Opening Submissions of John Cooper, QC
Prosecutor of the Iran Tribunal
The Hague, 25-27 October 2012
Mr President, distinguished members of the Tribunal.
In the dark summer of 1988, prisoners in Gohardasht communicated with each other in Morse code. By tapping on the cold walls of their cells, they spread the news of the arrival of the mysterious “Death Commission”, whose mission it was to investigate the piety of jailed political prisoners. The tapping continued: an unprecedented spate of executions had begun.
Today, the men and women whose only means of communication twenty-four years ago was the sound their fingers could make on concrete can speak without fear. Their determination to expose the barbarities of their unrelenting oppressors has not waned; but now, they may speak loudly and with confidence, as the Iranian people listens and awaits historic justice with bated breath.
In June, a truth commission was held in London. It heard evidence from 75 brave witnesses, each and every one of whom was a victim of the Iranian regime. They pieced together a harrowing tale of unimaginable torture, abuse and executions. The Commission was humbled by their courage and we express, on their behalf, the deepest gratitude to all those who have supported the pursuit of international justice.
Honourable judges, I commend the Truth Commission’s extraordinary diligence in the composition of its Report, and commend this historic document to you. It is the tip of an iceberg of evidence of the crimes against humanity that the Islamic Republic of Iran inflicted on its people in the 1980s. The Prosecution expresses its full faith in the integrity and accuracy of the Truth Commission’s findings, and hereby invites the Tribunal to accept the Report and ratify it as its own fact-finding inquiry.
You will find that the Report sets out in chilling detail how the Islamic Republic of Iran systematically terrorised its people as it sought to consolidate the Islamic Revolution; how it abducted dissidents in the dead of the night; how it subjected them to kangaroo courts; how it viciously tortured them; and then how it murdered them in cold blood, and dumped them in mass graves.
Every fact stated in the main body of the Report is supported by a comprehensive set of references in Part E, which points readers directly to the relevant witness statements in Exhibit C.
In February 1979, the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran crumbled in the face of revolution, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was swept into power. In November, a referendum approved the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran: the new theocratic state vested the Supreme Leader, and the Supreme Leader alone, with the power to interpret the will of God.
The new regime wasted no time in liquidating the old regime. Within a year of the adoption of the new constitution, a decade-long war with Iraq was underway. It took less than a year from that point on for the Islamic regime to turn its guns on the very political groups alongside which it had fought in the revolution. Many witnesses mentioned the infamous demonstrations of the 30th Khordad (20th June 1981) as a watershed moment, when there began the systemic elimination of all political dissent.
The Report makes for discomforting reading, to say the least.
Chapter I identifies three distinct manners in which political dissidents were arbitrarily arrested and bundled away to prisons. In the first instance, dissidents were forcibly disappeared; when their families attempted to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones, they were refused information, thrown red herrings or directed to dead ends. In the second instance, dissidents were arrested after their houses were besieged by overwhelming man- and firepower in the dead of night, their contents ransacked and their inhabitants brutally attacked. In the third instance, they were arrested after being set-up by former associates acting under duress, from inside prison.
There is zero evidence of any due process in these arrests: there were no warrants, no explanations and no identifying documents. Some people were blindfolded and abducted after they were asked to accompany the Revolutionary Guards to the station for questions.
Suspects were then detained for long periods - the longest in the evidence was eighteen months - without trial, in prisons, detention centres or overflow facilities across Iran. They were then interrogated blindfolded and subjected to the most senseless torture, most commonly to force them to confess or divulge information. Without exception, suspects were then subjected to bastinado: tied to a bed with a dirty sock stuffed in their mouth, the soles of their feet were whipped with electric cables until they bled and lost sensation. The torturers then restored sensation to suspects’ feet by dousing them with cold water or piercing the skin, so that the torture could start anew.
Suspects were flogged and beaten; they were forced to squat in small boxes, known as the ‘Grave’; they were deprived of sleep and made to stand for days on end; and men and women were both subjected to vicious sexual abuse. Most barbarically, suspects were subjected to ghapani, a mediaeval torture method by which a victim is suspended in the air by his arms, twisted behind his back and tied to a chain; left here for hours, the pain was indescribably intense; it was not uncommon for shoulders snap.
