1988” is available from the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.
The anniversary this weekend of Iran’s rigged election will turn the spotlight on the man who approved it—Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—and the man who was cheated of the presidency, Mir Hussein Moussavi. If there was justice in the world, both men would be serving prison sentences, along with Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani and a number of the nation’s top judges and politicians. All were complicit in one of the gravest crimes against humanity since World War II—the mass slaughter of political prisoners at the close of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Then, Moussavi was prime minister, Ali Khamenei was president and Rafsanjani commanded the Revolutionary Guards. They implemented a secret fatwa which ordered mass murder of left-wingers in Evin and prisons throughout the country.
The prisoners were hung from cranes, four at a time or in groups of six, from ropes hanging from the stage of the prison assembly hall.
The victims were mainly student protesters who had been arrested and sentenced for leafleting and demonstrating against the Ayatollah’s revolutionary republic in the early 1980s. They sympathized with the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an armed Islamic group with Marxist leanings, or with communist and socialist organizations that did not believe in God—and certainly not in the Ayatollah’s theocracy. As the war with Iraq ended in a bitter truce in 1988, the regime decided that it was too dangerous to allow these dissidents to stay alive, so its leaders plotted a “final solution.”
For the last year, I have been conducting an inquiry into the 1988 massacres for a Washington foundation and my report, which was published today, sets out the evidence that would justify the international law indictment of a number of Iranian leaders. Those who conducted the prison massacres in 1988 are not only guilty of directing torture and murder but of implementing a plan to exterminate a group on the basis of its religious belief (the MEK prisoners who believed in a different form of Islam) or, in the case of the Marxists, its non-belief. That amounts to genocide and there is an international obligation on all nations under the Geneva Conventions to bring them to book.
On July 28, 1988, a week after the ceasefire, the secret fatwa was issued, at first decreeing death for all who remained “steadfast” in their MEK sympathies, including those who had already served sentences and were awaiting release.
They were hauled from their cells and paraded before a death committee—a religious judge, a prosecutor, and a man from the intelligence ministry who confirmed the allegiance and directed them to a line leading straight to the gallows. They were hung from cranes, four at a time or in groups of six, from ropes hanging from the stage of the prison assembly hall. Their bodies were doused with disinfectant, packed in refrigerated trucks and buried by night in mass graves, the locations of which were (and still are) withheld from their families. Between July 28 and August 13, several thousand MEK members were killed in this manner.
After a short break for a religious holiday, the death committee began to kill the left-wingers. All prisoners who were Marxists, communists, or members of other political groups, and had been born Muslim, but who did not believe in Khomeini’s version of Islam, were deemed apostates. If male, they were sent straight to the gallows after a brief trial for which they had no right of defense. Women were sentenced to torture (severe whipping five times a day) until they repented and prayed—or else died from the lash.
The second wave of killings also claimed several thousand victims, and was accompanied by the same secrecy. Eventually, several months later, relatives were called to the prison and handed a plastic bag with their children’s effects. By October many thousands of prisoners had been killed in this way by the state—without trial, without appeal and utterly without mercy.
When word of the mass murder began to leak out, Iran’s diplomats and politicians began a massive cover up. They pretended that there had only been few victims and that they had been planning to take over the prisons by violence. Prime Minister Moussavi played a particularly shameful part, dishonestly (and absurdly) urging “Western intellectuals” to see him as a Salvador Allende-like victim, who had acted in time against encircling enemies. But people in Iran know better. His election meetings last year were interrupted by shouts to explain his role in 1988; he has never come clean about his part in this crime, nor, of course, have any of the other perpetrators, most notable among them the present Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, who, at the time, passed the killing off with the brutal remark: “Do you think we should give them sweets?”
Rafsanjani, who is still politically active, played an important part. As head of the armed forces, he dispatched the Revolutionary Guards to the prisons to carry out the slaughter. The death committee members, for their part, remain in senior positions in the judiciary and several are government ministers. But they cannot hide behind a defense of "superior orders"—not even a fatwa can protect them from legal responsibility for an international crime. (I exclude President Ahmadinejad. Although he was a Revolutionary Guard at the time and one witness claims to identify him as a torturer, this has not been corroborated.) Khomeini, as head of state, has some immunity but, as Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milosevic discovered, this does not fully protect sitting heads of state from indictment for international crimes.
There is no doubt that the men who implemented the fatwa did so in the knowledge that they were committing an international crime. They were well-versed in the Geneva Conventions because they were always complaining about Saddam’s breaches. Furthermore, they were warned of the consequences by Ayatollah Montazeri, who died in Qom last December but was an inspiration to the “Green” Reform Movement. In 1988, he was regarded as Khomeni’s successor, but he objected so forcefully to the killings that he was removed from the government and placed under house arrest. By refusing to explain the fate or identify the burial places of the youngsters who were cold-bloodedly murdered 20 years ago, Iran’s present leaders perpetuate the crime.
The Security Council would be fully entitled to use its power to set up an ad hoc international court to indict the Supreme Leader and others in his government. This may be a better way for the world to deal with a theocracy whose inability to punish, or even admit, the barbaric behavior of 1988 provides the greatest reason for concern over its future access to nuclear weaponry.
Geoffrey Robertson QC's report " The massacre of political prisoners in Iran 1988" is available from the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.