Promoting tolerance and justice through knowledge and understanding
Human rights violations in Iran: Causes and Modalities

CONFESSIONS

Ervand Abrahamian
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
November 30, 1998
Book chapter

Mass Executions of 1988

These mass executions . . . violate the fundamental principles of Islam, of the Holy Prophet, and of our Imam Ali.

Ayatollah Montazeri, "Letter to Imam Khomeini," 31 August 1988

The Inquisition

In the early hours of Friday, 19 July 1988, the regime suddenly, without warning, isolated the main prisons from the outside world. It slammed shut their gates; canceled scheduled visits and telephone calls; banned all newspapers; cleared the cells of radios and televisions; refused to accept letters, care packages, and even vital medicines; and forbade relatives from congregating outside the prison gates-especially in Luna Park outside Evin. What is more, the main law courts went on an unscheduled vacation so that concerned relatives would not gather there seeking information. Some panic-stricken families rushed to Qom in search of Ayatollah Montazeri-who was still the heir-designate.[1]

The wardens isolated not only the prisons from the outside world but also each cell block from other cell blocks in the same prison. Inmates were confined to their cells. Communal places, such as lecture halls, workshops, infirmaries, and courtyards, were closed down. Guards and Afghan prison worker were instructed not to speak to inmates. In effect, the political prisoners were completely isolated from the nonpolitical ones, the Mojahedin from the leftists, the repenters from the nonrepenters, those with long sentences from those with short ones, and those who had just stared theirs from those who had completed theirs. One ingenious inmate assembled a wireless set to find out what was happening only to discover that the radio stations were not reporting news about the prisons. They were observing a news blackout. Thus began an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history-unprecedented in form, content, and intensity. It even outdid the 1979 reign of terror. The curtain of secrecy, however, was so effective that no Western journalist heard of it and no Western academic discussed it. They still have not.

Just before the executions-we do not know exactly when-Khomeini had issued a secret but extraordinary order-some suspect a formal fatwa, or religious decree-setting up Sepecial Commissions with instructions to execute Mojaheds as moharebs (those who war against God) and leftists as mortads (apostates form Islam). The Tehran commission-totaling sixteen-contained representatives from the Imam himself, the president, the chief prosecutor, the Revolutionary Tribunals, the Ministries of Justice and Intelligence, and the administrations of Evin and Gohar Dasht. Its chair, Ayatollah Eshraqi, had two special assistants-Hojjat al-Islam Nayeri and Hojjat al-Islam Mobasheri. In the next five months, this commission shuttled back and forth from Evin to Gohar Dasht by helicopter. It was to be dubbed "the commission of death." Similar commissions were set up in the provinces.

The Tehran commission began with the Mojahedin and their repenters. It prefaced the proceedings by assuring then that this was not a trial but a process for initiating a general amnesty and separating the Muslims from the non-Muslims. It then asked their organizational affiliation. If they replied "Mojahedin," the questioning ended there. If they replied "monafeqin" (hypocrites), the commission continued with such questions as "Are you willing to denounce former colleagues?" "Are you willing to denounce them before the cameras?" "Are you willing to help us hunt them down?" "Will you name secret sympathizers?" "Will you identify phony repenters?" "Will you go to the war front and walk through enemy minefields?"

The prisoners in Evin remained blindfolded throughout the proceedings. But those in Gohar Dasht were permitted to see the commission members. The questions were clearly designed to tax to the utmost the victim's sense of decency, honor, and self-respect. Raha writes that not a single one of the fifty Mojaheds in her ward returned from the investigation.[2] Another eyewitness writes that 195 of the 200 Mojaheds in block 2 of Gohar Dasht did not return.[3] Yet another writes that Hojjat al-Islam Nayeri was determined to take as large a toll as possible whereas Ayatollah Eshraqi made a halfhearted attempt to moderate.[4]

The Mojahedin who gave unsatisfactory answers were promptly taken to a special room where they were ordered to write their last will and testament. They were also ordered to discard such personal belongings as rings, watches, and spectacles. They were then led blindfolded to the gallows. The gallows in Evin were in the secluded Hosseiniyeh lecture hall. Those in Gohar Dasht were in the enclosed amphitheater and the adjacent box-making factory. The victims were hanged in batches of six. Some took fifteen minutes to die-the traditional method of hanging in Iran involves stringing up the victim by the neck rather than dropping him down a trapdoor. After the first few days, the overworked executioners requested firing squads. These requests, however, were rejected on the claim that the sharia mandated hanging for apostates and enemies of God. Probably the real reason was the need for absolute silence and secrecy.

