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The Bloody Red Summer of 1988: Grave Crimes against Humanity

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

09 Aug 2011 04:34Comments
KhavaranArticle.jpg[ in-depth ] Between July and September of 1988, thousands of political prisoners were executed in Iran. The executions were neither the first nor the last such tragic events to take place. As has been reported by Tehran Bureau, several political prisoners, including Kurdish dissidents, were executed in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election, close to 110 others were killed during demonstrations or while incarcerated at the Kahrizak detention center on Tehran's southern edge, and dozens of political dissidents were slain in the infamous Chain Murders of 1988-98.

The 1988 executions are distinguished by their heinous nature. The people who were executed had been convicted, mostly in show trials, but had not been condemned to death by the courts. Many had actually served their full sentences, but were still kept in detention. In my opinion, this aspect alone makes the executions a classic case of a crime against humanity. (The Khavaran graveyard, where many of those who were executed are interred, is seen here.)

The following is an updated and expanded version of an article originally published by Tehran Bureau on August 25, 2009.


The 1980s, particularly the period between 1980 and 1988, constitute the darkest and bloodiest era in the history of modern Iran. In 1980, the country was still in the grip of the chaos of the 1979 Revolution. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had been toppled, and the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan did not last long either. Bazargan and his cabinet resigned on November 5, 1979, the day after Islamic leftist students overran the United States Embassy in Tehran.

The reactionary right, which began to emerge at this time, was eager to clamp down on dissent. Political freedom began to wane only a year into the Revolution. As more and more restrictions began to be put in place, internal strife began to increase dramatically as well. As always, the universities were the centers of dissent. Secular leftist students were particularly strong and well organized on campuses. The reactionary right managed to convince the Islamic leftists of the necessity of a crackdown.

To crack down on dissent, and to purge the secular leftists from the universities, the political establishment began to speak of the necessity of a "cultural revolution." To formalize it, on April 18, 1980, after Friday Prayers, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini strongly criticized the universities in a speech. He said,

We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities and the training of our youth in the interests of the West or East.

Many interpreted the speech as a signal for attacks on the universities. That evening, right-wing paramilitary forces called the Phalangists, after the Lebanese Phalangists that were fighting leftist forces in that country's civil war, laid siege to the Teachers Training College of Tehran. The campus looked like a "war zone," according to a British reporter, and one student was reportedly lynched.

Other campuses around the country fared no better. Over the next two days, offices of leftist students at universities in Ahwaz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Shiraz were ransacked, leaving hundreds injured and at least 20 people dead. The violence then spread to several campuses in Tehran, particularly the University of Tehran, which has always been a hotbed of political dissent.

All the universities were shut down on June 12, 1980, and did not reopen for two years. Officially, the goal was the "Islamization" of the universities, an absurd notion. How, for example, does one "Islamicize" natural and medical sciences, or engineering? It was simply a guise for exercising oppression and repression.

While the country was in disarray, Saddam Hussein decided to invade. He had never been happy with the 1975 Algiers Agreement he had signed with the Shah to settle a border dispute. Add to that the threat of a revolution led by Shia clerics next door, especially when the Shiites made up the majority of the Iraqi population. Indeed, Khomeini and his disciples were regularly denouncing Hussein and his regime in strong terms.

Hussein also made a great miscalculation: He thought that with Iran's regular army disorganized and demoralized, and with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps still in its infancy, he could easily invade Iran and occupy a significant portion of the country. In his thinking, that would provoke a military coup by the remnants of the imperial army and get rid of the clerical leadership.

Hence, after some border skirmishes, Iraq's army invaded Iran on September 22, 1980, initiating a war that lasted almost eight years. "This war is a gift from God," said Khomeini. And from his perspective, it was. On the one hand, the war unified a nation that was getting tired of all the revolutionary chaos and gave them a patriotic cause to rally around: defending the homeland. On the other, the war and the threat to Iran's territorial integrity gave the extremist right-wingers the perfect excuse to brutally repress the opposition.

