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Iran’s latest crackdowns on dissent serve as reminder of the regime’s worst crimes

In the summer of 1988, the Iranian regime execute 30,000 political prisoners. Most of them were members and supporters of Iranian opposition People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)
In the summer of 1988, the Iranian regime execute 30,000 political prisoners. Most of them were members and supporters of Iranian opposition People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)

Analysis by PMOI/MEK

Iran, July 30, 2020—In less than three years, Iran has been the site of three popular uprisings. In each case, citizens from dozens of localities were heard to chant stark anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator,” leaving little doubt about the breadth of support for a complete change of government. The regime’s recognition of that message was evident in its violent crackdowns on each protest movement, which underscores the international community’s responsibility to pay close attention to what is happening inside Iran and to support the Iranian people in their aspirations to live in a free and democratic state.

Such support has been sadly absent for virtually the entire four-decade history of the Islamic Republic. Even at times when the Iranian Resistance tried to raise international awareness on the ongoing human rights abuses, most governments tended to turn a blind eye. The world single example of this trend came in the summer of 1988, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring the regime’s opponents to be enemies of God, thereby setting the stage for a political purge that was arguably the worst crime against humanity since the end of the Second World War.

As US State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus pointed out in a recent statement, it was only July 19 of that year that Iranian authorities began convening “death commissions” to interrogate political prisoners over their affiliations and their attitude toward the theocratic system. Many of the targets of those interrogations, chiefly members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), simply refused to disavow their colleagues or their democratic ideals. But the penalty for this intransigence was death, with capital sentences sometimes being handed down after “trials” that lasted as little as a minute.

Over several months, more than 30,000 Iranian political prisoners were sentenced to death in this fashion. The victims were hanged in groups and then taken away in refrigerator trucks for secret mass burial in undisclosed mass graves. In subsequent years, a number of those sites were destroyed as part of the regime’s ongoing effort to conceal evidence of the killings. Groups like Amnesty International have warned that further construction projects are planned for mass gravesites in the near future, and that the clock is ticking for the international community to thoroughly investigate the 1988 massacre before the details become irreversibly obscured.

The regime’s crackdowns on mass uprisings suggest that the value of such an investigation goes well beyond obtaining justice for the victims of the death commissions. It would also go a long way toward challenging the impunity that Tehran has enjoyed at least since the time of the massacre. Although the MEK had made it known that death sentences were mounting in the summer of 1988, no major world powers interceded to do anything about it. And none sought to hold the mullahs accountable in any meaningful way thereafter.

Some governments have variously urged the Iranian regime to conduct its own internal investigation into the incident, but this is a fool’s errand. While maintaining a veil of silence over the massacre for many years, the regime has also stood firmly behind the officials most responsible for it. And in recent years, some of those figures have spoken out in their own defense, not by denying activist accounts of the killings but rather by saying that they were justified and that the mass execution of PMOI members was “God’s command.”

This was the phrase used by Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Iran’s Minister of Justice during regime president Hassan Rouhani’s first term, after a leaked audio recording brought greater scrutiny to the history of the death commissions in 2016. Pourmohammadi told state media that he felt proud to have played a role on those commissions. And his steady ascent through the ranks of Iranian government suggested that the entire regime felt much the same way. He is, after all, not the only official to apparently be rewarded for his loyalty in the wake of human rights violations.

The former Justice Minister’s replacement in Rouhani’s second term was also a member of the death commissions, as was the current head of the national judiciary. These promotions come both from the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and from that of the supposedly moderate President Rouhani. Similar promotions will almost certainly follow more recent crackdowns on dissent, unless the international community finally sends a strong message about past and ongoing human rights abuses at the hands of the Iranian regime.

This message would be very effectively conveyed by charges in the International Criminal Court for Pourmohammadi and the various other known participants in the 1988 massacre who are still alive and still well-respected within the ranks of the clerical regime. But the first step toward such charges is, naturally, an investigation to establish the clearest possible evidence in support of relevant charges. This is something that survivors of the massacre have been demanding for many years, alongside the families of victims.

Over time, they have gained more and more support from policymakers, intelligence professionals, scholars of the Middle East, and others. Many participated, earlier this month, in an international video conference organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which called renewed attention to the Iranian regime’s countless historical and contemporary crimes. The “Free Iran Global Summit” also provided policy recommendations for the more than 100 countries that were represented by over 1,000 political dignitaries. Of course, those recommendations included support for UN-led investigations and criminal charges, but also touched upon the value of increasing pressure on the mullahs ruling Iran for their crimes against their own people as well as other nations.

This strategy and the prospective investigation may go hand-in-hand, as evidenced by the State Department’s recently declared position regarding the Iranian judiciary’s rampant abuses. In her remarks highlighting the July 19 anniversary, Morgan Ortagus also said, “All Iranian officials who commit human rights violations or abuses should be held accountable. The United States calls on the international community to conduct independent investigations and to provide accountability and justice for the victims of these horrendous violations of human rights organized by the Iranian regime.”

It is imperative for at least the framework of an investigation to be established as soon as possible. The popular uprising in November 2019 led to at least 1,500 protesters killed by security forces, and unless Tehran’s sense of impunity is challenged, the next manifestation of the pro-democracy protest movement could be met with even greater brutality. The 1988 massacre and its enduring legacy indicate that it is difficult to underestimate just how much suffering and death the regime will embrace in an effort to maintain its grip on power.