April 18th, 1991, was a sunny spring day in the French capital, during a month in that city made famous in song. About midday, a 65-year-old man was parking his car in front of the building where he was living with his family. He had just come from a meeting with his native country’s former prime minister, the Iranian prodemocracy leader Shapur Bakhtiar. The man’s 19-year-old son, looking through the window from inside their apartment, noted his father’s return and headed toward the kitchen to serve lunch. But his father never made it home. In the lobby of his building, a person (or persons) “unknown” stabbed him to death.
That man was our father, the Iranian attorney Abdorrahman Boroumand. Today marks a quarter-century since his assassination in Paris. He was a longtime supporter of democracy and a close friend and collaborator of Shapur Bakhtiar, the social-democratic politician and opposition leader whom the last Shah of Iran had named to Iran’s premiership before leaving the country, himself never to return, in January 1979. Bakhtiar did what he could: He called for reforms, for free democratic elections, and for freedom of speech and assembly. But his countrymen were mesmerized by the Islamist revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Bakhtiar was soon toppled. His government crumbled on February 11th, 1979, and he had to flee.
In 1980, from his new home in France, Bakhtiar founded the National Movement of the Iranian Resistance (NAMIR), the first prodemocracy opposition movement in exile. Abdorrahman Boroumand worked alongside Bakhtiar and other friends of Iranian democracy to found this movement. From exile, Bakhtiar and Boroumand continued the struggle that had been theirs since the early 1950s: The nonviolent campaign for the democratization of Iran, the former as deputy labor minister under Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, and the other as a student activist. Boroumand summarized their goal as follows:
By democracy I mean the rule of the majority, while all political and social rights of the minority are respected so that the minority gets the opportunity to become the majority. This is not a new goal. This was also the ideal of all the patriots and freedom lovers in our country since the constitutional revolution of 1906.
But Tehran’s new Islamist rulers had far less tolerance for the “ideal of all the patriots and freedom lovers” than the authoritarian Shah had harbored, and their regime resolved to eliminate democratic ideas by killing those who dared to voice them. A few months after our father’s murder, in August 1991, the 76-year-old Bakhtiar and his young secretary, Sorush Katibeh, were also stabbed to death in their home in the suburbs of Paris. The terrorists who killed Bakhtiar were linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran, which since the early years of the Islamic Revolution had sought the deaths of Iranian opposition leaders and other influential dissidents, both inside and outside the borders of Iran.
“They hit Dad.” Our brother’s trembling voice that April 18th still haunts us. So few words, and the life of an entire family was shattered. The pain that survivors of political assassinations go through is not easy to describe. Perhaps the most unsettling blow is that of seeing how easily evil can triumph. In just a few seconds the irremediable is done…forever. Pain, rage, and the urge for justice can fill you up till they paralyze you.
These political murders were committed during one of the Islamic Republic’s episodes of diplomatic rapprochement with the West. The French state showed little interest in pursuing justice. We children were left alone with the unbearable filial duty of seeking justice for a murdered father. We experienced the abyss of loneliness and helplessness into which one is plunged by the brutal realization that a hostile state can kill your loved one with arrogance and impunity. But our father had shown us the way—he never gave in to despotism or despair. Helpless and powerless as we felt, we still knew that the truth and our faith in universal human rights were an arsenal that no one could ever take away from us, and that we could use them in our quest for justice.
It is true that to bring the perpetrators to justice, we need the state or the international community of states, but nothing prevents us, as ordinary citizens and members of civil society, from assuming our moral responsibility. Evil consists in the eclipse of humanity. So what we sought to do, after the fact, was to restore the universal essence of human nature and honor human dignity. The perpetrators kill to eliminate their victims; this cannot be undone, yet it is possible to bring them back in memory. The violation of victims’ human rights is a deliberate denial of their human dignity. To remedy such an outrage, we can posthumously restore their human rights.
