The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: A Quest for Justice

December 8, 2011

“[This] massacre bids comparison with Srebrenica… Katyn Forest… [and] with the Japanese death marches… This particular slaughter… was carefully planned and executed by state leaders working through the judicial and penal system… It was a dreadful crime against humanity.”

--Mr. Geoffrey Robertson, QC, 25 October 2011, University of Oxford

 

In an effort to publicly recognize and bring to international attention the massacre of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988 and the suffering of the victims, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (ABF) hosted an unprecedented symposium in conjunction with Mr. Geoffrey Robertson, QC and Oxford Transitional Justice Research (OTJR) at the University of Oxford in the UK. The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: A Quest for Justice was held on October 25, 2011, and for the first time, victims, eminent international legal experts, scholars, country specialists and human rights advocates came together to talk about truth telling and explore possible legal and political avenues of recourse for the victims of the 1988 prison massacre.

It was a powerful and meaningful experience for all who participated – in particular for the many survivors who were present and who, for the first time in more than two decades, felt their ordeal and suffering were acknowledged and taken seriously by the international community. In some way, this acknowledgment restored some of the dignity that years of prison and invisibility had stolen from them. One panelist, who is also the daughter of a victim of the 1988 massacre who was supposed to be released in March of 1989 but was killed in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz, wrote us:

“The [conference] was an enriching event on different levels and above all the simple fact of the word ‘1988’ openly and publicly uttered was a source of joy, and an appeasing and encouraging experience. It was as if reality made a pause and we entered another world, which acknowledges what happened and unburdens us from this weight.”

The basis for the symposium discussion was the report, The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988, commissioned by ABF and authored by Mr. Geoffrey Robertson QC, a prominent international jurist. The report concludes that high level officials of the Islamic Republic committed crimes against humanity in the summer and fall of 1988, when close to 4,000 political prisoners were secretly killed and hastily buried in mass graves in Tehran and other provinces. The majority of these prisoners had been arrested in their teens and early twenties and sentenced to various prison terms for sympathizing with the Mojahedin Khalq Organization (MEK) or with leftists and communist parties.

Discussing this forgotten and unpunished crime was both necessary and overdue. The 1988 massacre is a significant episode of a systematic and decades-long elimination of dissidents in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many among the victims of the 1988 killing were arrested during peaceful demonstrations in the early 1980s, held incommunicado, tortured, and arbitrarily tried – as were many election protestors during the summer of 2009. In the 1980s however, Iranians had no cell phones, computers, or internet to allow the world to bear witness and deter the judges from summarily trying and sentencing thousands to death and prison. Thus, impunity became rule and the victims invisible.

The day-long symposium was divided into two sessions: the morning session was a closed-door roundtable discussion among legal experts, lawyers working in organizations focused on accountability, NGO members, academics, and victims who thoughtfully debated the available avenues for justice for victims in the absence of a current venue for bringing grievances against the perpetrators. ABF’s Executive Director stated:

“Seeking justice for the victims of the 1988 prison massacre is a moral necessity and an important step to engage survivors and ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. It is also the human rights community’s only means to break the cycle of state violence and to remind the perpetrators that there is no statute of limitations when it comes to unspeakable crimes.”

The roundtable participants discussed the various circumstances that would allow the victims to seek justice at an international or national level. They agreed on the importance of collecting evidence and noted that considering the limited available options, the documentation and testimony work of organizations such as ABF is crucial to establishing evidence in preparation for a future venue for truth telling and/or trials. The participants also discussed other suggestions such as using the UN human rights monitoring mechanisms for seeking justice or the tracking of perpetrators’ movements, as well as investigating whether any of the victims’ relatives were nationals of other countries in 1988, in preparation for possible prosecution in another country.

The afternoon session was comprised of three different panels of legal and country experts, as well as victims, including Mr. Medhi Aslani (former prisoner who survived the massacre), Dr. Ladan Boroumand (ABF), Dr. Phil Clark (OTJR), Ms. Carla Ferstman (REDRESS), Mr. Binesh Hass (OTJR), Mr. Wolfgang Kaleck (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights), Dr. Abol-Karim Lahidji (FIDH), Dr. Francesca Lessa (OTJR), Dr. Chowra Makaremi (daughter of a 1988 victim), Dr. Olga Martin-Ortega (University of East London), Dr. Corinna Mullin (School of Oriental and African Studies), Dr. Sarah Nouwen (University of Cambridge), Dr. Nicola Palmer (OTJR), Mr. Geoffrey Robertson QC (Doughty Street Chambers), and Ms. Jennifer Robinson (Finers Stephens Innocent).