At the same time, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), the most powerful opposition group, was constantly roiling the political scene. It was not totally the MKO's fault. The religious reactionaries, and even many of the Islamic leftists who referred to themselves as Followers of the Imam's [Khomeini's] Line, were opposed to the MKO, and played an important role in ratcheting up the conflict between the two camps.

Mohammad Reza Saadati, who was among the top MKO leaders and had been jailed by the Shah from 1973 to 1978, was arrested by the new regime on the charge of being a spy for the Soviet Union. (To the best of the author's knowledge, the charge was bogus.) His arrest outside the Soviet Embassy provided the right wing with a powerful propaganda tool. MKO supporters, and even very young, impressionable people who were simply selling the MKO mouthpiece, Mojahed, were constantly harassed and persecuted. Seventy-one of them were killed between February 1979 and June 1981.

While it is certainly true that the MKO tried to work within the Islamic Republic system, and was prevented at many points by the clerical leadership and its supporters, one must also recognize that the goal of the group's leadership was to gain power swiftly and at any cost. The MKO leaders, Masoud Rajavi and Mousa Khiabani, had even proposed to Khomeini to "deliver to them the government," as they considered themselves the only group qualified to run it. In fact, before the victory of the Revolution, while he was still in France, Khomeini had reached a consensus with Bazargan, Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Taleghani (1911-79), a popular and progressive cleric, and others that no top governmental position should be given to the MKO. Rajavi was also disqualified from running in the first presidential election in February 1980 on the excuse that he had opposed the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.

By early 1981, with the support of the MKO, Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who had been elected the Islamic Republic's first president in February 1980 and had been a close aide of Khomeini's during the Revolution, was also on a collision course with the ayatollah and his circle of clerical aids. On June 10, 1981, Khomeini sacked Bani Sadr as commander-in-chief of the armed forces (under the Constitution, the ayatollah was the commander-in-chief, but he had transferred the authority to Bani Sadr). On June 19, the MKO issued a harshly worded statement calling Khomeini all kinds of names -- just a few weeks earlier, they had been referring to him as "the Father" and "the Leader" -- and declaring that it would take up arms to defend itself against the government forces, a thinly disguised call for armed struggle against the political system. Over the next two days, huge demonstrations were held by the MKO and the government against each other.

GilaniLajevardi.jpgOn June 21, the Majles impeached Bani Sadr. By that point, he had already fled and gone into hiding in western Iran. The Revolutionary Guards executed several of his close aides, including Hossein Navab, Rashid Sadrolhefazi, and Manouchehr Massoudi, and his mouthpiece, Enghelab-e Eslami (Islamic Revolution), was shut down. (An exile edition of Enghelab-e Eslami is still published in France.) Dozens of others were also executed on June 21 and 22, including at least 12 young girls whose identities were not known even to the judiciary. Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, the prosecutor of the Revolutionary Courts, declared that he did not care about the identities of the young people whose execution he was ordering. Gilani (pictured sitting, next to Seyyed Asadollah Lajevardi -- see below) later ordered the execution of two of his own sons. Saeed Soltanpour, a secular leftist activist and poet, was arrested during his wedding ceremony and later executed.

June 20, 1981, was also the last time that the author spoke with his younger brother, Ali. Living in Minneapolis and attending graduate school, I called home in Tehran to speak with him. I was worried about my family. Ali had just gotten home when I called. His voice was hoarse and angry. He had supported the Revolution and actively participated in it, but had turned against the political establishment. He was also angry at me because I was in the United States, rather than Tehran.

I never spoke to Ali again. It was impossible to find him after that last conversation. Almost three months later, on September 8, 1981, Ali was arrested; ten days later he was put to death. The following morning, my family received a phone call from the notorious Evin Prison, notifying them that Ali had been executed, and that they should go there to take his body and belongings. When my father, an aunt, and a cousin went to Evin, they were told to go to Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran's main cemetery on the southern edge of the city, because Ali had already been buried. When they went there, they were told that no one with that name had been interred there.