The psychological torture was every bit as agonising. Solitary confinement and intimidation barely scratch the surface; detainees were subjected to mock executions, forced to watch fellow inmates being tortured or - heartlessly - tortured in the presence of their own crying children.
One would be hard-pressed to find a single moment in those prisons that could be defined as anything other than cruel, inhuman and degrading. Prisoners were packed like sardines into cells so overcrowded that they had to sleep in shifts; sanitary conditions were, suffice it to say, non-existent; medical assistance and food were deliberately denied; prison officials used forced labour; inmates were pressured to participate in televised confessions or recantations, to erode the morale of the prison population; and there was no escape from the clutches of the religious indoctrination classes, which, with savage irony, preached the treatises of the new Supreme Leader.
The witnesses at the Truth Commission were asked about their trials. One laughed: “When you say ‘trial’,” he said dryly, “I think you have something European in mind.” Suspects were blindfolded through proceedings, in which they were mostly charged with political offenses: in not a single case was a civilian defendant given access to legal representation; defendants, if they could talk, were limited to answering two or three questions from a religious judge, who then invariably convicted them. The whole process took about as long as it has taken me to describe it to you.
Chapter II explains the executions, which dotted the map of Iran with blood. The Commission was presented with hundreds upon hundreds of names; before 1988, some prisoners were hanged or killed under torture, but the overwhelming majority of executions were conducted by firing squads.
Chapter III provides a detailed and thorough account of what particular abuses were committed in each of the tens of prisons and detention centres mentioned by witnesses. The sheer scale of this operation cannot be understated: the Commission heard evidence of 32 separate prisons, half of which received only one mention from among 75 witnesses.
Chapter IV outlines the experiences of the specific groups of people imprisoned in Iran’s jails, from a staggering scale of political affiliation. Women were treated with especial disgust and cruelty. Children were imprisoned with their parents and held in the exact same squalid conditions as adults, left in the charge of their bloodied and brutalised parents. It was heart-wrenching to hear how children constructed their games around the experiences of prison: one mother made her daughter a doll, only to find the girl playing ‘torturer’ with the doll and beating it viciously. Minors were arrested and executed as political prisoners in their own right: the youngest was 11.
Chapter V describes the ordeal of the families of the political prisoners. It tells how they were viciously assaulted; how their visitation rights were curtailed; how they were notified of their loved ones’ deaths with astonishing insensitivity, sometimes as the first confirmation they had that their relatives were in prison at all; how countless families were made to pay for the bullets used to kill their relatives, in order to release the bodies; how they were denied the right to give the deceased dignified burials, and how their mourning ceremonies were violently disrupted.
Chapter VI is a ‘most wanted’ list of the key perpetrators - judges, prison officials, prosecutors and torturers, amongst others - identifying their crimes and informing us, thanks to evidence submitted by Mr Babak Emad, as to the current occupations of those still active in government service.
Honourable judges, there was a dramatic turn of events in 1988, when the guns fell silent on the Iraqi front. After eight years of war, the Islamic Republic accepted the ceasefire imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 598. He issued a chilling fatwa (Appendix A), in which he called for the elimination of political prisoners with “revolutionary rage and rancour”. Khomeini then established panels, dubbed “Death Committees”, to issue the execution orders: the prisoners were moharebs, at war with God, and were to be eliminated.
“I hope that you satisfy the almighty God with your revolutionary rage and rancour against the enemies of Islam,” Khomeini ordered, instructing officials to “show no doubt or concern with details” and act “ferociously”.
And so they did. Prisons went into lockdown and all communication with the outside world was suspended. And then, blood poured on an unprecedented scale. Prisoners were hauled in front of the Death Commissions: they were grilled about their faith, and then faithfully dispatched. Over 5,000 were hanged in the space of a few months.