The leftists were told that the Mojahedin were being transferred elsewhere. But a few in Gohar Dasht suspected something was amiss when they saw freezer vans and masked guards moving in and out of the amphitheater-unbeknown to them masks were being used because the morgue freezers had broken down. One guard claimed that they were merely "cleaning out the prison and that every new regime sooner of later needs to clean out its prisons." The prisoners did not get the double meaning until later. One Afghan worker delivering food made ominous signs around his neck. But again the prisoners did not get the meaning until later. Some thought he was trying to indicate that Khomeini had died. It was hard for them to imagine mass slaughter at a time of national rejoicing-Khomeini had just ended the eight-year war by accepting the UN peace offer. As with concentration camp inmates, familiarity with death did not necessarily prepare them for the worst. One survivor admits that he thought he was being processed to be released in time for the forthcoming peace celebrations.[5]

After August 27, the commission turned its attention to the leftists. Assuring them that it merely sought to separate practicing Muslims from no practicing ones, it asked them: "Are you a Muslim?" "Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?" "Do you accept the Holy Mohammad to be the Seal of the Prophets?" "Will you publicly recant historical materialism?" "Will you denounce your former beliefs before the cameras?" "Do you fast during Ramadan?" "Do you pray and read the Holy Koran?" "Would you rather share a cell with a Muslim or a non-Muslim?" "Will you sign an affidavit that you believe in God, the Prophet, the Holy Koran, and the Resurrection?" "When you were growing up did your father pray, fast, and read the Holy Koran?" Few grasped the lethal significance of the last question.

Like the medieval Inquisition, the commission was posing loaded questions-especially for college students ignorant of esoteric theology. Such questions bewildered Iranians as much as they would their Western counterparts. They had never been raised before in Iranian courts-if ever in the Middle East. It was an inquisition in the full sense of the term-an investigation into religious beliefs rather than into political and organizational affiliations. Conspicuously absent from them were the issues that had concerned the preceding tribunals-issues such as "subversion." "treason." "espionage." "terrorism." And "imperialist links," As one Fedayi commented, "In previous years, they wanted us to confess to spying, in 1988, they wanted us to convert to Islam."[6]Another Fedayi admitted that he was bewildered by the fact that his interrogators seemed completely uninterested in his political activities, political affiliations, and political stands.[7]

The first leftists to go before the Evin commission were those with light, and even completed, sentences. This gives the death list the appearance of a random lottery. Some who perished on the first day were serving short sentences; some who survived in the following days were serving long, even life, sentences. The discrepancy can be explained. At Gohar Dasht, a leftist prisoner who had at one time attended a seminary quickly grasped the theological significance of the questions. He spent the night of August 30 sending Morse code messages to other cells pointing out their hidden dangers. He warned that refusal to answer on grounds of "privacy" could itself be taken as an admission of "apostasy." More important, he pointed out that technically one was not an apostate unless one had been raised by a Muslim father who regularly prayed, read the Koran, and observed Ramadan. Nominal Muslims not raised in proper Muslim homes first had to be exposed to true Islam before they could be deemed apostates deserving death. According to Qom, apostates came in two forms: mortad-e fetri (innate apostates) and mortad-e melli (national apostates). The former deserved death; the latter deserved a second chance.

Those on the leftist wards spent the night discussing what position to take toward the questionnaire. Some determined to die, and., in preparation, pout on their best clothes. One even wore a necktie as a flagrant symbol of cultural resistance. But others decided to give pasokh-ha-ye taktiki (tactical answers). One such answer was to say that one's parents had not been observant Muslims. Of course, this was only tempting for those whose parents had passed away. One informed the commission he had been raised in the atheistic Soviet Union. Another remembered that his father-a strict secularist-had threatened to discipline him if he ever caught him praying. Another "tactical answer" was to say that they had lapsed in their religious observances not because of ideological objections but because they had been too busy earning a living. Yet another "tactical answer" was that they were not Marxists but leftists who believed in God, the  Prophet, and the Resurrection. One told the commission that he could be both a Muslim and a full-fledged Tudeh member because the party program did not discriminate against religion: "The party is against capitalism, not against God."[8] Ironically, one of the very first casualties was a Tudeh militant who happened to be a devout Muslim. He refused to respond to the questions on the grounds that the state had no business asking him "personal questions." By contrast, almost everyone in Evin's block 6-reserved for Tudeh members with fifteen-year sentences-survived by voting to give tactical answers.[9] On the whole, Ayatollah Eshraqi was willing to accept such answers at face value.

These investigations continued for three months. In Evin and Gohar Dasht, they were carried out in the main courtrooms. Some prisoners were given oral investigations; others typed questionnaires. Some could see their interrogators; others were separated from them by high platforms. Those giving acceptable answers were sown to the doors on the right. Those with unacceptable ones were sown to the doors on the left. The former were returned to their cells, ordered to perform their daily prayers, and given ten lashes for each one they refused to perform-totaling fifty lashes per day. Those who failed the test were taken to the gallows with a brief stopover to deposit their personal possessions and write their last will and testament. In the commotion, a few survived by being sent to the wrong doors. Two survivors remember taking this talk of last testaments as a joke because they could not imagine such a questionnaire sealing one's fate.[10]