Mr. Robertson opened the afternoon session by presenting the 1988 massacre in its historical context and qualifying it as a crime against humanity. He continued by exploring the existing mechanisms that may allow victims to seek justice:


"Today it would be possible for the [UN] Security Council to set up a special court (as they did with Lebanon) to investigate, [to install a] prosecutor who could bring charges. But of course no one would be there to answer because… the perpetrators all remain in high position in the state of Iran. The International Criminal Court [ICC] can only deal with… crimes committed after July 2002, so that is not a possibility. Other than this, one of the worse continuing crimes of this state is that it does not allow the thousands of relatives to mourn; it doesn’t even allow them to know where their children are buried… so that is a continuing crime that the ICC might investigate… International criminal law, while it has come a long way, has not come far enough to feel the collars of those who are responsible for one of the worst, if not the worst, single atrocity.”

Ms. Robinson, a lawyer who collaborated with Mr. Robertson and traveled throughout Europe to interview victims, discussed some of the findings of the report, including the concept of genocide used to describe the massacre of the Mojahedin killed for being “hypocrites” and for “waging war against God.” She noted the courage and key role of survivors who testify and talked about the humbling effect of meeting and hearing the harrowing accounts of torture and knowing about the sufferings of the survivors for her personally. Impunity, she stressed, continues to take a toll in Iran today:

“The situation in Iran today illustrates the consequences for impunity for crimes against humanity that have never been properly investigated and prosecuted. Some of those perpetrators - those involved in the events of 1988 - remain in powerful positions in judiciary and state in Iran today where dissidents continue to be imprisoned and persecuted for being Mohareb, warriors against God…”

Another speaker, Dr. Lahidji (Vice President of FIDH), also compared the state policies today - aimed at spreading fear, breaking prisoners, and producing repenters - with those of the 1980s, and stressed the importance of seeking justice in national and international venues.

Ms. Fertsman (Director of REDRESS) emphasized that justice is about acknowledgment of the harm that has been done. She pointed to the “cloud of suspicion” over the families of those who were murdered in 1988. “Justice is about dealing with this cloud of suspicion and making it clear that what was done was wrong.” She noted that Iran has an obligation to investigate, prosecute, and offer reparations to survivors and family members, “including compensation, measures of satisfaction, which would include accounting for the dead and guarantees non-repetition.” One survivor of the massacre shared his feelings about the power of international acknowledgment:

"For years, we were crying for having such a meeting. After 23 years [having] survived within those circumstances, such reports, like the report by Geoffrey Robertson … has a real impact. And whatever all those people who are working here will do, the outcome – even [if] you fail the legal ground, even [if] you fail in other political grounds – that the truth comes out – to be known by international communities, to be known by [the] local population, by the countries – that is to me – that is the justice – to recognize. To know what happened."

Mr. Kaleck (Secretary General of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights) enumerated various venues for justice outside Iran and various legal precedents, but stressed the need to be realistic in the expectations from the international community in terms of justice. At the same time, he noted:

“If you are only realistic [about the options for justice], reality can paralyze you. All the important efforts undertaken by human rights litigators, for example, [the] Alien Tort Claims act of 1988, the Filarta case against the torturer from Paraguay, Pinochet [in] 1998 here in the UK, were undertaken by people who were not realistic at all. They were hard professional workers and they were visionaries, and only this combination made the breakthroughs in human rights litigation possible.”

Panelists also discussed the impact of criminal pursuit and impunity in various transitions and countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, Uganda, and Sudan. Dr. Ortega (University of East London) talked about Spain’s civil war and the path of forgetting, which was, for decades, supported by the argument: “It is not the time now.” She noted the serious consequences of such a path on a society that lived with guilt and where those in power during the civil war continued to be in the military and judiciary.

Dr. Lessa, (OTJR), provided insights on various phases of transition in Argentina and Uruguay and pointed to similarities with Iran in terms of the physicial elimination of political opponents and the denial by the state of the right to bury the dead and mourn them. The lessons learned from these experiences are multiple, including the importance of calling for the right to truth for the relatives of victims and the broader society.

Dr. Nouwen (University of Cambridge) spoke about the comparisons between Iran and the Sudan where “there is an urge for justice, but there is no transition.” She discussed the negative and positive impact of the work of the ICC in the case of Sudan where the ICC arrest warrants opened the debate on transitional justice. She called on human rights advocates to consider political as well as criminal venues to seek justice:


“If you have the long-term view and say that the regime must first change, then the advice would be, act as a prosecutor… collect as much evidence as you can now so that your case is ready when the moment is there. When you are more focused upon transformation, then make sure that you sell transitional justice in a way to the regime that… transitional justice could actually enhance the regime also in rebuilding… the relationship with its people and with the wider world.”