Hopeful that a mistake might have been made, they went home. But in a television news program broadcast at 2 p.m. that day, the government announced the names of 180 people who had been executed two nights earlier, among them Ali. So the entire family rushed to the cemetery, and this time they were told where Ali had been buried. The official policy at that time was not to confirm the burial of any executed person until his or her name had been officially announced. Thus the life of a 23-year-old university student and patriot was abruptly ended.

The family was ordered to refrain from mourning the death of Ali publicly, not to put on the traditional black clothes that those in mourning wear, and not to put a tombstone on Ali's grave. My family did all of those things and ran into a great deal of trouble for doing so. When they erected a tombstone, it was immediately broken by the Phalangists. The family installed two more, both of which met with the same fate. After the fourth tombstone was installed, the Phalangists gave up.

Many Muslims follow a tradition of visiting the grave of a loved one every Thursday afternoon for the first year after their death. My family closely observed this tradition. Every week, when they visited the cemetery, they were harassed by the Phalangists, who shouted that they hoped my family would be dead soon too. When the family visited Ali's grave on the anniversary of his death, they were all arrested and taken to a police station nearby, interrogated for hours, and finally released. They refused to pledge that they would not visit the cemetery again.

And that was not the end of our troubles. My father was forced to retire and stay home, because he was very outspoken against the clerics. His friends who supported the government wrote me a letter, warning that he could get himself into even deeper trouble if he did not stop his criticism. He was threatened that if he did not stay home, he would be jailed. My youngest brother, who was 16 at that time, was arrested and jailed for a week. Twice he was asked to write his will and then blindfolded and taken to a mock execution. It was a miracle that he too was not executed. My mother had a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered.

The suffering of my family was neither unique, nor the worst. Thousands of families who lost their loved ones in the 1980s experienced similar traumas, often under more dire circumstances. There were families who lost several loved ones to executions. Hundreds of thousands of families also lost loved ones to the Iran-Iraq War.

On June 28, 1981, there was a huge explosion in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party, the clergy-dominated political group whose founders included Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili. Nearly 120, by some estimates, including the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, and scores of other senior government and political figures were killed. The MKO considered Beheshti its archenemy, although it did not take responsibility for the bombing.

To evoke emotions, however, the government announced that Beheshti and 72 -- not the correct number -- of his comrades had been killed. This was done in order to make a parallel between that and the events of the Day of Ashura of October 10, 680 A.D. in Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, when Imam Hossein, the Shias' Third Imam, grandson of the Prophet, and one of the most revered figure in Iran, and 72 of his close supporters and family members were slain in an epic battle.

It is widely believed -- incorrectly -- that the MKO carried out the bombing of the Islamic Republic headquarters, which took the bloody confrontation between the group and the government to a completely new level. The government had begun executing MKO supporters, and the MKO had begun assassinating senior political figures, including many leading ayatollahs. Mohammad Ali Rajaei, who had been elected president after Bani Sadr, and Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, his prime minister, were assassinated on August 30, 1981. In retaliation, the government arrested and killed MKO members and supporters, showing no mercy, not even on the very young. The youngest victim that I am aware of was a girl named Fatemeh Mesbah, who was said to be 12 when she was killed.

At Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery, my brother's grave is surrounded by those of other people who were executed around the same time, including several between the ages of 14 and 28. Next to Ali's grave is the resting place of a young medical doctor. His only "offense" was treating protesters who had been injured during street demonstrations. A cousin of the author met the same fate. He too was a medical doctor, and about the same age, when he was executed for the same "offense." His brother and another cousin had already been killed during the Revolution.

Two other victims of the executions also evoke deep emotions in me. Laid to rest in Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery, in the same section as Ali's grave, are Maryam Golzadeh Ghafouri and her husband, Alireza Haj Samadi, both MKO members. Maryam's father, Dr. Ali Golzadeh Ghafouri, taught me how to read and understand the Holy Qur'an when I was young. My father and several friends had started a weekly gathering on Tuesday nights to read the Holy Qur'an and study its teachings. Typically, 50 people would participate, and the place of the meeting would rotate between the members' homes. I participated in the gatherings when I was in middle and high schools, as my father was keen that I learn about the Holy Qur'an.