The treatment meted out to women was somewhat more complicated. Whereas Mojahedin women were promptly hanged as "armed enemies of God," leftist women-even those raised as practicing Muslims-were given another "opportunity" to reconsider their "apostasy." In the eyes of the magistrates, women were not fully responsible for their actions, and disobedient women-including apostates-could be given discretionary punishments to mend their ways and obey their male superiors. After the investigation, leftist women were systematically given five lashes for every prayer missed-half that meted ten years later that she still had recurring nightmares in which she saw herself praying and thereby betraying her whole persona. Some went on a hunger strike-refusing even water. One died after twenty-two days and 550 lashes. The authorities certified her death as suicide-after all, it was "she who had made the decision not to pray."[11]

Real suicides also occurred in increasing numbers-in men's as well as women's wards. Some got the distinct impression that the authorities were internationally leaving razor blades around to facilitate suicides.[12] In an article entitled "Life after 1988," one survivor describes characteristics that can be identified as typical posttrauma symptoms: inability to accept the calamity, terror that it would be repeated, deep depression, acute survival guilt, and refusal to admit-even to themselves-that they had given "tactical answers." He describes the scene as a Kafkaesque nightmare and adds that the survivors vowed to write down their experiences to "bear witness" for those who had perished.[13]

The full scope of these executions remains unknown. We have few eyewitness accounts from the provinces. All we know for certain is that Isfahan was the only major provincial capital to escape them. The Isfahan prison was still administered by Montazeri supporters. What is more, the regime in 1988-un like 1979 and 1981-released no lists. On the contrary, it insisted-and still does-that no such executions took place.

Raha places the death toll in the "thousands."[14] Another eyewitness puts it between 5,000 and 6,000-1,000 form the left and the rest from the Mojahedin.[15] Yet another estimates it in the "thousands," with Gohar Dasht alone having as many as 1,500.[16] A recent study using scattered information from the provinces places the figure at 12,000.[17] Amnesty International estimates that the national total is more than 2,500 and describes the vast majority of the victims as "prisoners of conscience" as they had not been charged with actual deeds or plans of deeds against the state.[18] Whatever the exact figures, the total outdid 1979 when the casualties had included some who had been shot in armed confrontations. In 1988, they were all killed in cold blood.

The Majority Fedayi has published the names of 615 victims, giving, where possible, organizational affiliation and place of execution.[19] But this list is by no means complete as it is confined to specific blocks within Evin and Gohar Dasht. Of the 615, 137 were from the Mojadehin; 90, from the Tudeh; 108, from the Majority Fedayi; 20, from the Minority Fedayi; 21, from other Fedayi offshoots; 30, from Kumaleh; 12, from Rah-e Kargar; 3, from Peykar; and 12, from other leftist groups. The political affiliations of the other 182 remain unknown.

The Tudeh has published obituaries for eighty of its martyrs.[20] They include 20 former military officers, 4 of whom had been imprisoned by the Shah for twenty-four years; 14 engineers; 12 technicians; 12 workers; 11 full-time party functionaries, many with college degrees from the Soviet Union; 8 teachers; 5 university students; 2 medical doctors; 2 accountants; and another 2 civil servants. Thirty-including 10 from the 1983 "roundtable"-were members of the central committee. In terms of region, 17 had been born in Tehran; 16, in Azerbaijan; 15, in the Caspian provinces 14, in the central provinces; 9, in Kurdestan; and 7, in Khorasan. In terms of age, 11 were in their twenties; 23, in their sixties; 5, in their seventies; and 1, in his eighties. This inquisition was no respecter of age.

Some victims had been in prison since 1983. Some had completed their sentences. Some had not yet been tried. But almost all had been arrested for relatively minor offenses. Those with serious charges had already been executed. The 1988 slaughter resembled the "disappearances" of contemporary Latin America-but with one ironic difference. In Latin America, inquisitional methods were not used despite the Catholic tradition. But in Iran, they were used even though the country lacked such a tradition. The medieval Inquisition had made its debut in modern Iran.

Relatives were not officially informed of the executions until well after November 25. To prevent public gatherings, they were informed in separate groups in the course of many weeks. They were explicitly ordered not to observe the traditional forty-day mourning period. Some were told by telephone. Most were summoned to neighborhood komitehs-a few to Evin-to collect the personal possessions as well as the last will and testament of the deceased. Only innocuous last wills were handed over.

Relatives feared the worst long before November. They had seen unmarked graves appearing in Behesht-e Zahara, the main cemetery, and, in Khavarestan, a new one opened next to the Bahai graveyard in eastern Tehran. Behesht-e Zahara was reserved for Muslims; Khavarestan, for Muslim apostates. The Mojahedin-being Muslims-cold be buried in Behesht-e Zahara. But the Marxists-being unbelievers-had to be segregated. Najes rules applied in death as in life. The regime had even transferred from Behesht-e Zahara to Kahvarestan some Fedayi victims of SAVAK. The authorities dubbed the place kaferestan (land of unbelievers) and lanatabad (the land of the damned). The bereaved, having planted rose beds there, called it Golzar-e Khaveran (Eastern Flower Fields). In contemporary Iran, cemeteries are potent signifiers in more ways than one.

