October 22, 2012
The recently published third report by Dr. Ahmad Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran, provoked a statement from Sadeq Larijani. In an October 18 statement, the evidently irritated head of Iran's judiciary attacked Dr. Shaheed's sources and stressed that "there are absolutely no political executions in Iran." Clearly, the thorough report has gotten under the skin of those who run Iran's judicial system, underlining the importance of international support to human rights documentation and advocacy.
My purpose here is not to defend the UN report, which speaks for itself. Rather, I want to point to what Larijani's outburst means and why it should encourage the international community to stand with the victims and strengthen human rights defenders. For those of us who spend our days documenting executions in Iran, to hear a denial such as this from the top official in a court system where denial of due process is sanctioned by law and unfair trials are the norm, may bring a wry smile. For the thousands of Iranian families -- and mine is one of them -- whose hopes and often lives have been laid waste by the politically motivated killings of their loved ones, the denial is a sad reminder of a persistent culture of impunity.
On 18 April 1991, in a barely audible voice, my brother gave me the terrible news over the phone: "They hit Dad." After a few desperate questions -- "Where is he now? "How badly is he injured?"--I had to accept the simple reality. My father had been stabbed to death by professionals, according to the police, in his apartment building in Paris.
My 19-year-old brother was the only one among us to see my father's body drenched in blood. It was a sight that he has never talked about and that no doubt haunts him to this day. The astonished face of my colleague who quietly drove me home and the dismay on the faces of relatives and friends who showed up at my door throughout that awful day remain vivid in my mind. The act of stealing a life -- arbitrarily and with cowardice -- that April day was an assault on our dignity but also on our happiness. Life was never going to be the same for us.
My father had been a supporter of deposed premier Mohammed Mossadeq and a dissident for decades. He had always advocated democracy, which made him a "corruptor on earth" for the Islamic Republic's judiciary, though he did not believe in armed struggle, which spared him the charge of "waging war against God." My initial reaction to his murder was obsessively to ask myself "Why? Why now?" I knew well that we were neither the first, nor would we be the last, family to find themselves mourning a loved one killed in such circumstances. What I couldn't comprehend was why Iran's rulers feared an exiled dissident with little means of actually endangering the regime.
My father's death, like that of so many other political activists in and outside Iran, was a news item and soon forgotten. But we, the families, are here to remind the world that political executions and assassination in Iran exist, whether they are officially acknowledged or not.
It is true that over the years, the number of these killings has dropped. Years of violence have almost completely neutralized organized dissent, and technological progress has made it difficult to kill hundreds without damage to the Islamic Republic's image. Yet the authorities' ruthless resolve to deter organized dissent, captured by cameras in the summer of 2009, remains as strong as ever.
Political and arbitrary executions spread fear and silence voices of dissent in general. When such measures target leaders and organizers, they eliminate the chances of concerted action, which remains the authorities' nightmare. In 1991, my sister Ladan and I established the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation to honor our father's memory. Documenting the cases of thousands of Iranians who have been executed over the years has helped us gain a clearer view of our own history and a better understanding of the nature of the violence that has hit our homeland.
The victims' stories are the pieces of the confusing puzzle that Iran's history has been for most of us. They shed light on the context in which violent acts take place and expose the Iranian authorities' fear of anyorganized opposition, peaceful as well as violent. "A dissident alone or loners have not been able to strike a blow or harm the revolution' but, noted President Khamenei on 23 June 1984, organized movements have been "a serious blow." What my father had in common with dissidents killed in the past few decades was his refusal to be cowed by threats and violence. He stayed loyal to his ideals and never wavered in his commitment to keeping his political movement alive and active.
The thousands of political prisoners who crowded Iranian prisons in the 1980s were punished for eating together or even making collective arrangements to clean their cells. Fatemeh Zare'i, a political activist and civil society organizer, was arrested and convicted in 1981 for sympathizing with the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK), before the group declared an armed struggle against the Islamic Republic. She was tried and convicted a second time in the mid-1980s for having organized a group of four fellow inmates. What activities they got up to together beyond praying and cleaning was never made clear by her accusers.
In the summer of 1988, a few months away from being released, Fatemeh and close to 4000 other MEK and leftist sympathizers -- most of them already inmates of the Islamic Republic's jails -- were hanged in secret across Iran. The charges against them were related directly to their beliefs, and their executions were politically motivated.
To take a few other cases in chronological order:
In November 1994, Saidi Sirjani, writer, poet, and a founding member of the Writers' Association died while being detained in a Ministry of information safe house. He had been arrested for criticizing the Islamic Republic's policies in articles and letters to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Before his death, Sirjani appeared on television "confessing" to various crimes including drug use and dealing. No autopsy was allowed and the authorities did not return his body to his family for burial.
In November 1998, Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, political activists and outspoken critics of the regime, were gruesomely stabbed to death in their home by agents of the Ministry of Information. They were punished for establishing links to new groups of students who had discovered the ideals they represented through their association with Mossadeq.
In July 2005, Shwaneh Qaderi was shot and arrested in Iranian Kurdistan and died subsequently. The photos of his badly injured body circulated on the web causing rioting in the region and the shooting deaths of several protesters. His main crime, organizing a boycott of the 2005 presidential election in Kurdistan, was political.
In August 2008, civil-society activist Ya'qub Mehrnahad was executed for alleged links to armed groups in Iranian Baluchistan. More likely, he was killed because he promoted nonviolence and attracted young Baluchis to his NGO called Questioning Youth, Accountable Leaders. His captors advised his family against contacting human-rights lawyers and sentenced to prison his 15-year-old brother who dared publicize the case.
In May 2010, Farzad Kamangar, a popular teacher and civil-society activist in Kurdistan, was secretly executed after several years of prison, torture, and a closed-door trial on trumped-up charges. In a final act of cruelty, the authorities buried him in a spot that they refused to disclose.
If these executions, only a handful among many, are not political, then perhaps we need a new entry in the dictionary to define what they are. If these killings are legitimate and justifiable, why is there so much secrecy around them? Why is there no transparency in trials when they take place and why are no independent observers allowed to be present? Why are lawyers prevented from meeting their clients freely and accessing their files? Why are so many lawyers and journalists imprisoned for speaking up about the lack of due process?
Perhaps Larijani's denial of political executions is not meant for the Iranian people or the human rights community, but rather for a poorly informed and supportive constituency outside Iran that is too willing to accept the Islamic Republic's habit of blaming others for its shortcomings. But we should appreciate Larijani's unease, even if it is expressed in the form of a blatant lie. The fact that the number of reported executions in Iran has been trending downward -- from 817 in 2010 and 652 in 2011 to 385 so far in 2012 -- may well have to do with the active presence and reporting of the UN special rapporteurs and others who are focused on safeguarding human rights.
Through my work toward documenting the stories of all the Islamic Republic's victims, I have found the best answers I can to the questions that obsessed in 1991. I have also found some relief from the consuming anguish and frustration that decades of untold stories and anonymous suffering by thousands of victims and victims' loved ones have brought in their train.
The painstaking task of documenting thousands of executions to which my colleagues and I have devoted our lives for the past ten years, added to the efforts of other human rights organizations, has helped to protect people who dare to speak up. Perhaps, and in spite of the limited means at our disposal, we have made the regime worry that if it kills them they will not be forgotten, and so stayed the executioner's hand. Larijani's absurd claim that "there are absolutely no political executions in Iran" did not make me smile, but it did reinforce my conviction that truth telling is the most effective tool we have to make tyrants uneasy and slower to unleash their violence.