Each person in the gathering would read a few verses from the Holy Qur'an. Golzadeh Ghafouri would first correct the way we read, making sure that we pronounced the Arabic words correctly. Then, at the end, he would interpret what we had read. He was a devout Muslim, who was progressive, extremely knowledgeable, and very kind, a true gentleman in every sense of the word, and a friend of my father. Back in the 1960s, when it was not yet fashionable to speak about human rights in Iran, he had published a book on Islam and human rights, which I hope to finish translating into English over the next year. I had the highest respect for him. He supported the Revolution, and was a deputy in the first postrevolutionary Majles. But after two of his sons, his daughter, and his son-in-law were executed, he quit the Majles and went into seclusion. He was hardly seen in public again, and passed away in early January 2010.

No one was safe, not even those who had played prominent roles in the Revolution. One example was Ayatollah Hassan Lahouti, the first clerical commander of the Revolutionary Guards, whose two sons were married to Rafsanjani's daughters. Lahouti went to Evin to see another son, who had been arrested -- apparently for being a member of the MKO -- and died there. Lahouti, who had been very critical of the clerics, was reportedly killed there.

The MKO tactic of assassinating government officials had been emulated from leftist Latin American guerrilla fighters. For example, when the Tupamaros were unable to take over the government of Uruguay in the 1960s through elections, they began a campaign of assassinations. The goal was to provoke the military to take harsh action, and then use the military's reaction to provoke the population against the government. The MKO was using the same tactic. I am not condoning the execution of even a single MKO member or supporter, regardless of what they may have done. But though the Islamic Republic bears the lion's share of responsibility for the executions, it is completely absurd to claim that the leadership of the MKO did not share at least part of the responsibility.

Mohammad Reza Saadati was executed on July 27, 1981. Before his death, he had asked to be released in return for helping put an end to the MKO's armed struggle, but the hardliners did not care. They wanted blood and revenge. The next day, Bani Sadr and Rajavi fled Iran. A Boeing 707, flown by an Air Force pilot, took them first to Turkey and then to Paris. That began the process of the MKO's departure for exile. Eventually, MKO forces settled in Iraq and, worked with Saddam Hussein, committed numerous treasons against Iran and Iranians.

In February 1982, the MKO suffered a tremendous blow. Mousa Khiabani, the commander of the group's forces in Iran; his pregnant wife, Azar Rezai (whose brothers Ahmad, Reza, and Mehdi had been killed under the Shah); Ashraf Rabiei, Rajavi's wife; and 18 other MKO members were killed by the Revolutionary Guards in a shootout. The three had managed to break through the Guard forces, but their bulletproof Peugeot was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that killed everyone but Rajavi's one-year-old son, Mostafa. Rajavi appointed Ali Zarkesh the new commander of the MKO forces in Iran. He was killed in 1988 during the attacks MKO launched on Iran from Iraq (see below).

The campaign of assassinations by the MKO, and the execution of its young members and sympathizers, continued for another two years. The reactionary right used that and the war with Iraq to also go after other political groups, such as Peykar (Confrontation), a Stalinist-Maoist offshoot of the MKO; Rah-e Kargar (Worker's Path); and a faction of the People's Fadaaiyan Guerrilla (which had played an important role in the struggle against the Shah) called the minority faction. Gradually, even the members and supporters of the Tudeh Party (the pro-Soviet communist party) and another faction of People's Fadaaiyan Guerrilla, called the majority faction, that had supported the government were no longer safe either. Thousands of people, mostly quite young, were summarily executed.

At the same time, the war with Iraq was raging. By June 1982, Iranian forces had pushed back Iraqi troops from almost all of Iran's occupied territories. When Khorramshahr, Iran's most important seaport on the Persian Gulf, was liberated, there were celebrations all over the country. The war should have ended then. Saddam was ready to accept a ceasefire.