Even now, a decade later, the motives behind the 1988 massacres remain unclear. Some speculate that the regime was either reacting to hunger strikes in Evin or was trying to ease the prison overcrowding problem. In other words, the executions were a form o "housecleaning." Some speculate that they were designed primarily to silence the opposition and strike terror into the public. Others link them to Khomeini's acceptance of the UN peace offer-an act he equated with "drinking poison." According to this theory, he launched the executions to deflect anger form the costly war that he could have ended six years before when Iran had liberated Khorramshahr. Yet others link them to a military offensive the Mojahedin launched into western Iran as soon as Khomeini accepted the ceasefire.

These theories, however, do not withstand careful scutiny. The prisons were less crowded in 1988 than at any other time in the previous eight years. In fact, Qezel Hesar had been emptied of all political prisoners. Besides, the regime could have solved any overcrowding problem by simply releasing the repenters and those who had completed their sentences. The hunger strike in Evin had been resolved long before the Special Commission convened. The secrecy shrouding the whole event belies the notion that it was designed to strike fear into the public. If the intention was to create public terror, the regime should have publicized the executions to the hilt-as it had in 1979 and 1981.

The armistice may have been "poison" for Khomeini, but for the rest of the country, especially for those in uniform, it was relief sent from God. Similarly, the Mojahedin incursion, which was a complete fiasco from its inception, may possibly explain the Mojahedin executions; but by no stretch of the imagination can it explain the others as the leftists opposed the Mojahedin and were not accused of "warring against God." Likewise, the regime could not have been resorting to such drastic measures out of a sense of insecurity as it had just ended the war and crushed the Mojahedin incursion. In fact, many leftists went before the investigatory commissions expecting to receive amnesty for the peace celebrations.[21] Thus these executions appear to have been the product, not of fearful panic, but of calculated planning.

The real answer may lie elsewhere-in the regime's internal dynamics. Peace with Iraq brought Khomeini the realization that he had lost the most valuable glue holding together his disparate followers-some of whom were moderates, others radicals, some reformers, others conservatives, some dogmatic fundamentalists, others pragmatic populists. He also realized that his ailing health would soon remove him form the scene and thus leave his followers without a paramount leader. He further realized that the regime contained influential personalities, such as Hojjat al-Islam Rafsanjani, who probably hoped someday to mend bridges with the West as well as with more moderate elements in the opposition.

To forge unity, Khomeini came up with a two-pronged strategy; the Salman Rushdie fatwa and the mass executions. The Rushdie fatwa would not only further isolate the country but would also raise formidable-if not insurmountable-obstacles in the way of any future leader hoping to initiate a détente with the West. Even more important, the bloodbath would test the true mettle of his followers. It would weed out the halfhearted from the true believers. It would weed out the halfhearted from the true believers, the wishy-washy from the real revolutionaries, the weak-willed from the fully committed. It would force them to realize that they would stand or fall together. It would silence them on the issues of human rights and individual liberties. It would also sever once and for all the religious radicals within his movement form the secular radicals outside. In fact, Tudeh organizers had been tortured in 1983-84 to confess to having secret ties with radicals within the regime-especially with the labor minister. In short, the slaughter would serve both as a baptism of blood and as a self administered purge.

It accomplished exactly that- forcing Ayatollah Montazeri to resign as the heir-designate. In the course of the previous year, Montazeri had taken issue with the diehard cleric on a number of subjects-the Hashemi trial, the antihoarding campaign, and the special courts, as well as the appointment of judges, seminary teachers, imam jom'ehs, prison wardens, and parliamentary committees to investigate prison conditions.[22] But these conflicts had remained behind closed doors. Outsiders, even prisoners, had no inkling of what was going on behind the scenes. In the words of one prisoner, "We leftists failed to distinguish between the pro- and the anti-Montazeri wardens and clerics. We did not realize our mistake until much later."[23]

The mass executions off three public letters-two to Khomeini, one to the Special Commission-denouncing in no uncertain terms these "thousands of executions." He began by reminding the recipients that he had suffered more than they at the hands of the opposition as the Mojahedin had assassinated his son. He then took the Special Commission to task for violating Islam by executing repenters and minor offenders who in a proper court of law would have received a mere reprimand. He also took the commission to task for putting intolerable burdens on prisoners-even demanding they should walk through minefields. "In addition to alienating many citizens, these unlawful executions can provide our enemies abroad with valuable propaganda ammunition to hurl against us."[24] Montazeri concluded by requesting relief from the "heavy responsibility" of being the future Supreme Leader.

Khomeini promptly obliged, replying cryptically that "the responsibility requires more endurance than you have shown."[25] To protect his own political infallibility, Khomeini claimed that he had always harbored reservations about Montazeri's competence and that it had been the Assembly of Experts that had insisted on naming him the future Supreme Leader. "I", declared Khomeini, "expressed reservations when the Assembly of Experts first appointed you."