I wish to draw the Tribunal’s attention to the enduring legacies of this abuse. The survivors bear physical scars, and even deeper psychological ones. They have outlived countless inmates who long ago succumbed to their horrific physical injuries or to their psychological ones - those whose trauma drove them to suicide. The nightmares haunt them during the day and they haunt them at night. One witness was five when her mother was executed; she still has recurring nightmares in which her house is under attack, and she begs the Revolutionary Guards to spare her mother, whom she loves and needs.
Honourable judges, it is a stain on the collective conscience of humanity to deny these scars a way to heal and these nightmares a means to subside.
This is why the Prosecution now moves at this phase to prove that responsibility for these grave, widespread and systematic violations of human rights lies with the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on whose express orders they were carried out. To this end, the Prosecution will present the Tribunal with a line-up of expert witnesses, who will testify on the nature of the involvement of the Iranian state in these outrages.
In order to refresh the minds of the judges and interested parties around the world, the Tribunal will hear from ten witnesses who were imprisoned and tortured during the 1980s. Their stories bear the same depressing watermark of the 75 testimonies in the Report, but each makes uniquely disturbing revelations and will greatly aid the Tribunal in understanding the grave human impact of this dark episode. I thank Mohammad Reza Ashogh, Mehdi Memarpouri, Amir Atiabi, Malakeh Mostafa Soltani, Jalil Shaharani, Ruhiyyeh Jahanpour, Sadegh Nahomi, Naval Mohsen, Shohreh Ghanbari and Nader Bekayi in advance for their courage in addressing this Tribunal.
The Tribunal will also hear from four witnesses with similar stories, but who have since made names for themselves as authorities on the very human rights violations to which they were subjected. Iraj Mesdaghi, Ahmad Muosavi Maaf and Mehdi Aslani are prolific writers on this subject, with hundreds of articles between them and a fine set of published memoirs. Shokufeh Sakhi is a PhD candidate at York University, Canada, where she is investigating the phenomenology of resistance.
The Prosecution invites a further two witnesses whose family members were executed in Iran’s prisons and who have since conducted extensive research into this period. Nima Sarvestani is a well-known Swedish Iranian filmmaker, who has produced a documentary about the mass executions; we shall be screening a scene from this film, in which Mr Sarvestani interviews a gravedigger who received a delivery of sixty bullet-ridden bodies in Shiraz. Dr Chowra Makaremi is an anthropologist and tenured research scholar at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris; she is currently investigating post-revolutionary violence in Iran, and her insights will be invaluable.
The Prosecution will also call on Dr Hedayat Matine-Daftary, a member of the Steering Committee. He was a vice president of the Iranian Bar Association during the Revolution and was one of the founders of the National Democratic Front. His evidence will demonstrate how the Islamic Regime dismantled the existing legal system and replaced it with inexperienced judges drawn from Islamic seminaries; and how it attacked the Bar Association, detained the members of the Bar Council and replaced the independent Bar Association with “Islamic Bar”. Dr Matine-Daftary himself managed to escape, although a death warrant had been issued against him.
These witnesses’ testimonies will establish how human rights were violated in Iran on an industrial scale, mercilessly, ruthlessly and systematically.
Finally, the Prosecution will call on two members of the Tribunal’s Truth Commission, both of whom are world-leading authorities on the human rights situation in Iran.
Professor Maurice Copithorne QC is a visiting professor of law at the University of British Columbia; he served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran from 1995 to 2002. As the chairman of the Truth Commission, Professor Copithorne will testify as to commission’s procedures and the nature of its findings.
Anne Burley was Amnesty International’s Researcher on Iran during the fateful years of 1972 to 1984, during which time she saw the situation with her own eyes, personally conveyed Amnesty’s concerns to senior government officials and reported back home about these shocking practices. Calling on her global expertise in human rights, we shall provide the Tribunal with a solid political and historical context for these abuses.
Mr President, this is our evidence, and these are our witnesses.
It was the darkest of decades for those trapped in overcrowded and dank cells as the tapping raced through the prison, bearing the smell of death. With the full force of international justice, let us now bring it to light.
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