That is how the idea of an online memorial dedicated to the victims of the Iranian state took root in our mind. It is a memorial dedicated to all victims, not just to our father, for our father gave his life for the rights of all. Omid (it means “hope” in Persian) was the name that we chose for this memorial project. Omid’s goal is to systematically catalogue and document—to the greatest extent possible in every case, through all the records and eyewitness testimony that can be gathered—the story of each and every person whom the Islamic Republic has killed, and to create a file in both Persian and English that will serve as a virtual memorial to them, one that will enshrine their stories and record their ordeals.
A Virtual Memorial in Defense of Human Rights
On April 18th, 2001, the tenth anniversary of our father’s murder, we foundedthe Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran (ABF). The Omid Memorial was its first project. By naming the Foundation after our father, we sent a message to his killers: You may have destroyed Abdorrahman Boroumand’s body, but you cannot kill his spirit or the principles for which he gave his life. On the contrary, others have taken up the struggle for his ideas. And since the implementation of universal human rights in Iran was the essence of what he wanted for his beloved homeland, we created a silent city through Omid, where victims of persecution have found a common life whose substance is memory.
Omid's citizens are of varying social origins, nationalities, and religions; they are of diverse, and often opposing, opinions and ideologies. Despite their differences, however, they are united in Omid by virtue of the natural rights and the humanity they hold in common. What makes them fellow citizens is that each was one day unfairly and arbitrarily robbed of his or her life by an unjust state, and that each is remembered. If you visit this online city, you will realize that, through their common ordeal, the citizens of Omid have created another Iran, an imaginary Iran: a democratic polity, pluralistic and diverse, where citizens’ rights and intrinsic human dignity are not denied and trampled upon, but cherished and respected. This city is meant as a model for Iran, the Iran of Abdorrahman’s dreams. He dared to dream of liberty for his country, and we, his children, will not let that dream die.
Omid stories are like the pieces of a puzzle, when put together, they form a counter-narrative to the official history of Iran under the Islamic Revolution. The work of putting them together is hard and very slow, yet there is no way around it if we want to understand what went wrong and grasp what must change if we are to live in dignity and peace. Today Omid hosts the stories of more than 18,000 victims. They come from Iran, Argentina, Lebanon, the United States, Japan, France, Afghanistan... They are Christians, Jews, atheists, Muslims both Sunni and Shia, Baha’is, and Sufis. They are Persians, Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs, Argentines, Afghans….They are men and women, old and young, rich and poor… their stories bear witness to the unspeakable, and challenge our conscience.
We know from treasured experience that each time a daughter, son, father, mother, or sibling searches the name of a vanished loved one online and finds that person listed, unexpectedly, in Omid’s virtual memorial, the realization comes home to these survivors that out there somewhere are people who care, who bear witness to the harm that has been done, and who stand up for remembrance and justice. We know, again from experience, that this leaves the bereaved feeling just a bit less isolated. We have faith that through such moments of emotional solidarity run the threads—tiny and fragile but real—which will knit the “raveled sleeve” of Iran’s social solidarity, torn and cruelly shredded as it has been by state violence. Humbly and imperceptibly, Omid seeks to embody the humane solidarity that binds free citizens together and lays the groundwork for future progress toward justice, peace, and reconciliation—three essentials that our troubled homeland must come to enjoy if a durable transition to democracy is ever to have a chance there.
Today, as we pay our loving respects to the memory of our father, serenity and hope have chased rage and despair from our hearts. We have come a long way since April 18th, 1991.We have learned that no matter how powerless you feel, you always have the power to change the rules of the game and to challenge your persecutors on your own terms, based on your own values. And there is no more appropriate time for us to express our profound gratitude to the thousands of survivors who have entrusted us with their loved ones’ stories, to the international community that has given essential support to ABF’s efforts, and to our colleagues and volunteers at ABF whose dedication and hard work we constantly depend on and admire. We renew our pledge to continue our struggle for universal human rights in Iran, and to document every single case of judicial and extrajudicial killing by the Islamic republic of Iran, until the day when killings cease. On that day, the Omid memorial will no longer be the ongoing project of a human-rights organization, but a historical archive dedicated to the study of past state violence. May that day come, and soon.
Ladan and Roya Boroumand
April 18th, 2016