Several experts pointed to the importance of the documentation work by ABF during the pre-transition period, regardless of what path Iranians will adopt during the transitional period. For example, Mr. Kaleck noted that:

“All of our legal work has to be contextualized; what the Boroumand Foundation already achieved is a big deal. They built up an archive; they built up an historical record, they maintain the memory of what happened there. They make the people, the victims, the families, tell their story, which is already a big part of the work that we all do.”

Two decades ago, the international community showed little outrage to the news of the prison massacres and did not acknowledge the courage and persistence of survivors who told the truth and reported on their ordeal after their release. In recognition of the survivors of the 1988 massacres and all former political prisoners who have contributed through their writings or interviews to truth telling and shedding light on prison conditions in Iran, ABF closed the day’s events by honoring two survivors, Ms. Monireh Baradaran and Mr. Iraj Mesdaghi. Both former political prisoners, they spent nearly a decade in various prisons in Tehran between 1981 and 1991, and have written extensively and meticulously about the ordeal of the political prisoners in the 1980s. They have also testified for this report and were instrumental in connecting ABF with other survivors of the 1988 massacre. Ms. Baradaran and Mr. Mesdaghi were honored for their courage and their decades-long contribution to ensuring that the victims are not forgotten. Stressing the courage of those who face the pain of speaking the truth, the ABF Research Director stated:

“When the government is the sole possessor of the “Truth”, there is no room for the fallibility of the rulers or the free will of the governed. So those who resist the government’s “Truth” must be eliminated. But if their elimination is public, then their resistance is public, and their death becomes the proof of their free will: hence the necessity of secrecy and silence. Suffice it for the crime to become public, and the fallacy of the government,“Truth” is revealed… Hence speaking the truth is uncovering the government’s fallacy. But it is not easy to speak the unspeakable. One [survivor] is paralyzed and muted by an intense feeling of shame and guilt; one is trapped in this silent crime; life continues but one does not live. Thus telling the truth becomes a heroic act.”

Following the bestowal of the awards, 15 former prisoners who were in the audience came forward and joined Ms. Baradaran and Mr. Mesdaghi for a group photo. It was the first time they had ever been photographed together. The room fell completely silent and there was not a dry eye in the house.

In the days following the symposium, two survivors shared their emotions with ABF:

“I came across pictures of a few old friends on a Facebook page; the picture was taken at a symposium organized by you in [Oxford] to commemorate those whose lives were taken in the summer of 1988. I posted a short message underneath the picture, to which my friend responded by giving me her telephone number. And so a picture from the symposium prompted a several hours- long conversation between us. We had kept in touch - she was released [from prison] in 1989. Yet in the past 22 years we had never made any mention of those eight years, until that extraordinary evening… It was, however, the moving words of my friend, which prompted me to write to you. She told me that for the first time in 22 years she had managed to sleep that night. She went on to say that for 22 years she had done her utmost to cope with constant panic attacks, the cries in her head of those dear individuals and the death tolls. She said that she was not feeling well during that evening’s symposium; the cries in her head were getting louder and louder and she felt that she was going insane; that she was finding it hard to utter any words and was trying to manage the occasional smile. And I could see that restlessness in the [Facebook] picture. She told me that she had to drive for a few hours on her way back. She added, ‘... after 22 years, the pent up emotions gave way to tears and I found myself sobbing uncontrollably all the way home. Thanks to that symposium, all those unsaid words, which had lain heavily on my heart, were suddenly released. I felt that I was becoming a new person. I no longer felt like a stranger. After 30 years, I had suddenly found myself. It was as if that other self had been left behind in prison.’ She said that she had spent eight years inside a prison cell and another 22 trapped in a restless mind. She was happy and she was remembering strange events that had taken place 30 years ago; events that I had to think hard to recall... I merely wished to thank you, since my friend has come to feel alive again, as I am sure many others.”

In the end, this is what meant the most to all who participated in the symposium events – bringing a measure of closure through an international acknowledgement to the people who were directly affected by the horrific events of 1988. This event was just the beginning of a long and difficult journey aimed at ending the cycle of violence in Iran and hopefully allowing healing and closure for the victims. The report and the roundtable were instrumental in triggering interest and familiarizing some of the best experts in the field with the dire human rights situation in Iran and laying the groundwork for continued discussion and support in the future.


The videos of the event are available on ABF YouTube account.