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Iran's Bloody Decade of 1980s


By Muhammad Sahimi

During July-September of 1988 thousands of political prisoners were executed in Iran. Although some executions continued beyond September 1988, the bulk of them happened during the three month period. The executions were neither the first - both before and after the Revolution - nor the last of such criminal events. As reported by the author (with an updated and more complete version here), several political prisoners, including Kurdish dissidents, were executed in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential election;

close to 125, mostly young, people, were killed during demonstrations or in detention at the Kahrizak detention center on southern edge of Tehran, and tens of political dissidents were murdered as part of the infamous Chain Murders from 1988-1998.

But, what distinguishes the 1988 executions is their heinous nature. The people who were executed had already been put on mostly show trials, but had not been condemned to death by the same courts. Many had actually served their full sentences, but had still been kept detained. In my opinion, this aspect alone makes the executions a classic case of crime against humanity, but because the International Criminal Court was founded a few years after the crimes, and cannot act retroactively, the culprits cannot be put on trial by the court.

The following is a more complete version of an article originally published on August 25, 2009. Its republication in a more complete form has been motivated in part by the recent appointment of Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a major figure in the crimes, to the post of Minister of Justice in the new Hassan Rouhani administration. Though the author is hopeful that the new administration will help put Iran on a path to a more open society, less isolation in the world, and economic development, and supports President Rouhani, the support is only conditional. One must not avoid objective criticisms, when they are called for.



The 1980s, particularly the period between 1980 and 1988, are the darkest and bloodiest in the history of contemporary Iran. In 1980, the country was still in the grip of the chaos of the 1979 Revolution. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had been toppled, but the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan did not last long either. It 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. With their help, 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.

Khomeini’s Speech and “Cultural Revolution”

To crackdown on dissent, and to purge the secular leftists from the universities, the political establishment began to speak of the necessity of a so-called "cultural revolution." To formalize it, on Friday April 18, 1980, after Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini strongly attacked the universities in a speech. He said,

We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention [which was feared at that time because of the hostage crisis]. What we are afraid of is Western universities and the training of our youth in the interests of the West or East.

Many interpreted Ayatollah Khomeini's speech of April 18, 1980, as a signal for attacks on the universities. In the evening of that day, right-wing paramilitary forces popularly called the Phalangists, after the Lebanese Phalangist forces that were fighting the leftist forces in the civil war in that country, 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 did not fare any 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.

Many of the current reformists supported the “cultural revolution,” as they were ardent supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini. In the University of Shiraz, for example, Islamic scholar Dr. Mohsen Kadivar (currently living in the U.S.), journalist and satirist Ebrahim Nabavi and Dr. Ataollah Mohajerani (First Vice President in the administration of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the first Mohammad Khatami administration) who both currently live in Europe, and Dr. Alireza Alavi Tabar, a well-recognized intellectual, were all active to various degrees in the “cultural revolution” at that university.

All the universities were shut down on June 12, 1980, and did not re-open until two years later. 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.

Iraq Invades Iran

While the country was in disarray, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran. He had never been happy with the 1975 Algiers Agreement signed by Iraq and the Shah intended to settle a border dispute. Add to that the threat of a revolution led by Shiite clerics next door, especially when the Shiites made up the majority of the population in Iraq. Ayatollah Khomeini and his disciples were also using tough rhetoric to denounce Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Hussein also made a great miscalculation: He thought that with Iran's regular army disorganized and demoralized, and with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) still in its infancy, he could easily invade Iran and occupy a significant portion of it. That, in Hussein's thinking, 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, and began a war that lasted almost eight years. "This war is a gift from God," said Ayatollah Khomeini. And from his perspective, it indeed 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 gave the extreme right the perfect excuse, to use the threat to national security and territorial integrity of Iran to brutally repress the opposition with much bloodshed.

