12 November 2012. A World to Win News Service. “I was only 19 years old when I went to the coffin room, but I… can’t escape thinking about it… I was with those who lost their lives, or lost their minds. I live with them all the time. I still both work and cry, I both live and mourn, I think about what happened.”
Another person testified, “Once they came for me and asked if I had repented. I said yes. They asked me if I was prepared to take part in executions. I said yes. I wanted to pretend that I had repented, others had thought the same way, but one day…”
These are the examples of testimony given by witnesses at a symbolic tribunal held in The Hague (Netherlands) on 25-27October that found the Islamic Republic of Iran guilty of crimes against humanity for the mass execution of political prisoners in the 1980s.
The Iran Tribunal, as it was called, took place in two stages. The first was held 18-22 June this year in London, where 75 witnesses testified in front of a “Truth Commission”. At the second session, in The Hague, around 20 witnesses testified in front of a commission of international judges.
Johann Kriegler, who led the judges, introduced himself as a member of the Truth Commission held in South Africa after the end of apartheid. Other judges had experience with similar tribunals, including British barrister Michael Mansfield who is a member of the jury panel on the Russell Tribunal inquiry on Palestine.
According to the organizers, the Iran Tribunal was inspired by the original Russell Tribunal initiated by the philosophers and Nobel Prize winners Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre and other intellectuals in 1966 to put the United States on trial for its war crimes in Vietnam. This current campaign was launched after a gathering of survivors and families of the victims.
Most of the witnesses were victims themselves or relatives of victims. They came from a broad spectrum of political organisations, nationalities and religious minorities. One of the first witnesses in the Hague session was Malekeh Mostafa Soltani from Kurdistan. Four of her brothers were executed and another, Fouad Soltani, a founder of the Kurdish revolutionary organization Komala, was killed in clashes with the Pasdaran (the Islamic Republic’s militia) during the regime’s attack on the oppressed minority region in the summer of 1980.
Another witness, Shoura Makaremi, said she was eight months old when her mother was arrested and eight years old and living in France when her mother was executed along with other prisoners in the massacre of the summer of 1988. She also testified about her aunt, who was executed in 1982. Her aunt was pregnant when arrested and went through four months of torture before she was finally killed. The family had never been able to find out if she was still pregnant when she was murdered or had lost the baby.
Shohreh Ghanbari, a student and supporter of the left-wing organisation Peykar,was arrested along with her younger sister. In her testimony she recounted, “To make you confess and get the most information out of you, they tortured people brutally… In the religious court, the question was this: are you prepared to give an interview on television condemning your organisation? I said I hadn’t done anything, so how could I give an interview about what I had done? The mullah started to swear at me and said you all are a bunch of prostitutes. The trial lasted only about four minutes. I didn’t get a chance to defend myself.” She said that 90 percent of the prisoners underwent similar trials. She was released after five years.
Another witness, Shekoufe Sakhi, described the form of torture carried out in the so-called “Coffin Room” at Gohar Dasht prison, one of several sites where political prisoners were held. “I spent eight and a half months in a coffin… They didn’t let us sit upright or sleep. Somebody with a whip made of thick electrical cables was there to keep us from moving. Then they started to make us listen to religious TV programmes and the confessions of other prisoners on CCTV, in order to make us suffer and break us… I tried not to listen to that religious propaganda. I tried to remember and repeat to myself the names of relatives, friends and even acquaintances to keep my brain working, but most of the time I couldn’t remember them. Then I tried to remember the face of my mother and my son. But sometimes I couldn’t. So I decided to listen to the broadcast and refute them with reason. This is how I resisted and tried to keep up my spirits…
“I was only 19 years old when I went to the coffin room, but I can’t escape thinking about it… I was with those who lost their lives, or lost their minds. I live with them all. I still both work and cry, I both live and mourn. I think about what happened.”
The Islamic Republic managed to break some prisoners with extreme psychological and physical torture, but even then the regime did not spare their lives. Some of those who were broken were executed even quicker. In most cases they were pushed to cooperate and supervise and even torture other prisoners. These prisoners were known as repenters. Mehdi Mehmarpour testified that he had taken part in a demonstration on 20 June 1981 against Khomeini’s consolidation of power. When they came to arrest him he was not home. They took his sister instead, saying she would be released if he turned himself in. But that was a lie.
