The 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: A Quest for Justice
December 8, 2011
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 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.