In the following months, the regime circulated a selection of letters exchanged between Khomeini and Montazeri. The avowed aim was to explain the latter's resignation. But the selection dealt only with the Hashemi affair and scrupulously avoided the mass executions-thus observing the official line that these executions never took place.[26] Likewise, ten years later, when Montazeri dared to renew his criticism, the regime took him to task for "deviating" on a number of issues-but failed to mention the unsavory subject of mass executions.[27] Immediately after his resignation, Montazeri became a no person-much like the late Ayatollah Shariatmadari. His pictures were removed from public places. His office was closed. His name disappeared from the mass media. What is more, he was physically confined to Qom. Thus when Khomeini died in June 1989, he could feel confident that he was leaving behind a regime free of weak-kneed and halfhearted supporters. Those who remained had proved their mettle either by endorsing or by participating in the mass executions. Khomeini's creative genius should never be underestimated

Once the task had been accomplished, the regime ended the mass executions-thus further disproving the notion that they had been triggered by panic. It wound down the Special Commission, reopened the prison doors, and permitted bereaved families to gather at the cemeteries. It even turned a blind eye when Mojahedin and leftist families exchanged visits at Behesht-e Zahara and Khavarestan. Some families formed the Society for the Support of Political Prisoners and mimeographed a newsletter called Band-e Rah'i (Cry of Freedom). This carried news about prisons as well as biographies of those executed. The society drew support from the Mojahedin and the Minority Fedayi, as well as from the Tudeh, the Majority Fedayi, Rah-e Kargar, Kumaleh, and the Kurdish Democrats.

The regime also permitted Galindo Pohl, the UN Special Commissioner on Human Rights in Iran, to make two separate visits to Iran-even to Evin. Ladjevardi welcomed Pohl to Evin with a band concert-oblivious to the fact that similar concerts had routinely greeted the Red Cross at Auschwitz. What is more, Ladjevardi and other wardens stopped whipping those who refused to pray and perform religious rituals. They also stopped insisting on public recantations, and instead sought short "letters of regret" and promises not to discuss their prison experiences. Finally, Ladjevardi announced with much fanfare a broad amnesty, implying that most political prisoners would soon be released.

In early 1989, the television networks featured a large Friday prayer meeting in downtown Tehran involving former royalists, Mojahedins, and well-known leftists form diverse Marxist groups. One former prisoner relates how one morning, without warning, he was ordered to put on his best clothes, and then was bused to this meeting where he was given a placard to carry.[28] The media gave the impression that these "repenters" were about to be pardoned because they had been "forgiven." One paper headlined the story as the "Morning of Freedom for those Returning to the True Light."[29] One participant was quoted as saying that some of those returning to Islam had resisted SAVAK for years without forsaking their Marxism This all went to prove the superiority of Islam.

The End of Television Recantations

The recantation shows, which had peaked in the mid-1980s, gradually dwindled in the late 1980s and became a rarity by the early 1990s. This, however, did not mean the end of political repression. On the contrary, arbitrary arrests, secret executions, and even summary ones proceeded-although at a reduced rate. The number of political prisoners remained high despite the 1989 amnesty. According to the UN, in 1994 Iran still had more than 19,000 political prisoners,[30] Jewish and Bahai leaders continued to be shot as "foreign spies." Exiled politicians were increasingly assassinated. Dissidents inside Iran began to "disappear," die suddenly of "natural causes," and be targeted by government propaganda-especially by a new television program called "Hoviyyat" (Identity). This program specialized in naming intellectuals as "hired agents" of the Bahais, Zionists, Freemasons, British, Americans, and even Germans,. For obvious reasons, the Soviets had disappeared from the litany.

Moreover, the prison authorities continued to torture to obtain videotaped confessions and ideological recantations-even though they no longer aired them on national television. In 1994, the UN reported that the regime had reverted to the practice of not releasing political prisoners until they had recanted before the video cameras.[31] Similarly, Amnesty International noted that the use of torture to obtain recantations and self-incriminating confessions had returned by the mid1990s.[32] But these videos were now used solely for internal consumption-especially for trials held in camera. Like Stalinist Russia after 1939, the regime ceased broadcasting such confessions but continued to use them in closed trials. The judicial system had routinized forced confessions.

The regime stopped televising recantations not because it had become more respectful of human rights but because it realized that the viewing public-especially the attentive public-had grown more sophisticated on the issues of forced confessions and foreign conspiracies. Many had tired of hearing the incessant call that "the country is in danger." Some were discussing-even taking gibes-at the paranoia mood that had gripped the country in earlier decades. Paradoxically, the regime's own survival had helped to diminish the mood. By the 1990s, few felt that omnip9tent external powers were on the verge of taking over the country. After all, Iran had survived the hostage crises as well as the Iraqi war; the Soviet Union had collapsed; and the United States had been unable to alter the course of the revolution. What is more, the call sounded hollow in light of Irangate and the regime's own dealings with Israel and the United States. Had not Khomeini himself coined the famous slogan "America Cannot Do Much"?