But, according to a friend from my college years in Iran, who attended a meeting where Khomeini -- who was initially in favor of ending the war -- Guard commanders, and government officials discussed what to do next, the ideologues in the Guards convinced the ayatollah that they could easily overrun Iraq and liberate its Shia regions. They insisted that it would not take that long to accomplish the goal.

The ayatollah gave the Guard commanders his blessing, but it was another six years before the war finally ended. The war ended only when the government, its resources, and the population were totally spent. Mir Hossein Mousavi, then prime minster, had informed Rafsanjani, then the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that his government could no longer sustain the war efforts. He had repeatedly expressed his opposition to the continuation of the war after the first two or three years.

The government's own statistics indicated that during the war with Iraq, 273,000 soldiers were killed and another 700,000 injured, many with permanent wounds. Of the soldiers killed, 30,000 had died up to and including the time of liberation of Khorramshahr, and the rest in the remaining years of the war. Thus, close to 88 percent of the soldiers who died in the war did not have to, had Iran ended the war in June 1982. At the same time that political activists were being killed, young soldiers were also dying in the war. Political freedom and the freedom of the press were nonexistent.

There were two other significantly related developments during that era:

One, forced televised "confessions," similar to what the hardliners staged over the first few months after the 2009 presidential election. A wide range of people, from Nouroddin Kianouri, secretary-general of the Tudeh Party, to Maryam Shirdel, a simple supporter of the MKO, were paraded in front of the camera to "confess." Shirdel was forced to say that she had sexual relations with an MKO member, a totally bogus confession.

The second phenomenon was tavvaab saazi: forcing prisoners to repent for their "sins" and accepting the reactionary interpretation of Islamic teachings that the tavvaab saazaan -- the interrogators who "converted" the prisoners and put them back on the "right" path to "redemption" -- were feeding them. Some of the prisoners became tavvaab, most in order to save their lives; they had not really set aside their beliefs. A small number began to serve their masters. An example is the wife of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's chief of staff and close confidant, who was reportedly imprisoned as an MKO member. Mashaei was an intelligence operative during that era. The majority of the prisoners refused to "repent."

Hossein Shariatmadari, the dreaded hardline managing editor of Kayhan, the mouthpiece of a faction of the security and intelligence forces, and Saeed Emami, the notorious leader of the gang of intelligence operatives who were responsible for the Chain Murders, were two such tavvaab saaz. There were many more that are still around.

During this dark period, almost all government, judiciary, and military officials either supported the bloody crackdown, or were silent. The most important person -- practically the only one with stature -- who courageously opposed the bloodshed was Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. He was the deputy to Khomeini and tried his best to prevent the executions. He visited the prisons frequently and ordered improvements to the prisoners' conditions. He also sent his representatives, such as Hojatoleslam Ansari Najafabadi, to the prisons to visit and report to him.

The reports that Montazeri was receiving were horrible. He thus began writing letters to Khomeini, his teacher and mentor, protesting the conditions in the jails. In one letter of October 1986 that he mentions in his memoirs, he wrote,

Do you know that,

The crimes that are taking place in the jails of Islamic Republic did not take place even in the Shah's regime?

Many people have died due to torture?

In the Shiraz jail, a young woman who was fasting [during the month of Ramadan] was executed for a very minor offense right after she broke her fast [in the evening]?

Some young girls have been forcefully possessed [raped]?

During the interrogation of young women very nasty profanities are used?

Many prisoners have become blind or deaf due to torture, and nobody has helped [to treat them]?

In many jails they even prevent the prisoners from saying their prayers?

In some jails the prisoners do not see the light of day for months?

Even after a prisoner is given a jail sentence, he/she is still beaten regularly?

I am sure that they will tell you that these are lies and he [Montazeri] is naïve.

Note the striking similarities between what Montazeri reported to Khomeini in 1986 and the charges that Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi made, before he was palced under house arrest, about what took place in Iranian jails in the aftermath of the 2009 election.