The MKO Turns Against the State

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

Mohammad Reza Sa’adati, who was among the top leaders of the MKO [and who had been jailed by the Shah from 1973-1978], had also been 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]. However, his arrest outside the Soviet embassy had provided the right wing with much ammunition and propaganda to attack the MKO. Supporters of the MKO, 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, but was prevented at every point by the clerical leadership and its supporters, one must also recognize that the goal of the MKO's leadership was gaining power at any cost, at the earliest time possible. The MKO leaders, Masoud Rajavi and Mousa Khiabani, had even proposed to Ayatollah Khomeini to "deliver to them the government," as they considered themselves the only group qualified to run the government. But Ayatollah Khomeini rejected the proposal. In fact, before the victory of the Revolution and while still in Paris, Ayatollah Khomeini had reached a consensus with others, including Mehdi Bazargan, Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Taleghani (1911-1979), 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 Banisadr, who had been elected the Islamic Republic's first president in February 1980 and had been a close aide of Ayatollah Khomeini during the Revolution, was also on a collision course with the Ayatollah and his circle of clerical aids. On June 10, 1981, the Ayatollah sacked Banisadr as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces [according to Iran's Constitution, the Ayatollah was the commander-in-chief, but he had transferred the authority to Banisadr].

MKO Takes up Arms

On June 19, the MKO issued a harshly-worded statement, calling Ayatollah Khomeini all kinds of names [the same ayatollah who, up until a few weeks earlier, had been called by the MKO "the Father," "the Leader," etc.], and declaring that it will 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’s supporters against each other.

On June 21, 1981, the Majles (parliament) impeached Banisadr; he was fired. By that point, he had already fled and gone into hiding in western Iran. The IRGC executed several of his close aids, including Hossein Navab, Rashid Sadrolhefazi, and Manouchehr Massoudi, an attorney. Banisadr’s mouthpiece, Enghelab-e Eslami, was also shut down. [Enghelab-e Eslami is still published in exile in France.] Dozens of others were also executed on June 21 and 22, including at least 12 young girls whose identities were not even known to the judiciary. Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Gilani, the prosecutor of the revolutionary court, declared that he did not care about the identities of the young people whose execution he was ordering. 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, Minnesota, 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 had actively participated in it, but had turned against the political establishment. He was also angry at me because I was in the United States, not in 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 and was executed 10 days later on September 18. In the morning of the day after his execution, 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 the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, 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 buried there.

Hopeful that there could have been a mistake made, they went home. But, in a television news program broadcast at 2:00 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. So, 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 block clothes that mourning people wear, and not to put a tombstone on Ali’s grave. My family did all of them and ran into a great deal of trouble for doing so. When they put in the 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 stopped breaking it.

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 on the anniversary of Ali’s death, the family had visited his grave they were all arrested and taken to a police station nearby, interrogated for hours, and finally released. They refused to guarantee that they would not visit the cemetery again.

But 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 that supported the government wrote me a letter, warning that he could get himself into deep 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 15 at that time, was arrested and jailed. Three times he was asked to write his “will,” - what kind of “will” can a 15 year old boy have - 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 went through the same kind of suffering, often under much 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.

Explosion in the Clerical Party and Beginning of the Executions

On June 28, 1981, there was a huge explosion in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party, the clergy-dominated political group founded by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, and others. Nearly 120, by some estimates, including the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sayyed 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 the responsibility for it.

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 event and the events of Ashura day of October 10, 680 A.D. in Karbala, in modern day Iraq, when Imam Hossein, the Shias' third Imam, the grandson of the Prophet and one of the most revered figure in Shiite Islam, and 72 of his close supporters and family members were slain in an epic battle.