Even more important was the increasing awareness among the attentive public of the stage preparations needed to produce recantation shows. By the late 1980s, all the opposition published reams of eyewitness accounts documenting the use of torture to extract recantations and confessions. This contrasted sharply with the earlier reticence to discuss the whole subject. In letters faxed to the UN, Entezam, Bazargan's deputy, documented the pressures exerted on fellow prisoners to give false confessions.[33] Similarly, in an open letter to Montazeri, an imprisoned surgeon described these tortures and declared, "You once said that the use of torture for forced recantations is a great a sin as committing adultery in the Ka'aba."[34] Likewise, Kianuri in his prison cell described to Galindo Pohl how he and his wife had been tortured to give false confessions. As evidence, he held up his badly set broken arm.[35] Pohl added that Maryam Firuz had difficulty hearing, swallowing food, and sitting down because of beatings suffered eight years earlier.[36]

References to tortured recantations even crept into the official media-albeit in roundabout ways. In 1991-93, Kianuri-now in "house imprisonment"-was interviewed extensively by Kayhan and Jomhuri-ye Islam.[37] Although the interviews were ostensibly on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kianuri used the occasion to set the "record straight." He categorically denied that he and his colleagues had confessed to espionage. He rejected the charge that the Tudeh had ever committed "treason." He took issue over the claim that there was a religious revival in the world and made fun of Tabari for claiming to have become a "born-again Muslim." He vociferously defended the "unprecedented achievements" of the great October Revolution and "the heroic struggles of the Soviet people" and blamed the recent debacle in Moscow on such "Judases" as Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In short, he remained and unreconstructed Stalinist-despite seven years of prison indoctrination.

Kianuri took Stalin to task on two significant issues, however. Stalin, he stressed, had "executed patriotic and well-trained military officers who would have been useful in the war against the foreign invaders." Even worse, he had used "medieval inquisitional methods to extract false confessions." "At the time people believed these confessions. They did not discover the truth until years later." One does not need to be a trained Kremlinologist to realize that Kianuri's real target was not Stalin but someone closer to home. In these interviews, Kianuri did not try to explain how he had managed to survive-probably because he, like many others, had signed a vow promising not to discuss his prison experiences

This rising awareness about torture led many to be more understanding of recanters-even to empathize with them. This again contrasted sharply with the past. Traditionally, the term e'terafat (confession, recantation) had connoted betrayal and defection. By the late 1980s, it could mean no more than a measured response to unbearable pain. Similarly, the term towab (repenter) originally had the associations of active collaboration. But by the 1980s, it could mean no more than passive and limited submission. The prisoners themselves sharply differentiated between "tactical" and genuine "repentances," between halfhearted and full-hearted recantations, between harmless and deadly confessions, and between those "broken" into passive submission and those induced into active collaboration.

Raha writes that prisoners carefully scrutinized the confession shows to figure out which speakers had capitulated with out much resistance and which had resisted to their utmost.[38] She describes how when Mehdi Hashemi-no friend of the Marxist-appeared on television she and her fellow leftists spontaneously said to themselves, He must have suffered unbearable tortures."[39] She adds that one should not bandy about such loaded terms as kha'aen (traitor).[40]

Another prisoner writes that one should distinguish between those giving perfunctory "confessions" and those actively tormenting fellow inmates. He argues that the term "repenter" should be reserved for these tormenters.[41] Another argues that one should recognize the large gray area between "treason" and "resistance," distinguish between various degrees of collaboration, and think carefully before labeling someone a "tavvab."[42]  The Majority Fedayi argued that as far as the wardens were concerned a true "repenter" was one willing to go all the way-spying for them, whipping fellow prisoners, and taking part in executions.[43] The Minority Fedayi reported that by 1988 so many Mojahedin had given "tactical recantations" that these "tactical repenters" controlled whole wards and used their positions to undermine the wardens and help fellow prisoners.[44] Clearly, the recantation by itself no longer had the lethal ability to destroy the victim's aberu (honor, reputation, and self-respect). Without this ability, the recantation show had lost much of its lethal potency.

Instead of destroying the victim, public recantations now threatened to discredit the regime itself. Pohl reports that by 1990 television confessions "aroused considerable skepticism." They not only lacked "spontaneity and authenticity" but also inevitably raised a host of questions about "prison practices."[45] Other visitors to Iran, as well as readers of Persian publications inside and outside the country, were struck by the increasing interest shown in Galileo, Bukharin, Joan of Arc, the medieval Inquisition, Arthur Miller, Koestler, and, most noticeably, Or-well. Those who in the past had dismissed Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four as cold war propaganda were now-for the fist time-taking them seriously.[46] In order words, Iranian intellectuals-like their counterparts in the West-had grown more sophisticated on the whole subject of public confessions. They no longer associated them with truth, penance, and redemption. Instead, they linked them to torture, brutality, and state terror.