He was in prison for six months. “I believed I had done nothing… Once they came for me and asked if I had repented? I said yes. They asked me if I was prepared to take part in executions? I said yes, I wanted to pretend that I had repented, others had thought the same way, but one day they came and took us… by bus to the execution grounds. I still couldn’t believe it… I told myself, if they give me a gun I’ll shoot them and then shoot myself. After few minutes we got off the bus. Then I saw a terrible scene. A large number of masked Pasdaran were lined up and a large number of prisoners whose eyes were covered were lined up opposite them. They told us to stand behind the Pasdaran… The prisoners included both men and women… In front was a young boy, perhaps a youth, and a girl, also young. She was covered with a head scarf so I couldn’t tell her age.”
The witness started to cry. When asked if he could continue, he said, “Yes. This has been with me for 28 years. I saw another two boys who were under 15. There was a girl who loudly saluted the organization she supported… Then they told us to move forward towards the Pasdaran. Some could not but most of us stepped forward. They asked us to put our finger on top of the Pasdar’s finger on the trigger. I did. They read the Qur’an. Then they gave the order to fire… When we were in the bus to go back, we all were quiet and shocked. Our eyes were open. Some had blood spilt on their cloths because they had moved the executed into a truck.”
Crying, he continued, “This was a rape of my soul, a wound deep inside me that will never heal. I was a person whose hand was sunk into the blood of another person. I became the assistant of a murderer killing a freedom fighter. I have and will have this pain with me all through my life.”
Another witness, Nima Sarvestani, presented documentary films he had made as evidence. One was an interview with an old man who had buried executed prisoners in a city in southern Iran.
The old man said, “They used to bring five or six dead bodies every night and wanted me to bury them… Most of them were less than 20 years old.” The interviewer asked, “Did you know they were executed? “Of course. When someone has six or seven bullets in his or her body, or head, of course they were executed. This was not someone who was hit by a car. They had no mercy, they executed so many.”
This witness had also made a documentary about Khavaran cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran where many of those executed in the 1980s were buried. He had interviewed a mother who had lost several members of her family including her sons. There is nothing to identify their graves – gravestones are not allowed. If somebody put up a marker for their loved one it would be destroyed, people interviewed said.
The witness also presented a third documentary in which he interviewed Ayatollah Montazeri, who referred to the executions of the summer of 1988 and explained his attempt to stop them.
There were other witnesses who testified about their years in prison, and relatives of the executed who described what happened to their families. Mohsen Nowal testified, “I heard about the arrest of my husband from the media, that 21 members and cadre of the Union of Iranian Communists, along with their leader Hossein Tajmir Riahi, had been arrested.” She continued that “people in the northern city Amol (where the UIC-led Sarbedaran uprising took place on 25January 1981) were intensely suppressed and their homes were searched because they had helped Sarbedaran fighting against the regime.” At the end, she said, “The struggle of my husband and his group was just – because it was for freedom, so the Islamic Republic should be condemned throughout the world.”
While the testimony of a great many people, especially at the London session, could not be included here, we must at least mention the courageous woman who spoke about the rape of female prisoners that seems to have been a systematic practice, with life-long effects on those who survived.
The Islamic Republic came to power after the 1979 uprising that overthrew the US-backed Pahlavi monarchy. In a compromise with the religious fundamentalist forces led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Western imperialist powers accepted the installation of an Islamic regime in order to put an end to the revolutionary upheaval. Despite Khomeini’s public promises to the contrary during the struggle against the Shah, the regime’s first move was to institute harsh Sharia (religious-based) law.
The people who had risen up against the Shah and the imperialist oppression of Iran were betrayed, as one set of oppressors replaced another. Soon different sections of the people started to resist and fight back against the theft of the revolution. Just a month after the overthrow of the Shah, women were the first to take a stand in five days of demonstrations against the compulsory wearing of the Hejab (head covering) and other attacks against women. Their slogan was, “We didn’t make revolution to go backwards.” Soon after that Kurdish people who had fought against the Shah for their self-determination and kept struggling for their rights faced a fierce military attack. Then universities were closed to purge them of progressive and revolutionary students and lecturers. However, all these atrocities could not stop the various sections of people from resisting the imposition of a religious dictatorship that was in the service of the most reactionary classes in the country.