It is widely believed - likely incorrectly though - that the MKO carried out the bombing of the Islamic Republic Party headquarters, which took the bloody confrontation between the MKO and the government to a completely new level. The government had begun executing the MKO supporters, and the MKO had begun assassinating senior political figures, including many leading ayatollahs. Mohammad Ali Rajai, who had been elected President after Banisadr; and Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar, the Prime Minister under Rajaei, were assassinated on August 30, 1981. In retaliation, the government would arrest and kill MKO members and supporters, showing no mercy, not even on the very young, and in some instances children. The youngest victim that I am aware of was a girl named Fatemeh Mesbah, who was said to be 12 when 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 very young people between the ages of 14 and 28. Next to Ali’s grave is the resting place of a young medical doctor, who was executed at 28. 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 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 near where Ali’s grave is, 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 Quran, when I was young. My father and several friends, who worked in Tehran’s Bazaar, had begun a weekly gathering on Tuesday nights to read the Holy Quran and study its teachings. Typically, 50 people would participate, and the place of the meeting would rotate between the members' homes. I too participated in the gatherings when I was in middle and high schools, as my father was keen that I learn about the Holy Quran.

Each person in the gathering would read a few verses from the Holy Quran. Dr. 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, 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 Majles [parliament] after the Revolution. But after his daughter and son-in-law, as well as two of his sons, 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 IRGC, 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 as an excuse to further 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. The Islamic Republic bears the lion share of the responsibility for the executions, but it is also completely absurd - indeed unreal - to claim that the leadership of the MKO did not share at least part of the responsibility.

Mohammad Reza Sa’adati was executed on July 27, 1981. Before his death, he had reportedly 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, Banisadr and Rajavi fled Iran. A Boeing 707, flown by an air force pilot, took them first to Turkey and then to Paris, France. That began the process of the MKO going into exile. Eventually, MKO forces settled in Iraq, and worked with Saddam Hussein against Iran, and committed numerous treasons against Iran and Iranians.

In February 1982, the MKO suffered a tremendous blow. Mousa Khiabani, the commander of the MKO forces in Iran, his pregnant wife Azar Rezai [whose brothers Ahmad, Reza and Mehdi, had been killed under the Shah], and Ashraf Rabiei, Rajavi's wife, and 18 other MKO members were killed by the IRGC in a shootout. The three had managed to break through the IRGC forces, but their bulletproof Peugeot was hit by an RPG that killed everyone but Rajavi's 1-year-old son, Mostafa. Rajavi appointed Ali Zarkesh the new commander of the MKO forces in Iran. He was killed in 1988 during the MKO attacks on Iran from Iraq (see below).

The campaign of assassinations by the MKO, and the execution of young members and sympathizers of the MKO, continued for another two years. The reactionary right used that and the war with Iraq to also go after other political groups, such as the Peykar [confrontation], a Stalinist-Maoist group and 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 the young or very young, were summarily executed.

At the same time, the war with Iraq was raging on. By June 1982, Iranian forces had pushed back Iraq's forces 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 Iran. The war should have ended then. Saddam was ready to accept a ceasefire.

According to a friend from my college years in Iran, who was in a meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini and commanders of the IRGC and government officials who were in the meeting to discuss what to do about the war, the Ayatollah was in favor of ending the war. But, the ideologues in the IRGC convinced him that they could easily overrun Iraq and liberate its Shiite part. They told the Ayatollah that it would not take that long to accomplish the goal. [Years later my friend’s brother was also executed during summer of 1988; see below.]

The Ayatollah gave the IRGC 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 continuation of the war beyond 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 long-term wounds. Of the soldiers killed, about 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 murdered, young soldiers were also dying in the war. Political freedom and the freedom of the press were nonexistent.

Two other notable events were also taking place 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 interrogators and the tavvaab saazaan -- the interrogators who "converted" the prisoners and put them back on the "right" path to "redemption" -- were feeding them with. Some of the prisoners became tavvaab - repentant - in order to save their lives; they had not really set aside their beliefs. A small number became tavvaab and began serving their masters. An example is the wife of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and close confidant, who was reportedly a MKO member and had been imprisoned. Mashaei was 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 some of the security/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.

Ayatollah Montazeri’s Protest against the Harsh Treatment of Political Prisoners

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 Ayatollah Khomeini, and tried his best to prevent the executions, and improve the conditions of those imprisoned. He visited the prisons frequently and ordered improvements. He also sent his representatives, such as Hojjatoleslam Ansari Najafabadi, to the prisons to visit and report to him.