The regime-always sensitive to public perceptions-was observant enough to realize that such shows were now counterproductive. Three well-publicized cases illustrate this. In 1990, the Intelligence Ministry announced that eight colleagues of Bavarian, including a ninety-year-old friend, had confessed before the video cameras to forming an American "fifth column." [47]The ministry promised to try them in open court and televise their confessions so that all would see how they had forged ties to a certain Iranian woman in America who was linked to the Voice of America, which, in turn, as everyone knew, was linked to the CIA. In sharp contrast to the previous decade, much of the opposition-including the tudeh, Bazargan's bete noire-promptly declared that such confessions were worse than worthless because they were the products of horrendous tortures. [48]Without any confessions being televised, the eight were given short sentences by a closed court.

In 1994, the Intelligence Ministry announced that the prominent author Ali-Akbar Sa'idi Sirjani had confessed on camera to having indulged in drink, drugs, gambling, sex, especially homosexuality, and "spying for a foreign power" and "receiving money from the West, Israel, the royalists, and the Freemasons."[49] Before his arrest-prompted by a poem satirizing the Supreme Leader-Sirjani had been known for supporting Islam, the revolution, and Imam Khomeini. When a delegation of writers petitioned on his behalf, the Intelligence Ministry offered to show them his videotaped confession. But they declined with the retort that in recent years they had seen enough such confessions. Nine months later, the government announced had succumbed to "a heart attack." His videotaped confession was never televised.

Similarly, Faraj Sarkouhi, the editor of the left-wing Adineh (Friday), was kidnapped by security officials in December 1996. He had managed to publish his journal all these years by avoiding controversial issues. But just before his disappearance he had signed a petition against censorship and published an article critical of the new television program "Hoviyyat." After a forty-seven-day absence, Sarkouhi reappeared and succeeded-through relatives-in faxing out of the country an open letter describing his kidnapping. He wrote that he had been tortured to "make and remake" videotapes confessing to being a "foreign spy" and giving outrageous lies about his own and his colleagues' sex lives. Comparing his experience to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, Sarkouhi concluded that the seven years he had spent in the Shah's prisons were far more preferable to any five minutes of his recent forty-seven-day ordeal.[50] Again the actual video confession was never shown.

The television recantations had been initially produced as grand theater to praise the regime and damn the opposition. But once the stage preparations had been exposed, the same shows threatened to become counterproductive. Instead of legitimizing those in power, they risked delegitimizing them. Instead of focusing attention on the opposition, they reminded the public of the regime's own horrifying features. Instead of dividing the opposition, they helped to bring it together-if not formally, at least in their common denunciations of forced confessions and horrendous prison conditions. Instead of highlighting the weaknesses of the opposition, they drew attention to the regime itself-especially its methods for producing such shows. Instead of presenting "sensational revelations," they bored the public with a similar cast of characters with similar scripts and similar cast-down faces and expressions. The grand theater had turned into grade-B horror shows-minus the suspense. It was high time to terminate them.

Their disappearance, however, does not mean that they left no mark on Iranian history. On the contrary, many in contemporary Iran-as in the former Soviet Union- have had to ask themselves some fundamental questions: "What sort of regime needs such shows?" "What do these shows reveal about the real nature of the regime?" "Can individual liberties be protected in a state that resorts to such methods?" "What is the moral standing of a regime that is so reliant on prison torture?" The Islamic Republic has survived the last decade. But these shows may well return to haunt it in future decades. Forced confessions have left their imprint on the regime as well as on the opposition-on the tortures as well as on the tortured.



[1] For eyewitness accounts, see M. Raha (Pseudonym), Haqiqat-e Sadeh: Khaterat-e az Zendan-ha-ye Zanan-e Jomhuri-ye Islami (Plain Truths: Memoirs from Women's Prisons in the Islamic Republic) (Hannover, 1992-94), 3:125-48; N. Pakdaman, ed., "Five Eyewitness Accounts of the 1988 Executions," Cheshmandaz, no. 14 (Winter 1995): 54-74; Rah-e Kargar Organization, "Horrific Nightmare: Discussion with Three Survivors of the 1988 Mass Executions," Rah-e Kargar 90-93 (January-March 1992); K. Homayun, "The Slaughter at Gohar Dasht," Fedayi 61-62 (March-April 1990); Anonymous, "Reminiscences of the Mass Executions from Family Members," Ettehad-e Kar 12 (August 1990); Anonymous, "Clerics Without Mercy: Letter from a Martyr's Mother," Ettehad-e Kar 35 (August 1992); Anonymous, "Letter from a Grieving Relative," Ettehad-e Kar 12 (August 1990); Anonymous, "Letter from Gohar Dasht," Mardom 297 (6 February 1990); Anonymous, "Letter from Prison," Mardom 259 (16 May 1989); Anonymous, "I Witnessed the Salughter of Political Prisoners," Payam-e Kargar 64-68 (February-May 1990); Amnesty International, Iran: Violations of Human Rights, 1987-90 (London, 1990), 1-65; Refugee Committee, Dar Sal-e 1377 Bar ma Cheh Ghozasht? (What Happened to Us in 1988?) (Paris, 1994), 1-32; N. Mohajer, "The Mass Killings in Iran," Aresh 57 (August 1996): 4-8; "Interview with two Survivors of the Mass Killings," Ettehad-e Kar 41 (August 1997).

