Human Rights Day draws attention to plight of Iranian dissidents

Many Iranian officials who participated in death squads in the 1980s still hold positions of power today.
Monday 10/12/2018
Photos of some of the people executed in Iran are seen during a rally in front of the United Nations headquarters during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in New York. (AP)
Photos of some of the people executed in Iran are seen during a rally in front of the United Nations headquarters during the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in New York. (AP)

LONDON - Leading up to Human Rights Day December 10, Amnesty International once again condemned Iran's treatment of its citizens, claiming it continues to commit crimes against humanity by refusing to release details about more than 5,000 political dissidents slaughtered in Iranian prisons in 1988.

In its damning report, “Blood-soaked secrets: Why Iran’s 1988 prison massacres are ongoing crimes against humanity,” Amnesty International details the massacres and calls for the UN to launch an independent investigation into those who have gone unpunished for years.

“The fact that to this day the Iranian authorities refuse to acknowledge the mass killings, tell relatives when, how and why their loved ones were killed and identify and return their bodies, means that the enforced disappearances are continuing today,” Philip Luther, research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a release. “This has inflicted torturous suffering on victims’ families. Until Iran’s authorities come clean and publicly reveal the fate and whereabouts of the victims, these crimes against humanity are ongoing.”

Amnesty International gathered testimonies from more than 100 family members of those who were killed and reviewed hundreds of documents from the organisation’s archives to craft the report, according to the release. It also collected reports, memoirs and other written materials from survivors and Iranian human rights groups, as well as statements from the UN and Iranian authorities.

During its investigation into the massacre, Amnesty International examined victims’ death certificates, finding that many had no explanation for the cause of death, and others had cited “natural causes.”

The report details a scene in 1988 in which prisons across 32 Iranian cities were put on lockdown and family visits were suspended without explanation.

“Over the following weeks at least 5,000 political dissidents were extrajudicially executed in a coordinated effort to eliminate political opposition,” the release said. “This was on the orders of at least one secret fatwa issued by the then Supreme Leader of Iran, Rouhollah Khomeini, which followed an armed incursion into Iran by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), an outlawed opposition group based in Iraq.”

Scores of prisoners across Iran were rounded up and blindfolded to stand a makeshift trial in front of “death commissions” involving judicial, prosecution, intelligence and prison officials. They were then asked a series of questions such as “whether they were prepared to repent for their political opinions, publicly denounce their political groups and declare loyalty to the Islamic Republic.”

Without knowledge of what would come of their answers, some were asked if they would be willing to walk through an active minefield to assist the army or participate in firing squads.

According to the report, some thought they were appearing before a pardon committee and often were unaware they were to be executed until minutes before nooses were put around their necks or they were placed in front of a firing squad.

The report says that most victims were sentenced years prior. Some were detained for years without trial, and some had finished their prison terms and were awaiting release. The vast majority of the victims were imprisoned for their political beliefs and for peaceful demonstrations such as distributing leaflets and attending rallies.

Many officials who participated in the death squads still hold positions of power in Iran today, and Iranian leaders have openly celebrated the events of 1988, glorifying the purge and describing those responsible as worthy of receiving “medals of honour.”

“The grotesque distortion of the truth about these heinous crimes, coupled with the clear lack of remorse displayed by those with blood on their hands, is sickening,” Luther said in the release. “All individuals involved in committing and concealing these crimes must be brought to justice in fair trials that exclude the death penalty.”

Amnesty International said that the families and survivors have been grossly failed by the UN and the international community. The families of victims have been denied the right to bury their loved ones and mourn their loss, and according the organisation, “those who dare to seek truth and justice have faced relentless harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as torture and other ill-treatment.”

“Instead of continuing their cruel attacks against families, the Iranian authorities should be ensuring their right to truth, justice and reparation – including returning victims’ bodies and identifying remains by allowing professional exhumations of mass graves and DNA analysis,” said Luther in the release.

Amnesty international believes that through their lack of condemnation, the UN Commission of Human Rights and the UN General Assembly has emboldened Iran to continue to deny the truth and push back against families and those who seek justice.

“Iran’s authorities must no longer be allowed to shield themselves from accountability for their crimes against humanity,” said Luther. “With no prospects of justice for victims inside Iran, it is even more crucial that the UN establishes an independent, impartial and effective international mechanism to help bring those responsible for these abhorrent crimes to justice.”

The flagship human rights issue in Iran this year was women's compulsory wearing of the hijab. Women took to the streets in droves in 2018 and shed their hijabs to protest the state policy, but many activists were arrested and sentenced to prison.

Executions in Iran, especially for drug-related offenses, continued at a high rate in 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. And Iran's judiciary maintained its crackdown on human rights activists, journalists and online media activists, in blatant disregard of international and domestic legal standards.