The reports that Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was receiving were horrible. Thus, he began writing letters to Ayatollah Khomeini, his teacher and mentor, protesting the conditions in jails. In one letter in 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 even take place in the Shah's regime?

Many people have died due to torture?

In Shiraz's jail [in southern Iran] 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 the day for months?

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

I am sure that [if you talk to others about this letter] they will tell you that these are lies and he [Grand Ayatollah Montazeri] is naive.

Note the striking similarities between what Grand Ayatollah Montazeri reported to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1986 and the charges that Mehdi Karroubi, a leader of the Green Movement, made about what has taken place in Iranian jails in the aftermath of the 2009 election before his house arrest.

There are many culprits in the killings and horrible treatment of detainees. But one in particular is Sayyed Asadollah Lajevardi, who had been jailed by the Shah's government several times. After the 1979 Revolution he was appointed the Tehran Prosecutor. When in June 1981 the MKO assassinated Mohammad Kachouei, the warden of the Evin prison, Lajevardi was appointed the warden. 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 prison 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.

The War Comes to an End

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 already passed Resolution 598, calling on Iran and Iraq to cease the hostilities. But it took Ayatollah Khomeini one more year to accept the ceasefire -- "to drink the poison," as he put it.

MKO Attacks Iran

Right after the ceasefire went into effect, the MKO forces attacked Iran from Iraq in an operation they call Amaliyat-e Forough-e Javidaan [Operation Eternal Light], but referred to as Amaliyat-e Mersaad [Operations Trap] by the IRGC. The MKO forces were surrounded after being allowed to penetrate Iran’s territory, defeated easily and had heavy losses -- at least 1700 according to the MKO, and up to 4000 according to other sources. The government forces also suffered heavy losses.

Executions of summer of 1988

But the ceasefire with Iraq did not end the bloodshed. There was one more episode of large-scale killing, before the bloodshed of the 1980s ended, and that was the execution of thousands of political prisoners during summer of 1988.

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, the political prisoners. Ayatollah 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 mohaarebs [those who fight against God], while the secular leftists were considered as mortads [those not believing 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, the way the government referred to the MKO - they would be asked the next six questions:

  1. Are you willing to denounce your former colleagues?
  2. Are you willing to denounce them in front of cameras?
  3. Are you willing to help us hunt them down?
  4. Will you name secret sympathizers? (v)
  5. Will you identify those whose repentance was fake?
  6. 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, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri wrote a strong letter of protest to Khomeini on 31 July 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 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:

  1. Are you a Muslim? (ii)
  2. Do you believe in God?
  3. Is the Holy Quran the word of God?
  4. Do you believe in heaven and hell?
  5. Do you accept Muhammad to be the last of the prophets?
  6. Will you publicly recant historical materialism? (vii)
  7. Will you denounce your former beliefs before the cameras?
  8. Do you fast during the fasting month of Ramadan?
  9. Do you pray and read the Holy Quran?
  10. Would you rather share a cell with a Muslim or non-Muslim?
  11. Will you sign an affidavit that you believe in God, the Prophet, the Holy Quran and in Judgment Day?
  12. When you were growing up, did your father pray, fast and read the Holy Quran?

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, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri wrote,

After some time [after the beginning of the executions], they [the committee in charge ofthe execution] obtained a letter from the Imam for non-religious prisoners. 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 [a copy of] 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 such a letter from Imam and want to execute them quickly. I said, “Why is it that your are now concerned for the communists [but not earlier for others]? Why did you not say a word about Imam’s letter for the executions of the hypocrites [the MKO]?” He [Khamenei] responded, “Has Imam written [a letter] for the religious prisoners too?” I responded, “Where have you been? I received that letter [for the MKO] only two days after it had been written. These are 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 [Khamenei] really did not know about the executions, or that he was pretending to while speaking to me....