[2] Raha, Plain Truths, 3:129.

[3] Anonymous," Letter from Gohar Dasht," Mardom 297 (6 February 1990).

[4] "The Mass Executions as Narrated by Eyewitnesses," Rah-e Tudeh 64 (September 1997).

[5] "Interview with two Survivors."

[6] Editorial, "The Islamic Law of Repentence," Aksariyat, 18 May 1989.

[7] "Interview with two Survivors."

[8] "The Mass Executions as Narrated by Eyewitnesses."

[9] Anonymous. "Examples of Valiant Resistance," Mardom 297 (6 February 1990).

[10] "Interview with Two Survivors"; "An Introduction to Those Responsible for the Mass Executions," Rah-e Tudeh 65 (October 1997).

[11] E. Mahbaz (Pseudonym), "The Islamic Republic of Iran-The Hell for Women: Seven Years in Prison" (unpublished paper, 1996).

[12] Ibid.

[13] H. Mottaqi, "Life after 1988," Noqteh 6 (Summer 1966): 20-22.

[14]Raha, Plain Truths, 2:129. See also Ayatollah Montazeri, "Letter to Imam Khomeini," 31 August 1988.

[15] Anonymous, "I Was Witness to the Slaughter of Political Prisoners in Gohar Dasht," Cheshmandaz, no. 14 (Winter 1995): 68.

[16] K. Homayun, "The Slaughter at Gohar Dasht," Kar 62 (April 1996): 7.

[17] N. Mohajer, "The Mass Killings in Iran," Aresh 57 (August 1996): 7.

[18] Amnesty International, Iran: Violations of Human Rights, 1987-1990 (London, 1991), 12.

[19] Central Committee of the Majority Fedayi. "Those Sacrificed in the Mass Political Executions," Kar 59-60 (January-February 1990).

[20] Mardom, 6 January 1989-21 June 1992.

[21] "Introduction to Those Responsible for the 1988 Executions."

[22] Hojjat al-Islam Ansari, "The Reasons for Ayatollah Montazeri's Resignation," Kayhan-e Hava'i, 26 alpril 1989.

[23] "The Mass Executions as Narrated by Eyewitnesses," Rah-e Tudeh 64 (September 1997).

[24] Editor, "Montazeri's Letters," Cheshmandaz, no. 6 (Summer 1989): 35-37.

[25] Iran Times, 29 March 1989.

[26] Anonymous, Ranjnameh-e Hazrat Hojjat al-Islam va al-Musulman Aqa-ye Hajj Sayyed Ahmad Khomeini beh Hazrat Ayatollah Montazeri (The Pained Letters of His Highness Hojjat al-Islam al-Muslim Mr. Hajj Sayyed Ahmad Khomeini to Ayatollah Montzaeri) (Tehran, 1990).

[27] "The Regime Denounces Ayatollah Montazeri," Rah-e Tudeh 68 (January 1998).

[28] "Interview with Two Survivors.:

[29] Anonymous, "The Morning of Freedom for Those Returning to the True Light," Kayhan-e Hava'i, 15 March 1989.

[30] United Nations, "Report on Human Rights in Iran," Iran Times, 18 February 1994.

[31] United Nations, "Report on Iran," Iran Times, 13 May 1994.

[32] Amnesty International, "Report on Iran," Iran Times, 26 August 1994.

[33] A. Entezam, "Letter to the Un Human Rights Commission on Iran," 18 January 1993.

[34] A. Danesh, "Open Letter to Ayatollah Montazeri," Mardom, June 1988.

[35] United Nations (Economic and Social Council), Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York, November 1990), 53.

[36] United Nations (Economic and Social Council), Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic Of Iran (New York, November 1990), 53.

[37] S. Siyasi, "Interview with Nuraldin Kianuri, the Former Chairman of the Dissolved Tudeh Party, on Recent Events in the Soviet Union," Kayhan-e Hava'i, 23-30 October 1991; Special Correspondent, "Interview with Kianuri on the Collapse of Communism," Jomhuri-ye Islam, 10 December 1992-26 January 1993.

[38] Raha, Plain Truths, 1:141-43.

[39] Ibid., 3:28.

[40] Ibid., 1:11.

[41] Rahe-e Kargar Organization, "Horrific Nightmare . . . ,"

Rahe-e Kargar 91 (February 1992): 12.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Anonymous, "The Repenters," Kar 48 (February 1988): 6.

[44] Homayoun, "The Slaughter at Gohar Dasht," Fedayi 65 (July 1990): 33.

[45] United Nations (Economic and Social Council), Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran (New York, November 1990), 65.

[46] J. Simpson, Behind Iranian Lines (London: Robson, 1988), 192.

[47] "Behbahani Confesses to Having Links with America,"

[48] Editorial, "Another Show Produced by Torture," Mardom. 13 August 1990.

[49] "Sa'idi Sirjani Confesses to Working for the CIA," Kayhan-e Hava'i, 15 June 1994.

[50] F. Sarkouhi, "Open Letter," Rowshanai, February 1997.