Finally Khomeini, along with other hard-line allies such as the ayatollahs Beheshti, Rafsanjani and Khamenei, launched an all-around assault to consolidate the Islamic regime. Even some people who were part of the regime but did not agree with the plan, including the Islamic Republic’s then president Abul-Hassan Bani Sadr, were purged and expelled. The establishment of the rule of one faction of the Islamic regime was followed by a decade of intense repression. In the beginning thousands of activists and supporters of revolutionary organisations were arrested, tortured in the most vicious manner and then executed.
Even after so many murders, thousands and possibly tens of thousands of prisoners remained in captivity, serving long-term, often life sentences – for example, ten years for distributing leaflets or the newspaper of a communist organisation. Then in the summer of 1988, after the Western powers forced Khomeini to accept an end to the war with Iraq, which he compared to being forced to swallow poison, he formed a “death committee” consisting of three high-ranking officials (Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, a representative of the Ministry of Information; Tehran Attorney General Morteza Eshraghi; and the Islamic judge Jaffar Nayeri) and ordered the massacre of the remaining political prisoners, including even those who had completed their sentences.
Thousands of prisoners – according to some accounts, as many as 20,000 – were executed after so-called trials lasting a few minutes where often there was only one question: Do you renounce the ideology or organization you were arrested for supporting? This massacre was contested by Ayatollah Montazeri, who had been named Khomeini’s successor. But his protests led to his isolation within the power structure, and he was stripped of his position and even put under house arrest for years.
The leaders of the regime’s reformist faction today, including Mohammad Khatami and Hussein Moussavi and others, held key positions in the Islamic regime at that time and participated in this massacre, although they now deny it. Moussavi, the leader of the so-called Green movement, was prime minister during most of that decade. The whole system they were part of is guilty.
The Western powers and their major spokesmen knew all this was happening, but they did not say a word. Their silence expressed an unmistakable support for these murderous acts. Their so-called human rights organizations were also complicit. Amnesty International did not even mention these crimes until the late 1990s. The UN remained silent because that suited the two rival imperialist alliances at that time, the U.S. and Western European powers on the one hand and the no less imperialist Soviet bloc on the other.
This terrible crime, or at least its depth and dimensions, remained covered up for many years. That could not have happened without the complicity of the imperialist powers.
It is true that the Iran Tribunal found the Islamic regime guilty of crimes against humanity, but the (at least indirect) role played by imperialists, both East and West, including the U.S. and European governments, was not even mentioned nor investigated.
Of course in the last few years the imperialists and their media and other institutions have begun exposing the 1980s massacres in Iran, but their motivations are as reactionary now as when they remained silent in the past. Now their interests are driving them to consider forcing a change in the composition of the ruling power structure in Iran, either with its Islamic flavour or without it.
This tribunal had other limitations that could not go unnoticed. For example, witnesses at the London session were limited to testifying about their personal experience and thus could not bring out the role played by the imperialist system and the overall world situation in the unfolding of these terrible events. Some witnesses tried to hide the political identity of those who were murdered, even though they were killed precisely because they refused to renounce their views and allegiance.
At some points, especially during the first session in London, the judges and prosecutors seemed more interested in those activities of the prisoners that fell within the limits of law, which tended to divorce these massacres from the political situation of which they were a consequence.
But the witnesses helped people understand the degree to which not only the victims and their families but a whole generation was affected in one way or another.
In fact, a driving force behind the exposure of the Islamic Republic’s crimes has been the unrelenting struggle to bring them to light by various people, including ex-prisoners who have written dozens of their memoirs, and the families of those killed who have tirelessly sought to put an end to the cover-up. The Khavaran cemetery became a battleground between regime forces and relatives and especially the parents of the executed. Their struggle and exposures have been supported and followed up by revolutionary and progressive organizations. Political prisoner support committees have helped this process too.
However it should be noted that there is still a long way to go in uncovering the depth and dimension of this massacre of political prisoners, including the number of people executed during those dark years of Iranian history and the cruelty with which they were treated. From this point of view, the campaign waged by the Iran Tribunal and the opportunity that was given to around a hundred people to testify publicly was helpful in exposing and helping people better understand the reactionary religious regime that rules Iran.