Thousands of political prisoners were then executed in the summer of 1988. The majority of them were MKO members, but many also belonged to other groups. Many of them were buried in mass graves in the 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, but the people have tried to preserve the site.

The exact number of those who were executed is unknown. Grand Ayatollah Montazeri puts the number at up to 3800. Others have made a list of a little over 4500. All those who were executed had been given jail sentences, and many had actually finished their 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 such such executions in a meeting with a group of university students, he responded,

Have we abolished the death penalty? No, we have death penalty in the Islamic Republic for those [offenders] 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 [members of the MKO] who had been captured. It turned out that there were people in the country that had confessed to having plans to cause large destruction coordinated with the operations that Iraq and the hypocrites carried out. Well, they were punished.

As for Mir Hossein Mousavi, I have discussed his responsibility - both moral and practical - in two other articles here and here and, therefore, will not repeat it here. There are certainly some contradictions and ambiguities in what he has said about the executions. But, it has been recognized that once he learned about the executions - which he did not apparently know until almost the very end - he attempted to resign in protest, but was blocked by Ayatollah Khomeini.

After he could not stop the executions, Grand Ayatollah 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 Iran0 also protested the killings, and were detained, but released later.

The Reason for Execution of the Political Prisoners

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 been started even before the ceasefire. For example, Anoushirvan Lotfi, a student in Faculty of Engineering (FOE) of the University of Tehran in the 1970s and a member of 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 a student of FOE when I was admitted to it in 1972. He was affectionately called doktor [doctor] by everyone who knew him. I have never forgotten a day in the Fall 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 later on.

I lost two dear friends to the 1988 executions. One was Hassan Dashtara, a student of mining 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 one was Taghi Khan, my childhood friend and classmate in high school. 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 Ayatollah Khomeini and the IRGC 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 the province of Khuzestan] and served his full sentence, but was kept in jail beyond his sentence. He was about to be released, but was executed instead 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, even if the culprits cannot be put on trial by the International Criminal Court. Some of them still hold important positions within the political system. Clerics Hossein Ali Nayyeri is a senior figure within the judiciary, and Ebrahim Raeisi is the principal deputy to the judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani. Mostafa Pourmohammadi was Ahmadinejad's first Interior Minister, and after he was fired, he was appointed by the judiciary to be the head of the National Organization for Inspection. He was recently confirmed as the Minister of Justice in the Rouhani administration, although the post is largely ceremonial. Others who played important roles and are still active include clerics Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri and Ali Fallahian, both former minister of intelligence, Ali Razini, and Mohammad Yazdi.

My Mother and Lajevardi

After the events of 1988, Lajevardi retired 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 Holly Quran 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." My father told me repeatedly that, “They [the state] broke my back.”

Lajevardi 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 the culprit was them, due to the manner by which he was killed and the place in which 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 live long enough to hear about Lajevardi's assassination in 1998. I was in Tehran at that time, and gave her the news. She only said Panaah beh Khoda mibaram [I take refuge in God].

An IRGC officer used to live in my parents’ neighborhood in Tehran. He was, and still is, known as Abbas pasdar [a member of the IRGC]. 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 married later one and now has several children. In summer of 2010 his son was killed in an accident at the age of 23, exactly the same age as Ali’s. Everyone remembered what my mother had told Abbas, and after the death of his son, everyone was talking about it in the neighborhood. I even received letters from my childhood friends in that neighborhood regarding what had happened.

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 could be put to rest in Ali's grave when I die." According to the Islamic teachings, a grave could be opened after 30 years and a newly dead person can be laid to rest in it. She continued, "If that happens, I know that I'll be resting next to Ali forever."

She did not get her wish. She passed away in December 2006, a little over 25 years after her son had been 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 Ali, my brother with whom I was very close, was taken away from my family and me at such young age, and did not even get to see him one last time.

Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California and editor of the website Iran News & Middle East Reports, has been analyzing Iran’s political development and its nuclear program for over 15 years.

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