LajevardiKhomeini.jpgThere are many culprits in the killings and horrible treatment of the detainees. One in particular is Seyyed Asadollah Lajevardi, who had been jailed by the Shah's government several times. After the 1979 Revolution, Lajevardi (pictured in glasses and white turtleneck to the lower right; in the background, Khomeini's hand is kissed) was appointed Tehran prosecutor-general. When in June 1981 the MKO assassinated Mohammad Kachouei, the warden of Evin Prison, Lajevardi was appointed to replace him. He even moved his family to Evin.

One of Lajevardi's main claims was that he was an excellent tavvaab saaz, boasting that 95 percent of his "guests" at Evin eventually gave a tape-recorded "confession" and "praised" the Islamic Republic. In reality, he was a brutal, possibly mentally ill man, known aptly as the "Butcher of Evin." He was a culprit in the executions of the 1980s, including those in 1988.

By the spring of 1988, Iran was totally exhausted and could not continue the war. On July 20, 1987, the United Nations Security Council had passed Resolution 598, calling on Iran and Iraq to cease hostilities. It took Khomeini another year to accept the ceasefire -- "to drink the poison," as he put it.

Right after the ceasefire went into effect, the MKO forces attacked Iran from Iraq in an operation they called Amaliyat-e Forough-e Javidaan (Operation Eternal Light), but known as Amaliyat-e Mersaad (Operation Trap) by the Revolutionary Guards. The MKO forces were surrounded after being allowed to penetrate Iran's territory and defeated easily, suffering heavy losses -- at least 1,700 according to the MKO, and up to 4,000 according to other sources.

Evidence indicates that before the ceasefire went into effect and the MKO attacks began, the Islamic Republic was already thinking about eliminating most, if not all, of the political prisoners. Khomeini had ordered the formation of a secret commission to look into executing the MKO prisoners, as well as secular leftists, and had secretly authorized their execution. The former were classified as the moharebs (those who fight against God), while the secular leftists were considered mortads (those who do not believe in God).

Most of the executions took place in and around Tehran, but there were also many in other cities. First, the MKO prisoners were interviewed in Evin and Gohar Dasht prisons. They were asked their affiliation. If they responded "the Mojahedin," that would be the end of the interview. The prisoners would be taken to the gallows. If, however, they responded "the Monafeghin" -- the hypocrites, as the government referred to the MKO -- they would be asked the next six questions: (i) Are you willing to denounce your former colleagues? (ii) Are you willing to denounce them in front of cameras? (iii) Are you willing to help us hunt them down? (iv) Will you name secret sympathizers? (v) Will you identify those whose repentance was fake? (vi) Are you willing to go to the war front and walk on the minefields? If the answer to any of the questions was not affirmative, the prisoner would be hanged.

Just a few days after the executions had begun, Montazeri wrote a strong letter of protest to Khomeini on July 31, 1988, followed by two other letters on August 4 and 15. He also summoned to Qom the committee that was in charge of the executions and strongly protested to them. During this time only the MKO prisoners were being slaughtered. He dispatched a representative to the headquarters of Khomeini in Jamaran, near Tehran, to demand an explanation for the executions.

After most of the MKO members and sympathizers were executed, the government turned to the secular leftists. They would be asked even more questions: (i) Are you a Muslim? (ii) Do you believe in God? (iii) Is the Holy Qur'an the word of God? (iv) Do you believe in heaven and hell? (v) Do you accept Muhammad to be the last of the prophets? (vi) Will you publicly recant historical materialism? (vii) Will you denounce your former beliefs before the cameras? (viii) Do you fast during the fasting month of Ramadan? (ix) Do you pray and read the Holy Qur'an? (x) Would you rather share a cell with a Muslim or non-Muslim? (xi) Will you sign an affidavit that you believe in God, the Prophet, the Holy Qur'an, and Judgment Day? (xii) When you were growing up, did your father pray, fast, and read the Holy Qur'an?

The last question was very important. If the prisoner responded "no," then he could not be held accountable for the fact that he did not believe in Islam, and would escape hanging. But many prisoners did not know about this.

In his memoirs, Montazeri wrote that some time after the executions began, the committee in charge of them received a letter from Khomeini authorizing the execution of non-religious political prisoners. According to Montazeri,

At that time there were about 500 non-religious and communists in prisons. The goal was to murder them and get rid of them too. Mr. Khamenei had also received the letter. He was the president at that time, and after the families of the prisoners had asked him for help he had spoken to the officials and had told them to stop it. Then he visited me in Qom and told me angrily that they have obtained this letter from the Imam and want to execute them quickly. I said, "Why is it that you are now concerned for the communists? Why did you not say a word about the Imam's letter for the executions of the 'hypocrites'?" He responded, "Has the Imam written [a letter] for the religious prisoners too?" I replied, "Where have you been? I received that letter only two days after it was written. That is all in the past [as most of the MKO prisoners had already been executed]. You are the president of the country. How could you not have known about it?" I do not know whether he really did not know about the executions, or whether he was pretending while speaking to me.

Thousands of political prisoners were executed in the summer of 1988. The majority of them were MKO members, but many belonged to other groups. Many were buried in mass graves in Khavaran Cemetery, east of Tehran; see here, and here, The government has tried to convert the cemetery to a park in an apparent effort to erase all signs of the crime, while the people have tried to preserve the site.

The exact number of those who were executed is unknown. Montazeri put the number at up to 3,800. Others have made a list of a little over 4,500. All those who were executed had been given jail sentences, and many had actually finished those sentences. Many were college or even high school students. Almost none had committed a serious offense, for the simple fact that they would have been executed right after their arrest if they had. Roughly 10 percent of the executed were women. Over all, close to 18,000 political prisoners were executed in the 1980s.

Khamenei has repeatedly defended the executions. When asked about them in a meeting with a group of university students, he responded,

Have we abolished the death penalty? No, we have the death penalty in the Islamic Republic for those who deserve to die. A person who is in jail and from there is in contact with the operation of the hypocrites that attacked Iran with guns inside the country's border, do you think that he should be given candy? If his link with that organization is certain, what should be done with him? He is condemned to death, and we execute him. This is not a joke.

Rafsanjani has also defended the executions repeatedly, though not recently. Shortly after the executions, he said,

Some people commit treason, deserve punishment, and are executed. For example, in the recent Operation Mersaad, the officials interrogated those [MKO members] who had been captured. It turned out that there were people in the country who confessed to having plans to cause great destruction coordinated with the operations that Iraq and the hypocrites carried out. Well, they were punished.

As for Mousavi, I have discussed his responsibility -- both moral and practical -- in two articles (here and here), and will refrain from repeating that discussion here. There are certainly some contradictions and ambiguities in what he has said about the executions. Hopefully, someday he will explain his position fully.

After he could not stop the executions, Montazeri resigned. He was then attacked savagely by the reactionary extremists, but the ayatollah never backed down, which explains the immense respect that he enjoyed until his death. Mehdi Bazargan and his comrades in the Liberation Movement of Iran also protested the killings, and were detained for a time.

The exact motivation for the killings is not known. The most plausible explanation is that the war with Iraq was ending, and given that the nation was totally exhausted the hardliners thought that if the prisoners were released, they would create major problems for the ruling elite. It has been claimed by various officials of the Islamic Republic that they were killed in retaliation for the MKO attacks from Iraq. But, as mentioned earlier, there is evidence that the preparation for the killings had started even before the ceasefire. For example, Anoushirvan Lotfi, a student in the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) of the University of Tehran in the 1970s and a member of the People's Fadaaiyan group, was executed in May 1988, two full months before the ceasefire with Iraq and the MKO attacks. Indeed, if the MKO attacks were the reason, why were the secular leftist prisoners such as Lotfi killed?

Lotfi was already an FOE student when I was admitted to the school in 1972. He was affectionately called doktor by everyone who knew him. I have never forgotten a day in the autumn of 1973, when I participated in the practice of the FOE's soccer team. I was not a member of the team, but was allowed to participate in the practice. Before the practice began Lotfi spoke to everyone. He said, "Most teams within the university have much better players than the Fanny [FOE] does. But what makes us collectively strong is our unique sense of unity." Indeed, the team won the championship during that academic year. Lotfi was arrested in 1975. The government announced that he had been killed in a clash with the security forces, which turned out to be false.

I lost two dear friends to the 1988 executions. One was Hassan Dashtara, a student of mine engineering at the FOE, my classmate from 1972-74, and one of the nicest young men I have ever known. He is survived by his two sons, who were practically infants at the time of his untimely death. The second was Taghi Khan, my childhood friend and high school classmate. Two others who were executed were brothers of two of my closest friends at the FOE whom I do not wish to name. One was a brother of my friend who was in the meeting between Khomeini and the Guard commanders when they discussed whether they should stop the war with Iraq in 1982 (he quit working for the government after his brother was executed). The other had spent eight years in a jail in Ahvaz in Khuzestan province, serving his full sentence, but was kept imprisoned. He was about to be released, but was executed after the MKO attacks. His family vowed that they would not put a tombstone on his grave until the Islamic Republic is overthrown.

I believe that the executions constitute a crime against humanity. Those who were responsible must be put on trial by the International Criminal Court. Some of them still hold important positions within the political system. Cleric Hossein Ali Nayyeri is a senior figure within the judiciary; Ebrahim Raeisi is the principal deputy to judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani; and Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Ahmadinejad's first interior minister, heads the National Organization for Inspection. Others who played important roles and are still active include clerics Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ali Fallahian -- both former ministers of intelligence -- Ali Razini, and Mohammad Yazdi.

After the events of 1988, Lajevardi retired from his post as Evin warden and went back to his work in Tehran's bazaar. He lived in the same neighborhood as my parents did, and would pass by their house in Tehran every morning to go to work a couple of years after his retirement. For years, my mother, who never recovered from the loss of my brother, would sit every morning by the window of the kitchen on the first floor of our house after saying her morning prayers, looking outside, reading the Holy Qur'an, and waiting for Lajevardi to pass by. As she would see him passing by, she would say, "Oh God, if he had any role in my son's murder, punish him in any way you deem appropriate."

GhabrAli2.jpgLajevardi was assassinated on August 22, 1998, a year after my father passed away. The MKO took responsibility for his assassination, although I personally doubt that they were the culprits, due to the manner in which he was killed and where it occurred. According to my father's doctors, his illness had largely been caused by the stress and anxiety of losing my brother. So he did not live long enough to hear about Lajevardi's death. But my mother did. I was in Tehran at the time and gave her the news. She said only, "Panaah beh Khoda mibaram" (I take refuge in God).

A Guard officer used to live in my parents' neighborhood in Tehran. He was, and still is, known as "Abbas Pasdar" (from the Farsi for a Guard member). After the execution of my brother Ali, there were strong rumors in the neighborhood that Abbas had a role in Ali's arrest. One day, my mother confronted him as he was passing by our home. She told him, "If you had any role in the martyrdom of my Ali, I hope that some day when you are a father, you will understand how it is to suddenly lose your child at the height of his youthfulness and full of hope for the future." Abbas later married and now has several children. In the summer of 2010, his son was killed in an accident at the age of 23, exactly the same age as Ali.

After Lajevardi's assassination, my mother told me, "I never wanted to live longer than my children. But now that Ali is gone, I have only one more wish: to live 30 years after Ali, so that I can be put to rest in Ali's grave when I die." According to Islamic teachings, a grave may be opened after 30 years and a newly dead person laid to rest in it. She continued, "If that happens, I know that I'll be resting next to Ali forever." (His grave is seen here.)

She did not get her wish. She passed away in December 2006, a little over 25 years after her son was executed. She never got over the fact that she was living, but her young son had been killed. I too have not been able to get over the fact that Ali, my brother with whom I was very close, was taken away from my family and me at such a young age, and that I did not even get to see him one last time.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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