New Internationalist

Forgotten massacre

Issue 386

The Ayatollah’s hidden legacy

Part of Prison Memoir in Painting by Iranian artist Soudabeh Ardavan. She survived the 1988 massacre but spent eight years in Iranian prisons, painting by using her hair as a brush and toothpaste or tea as paint. She now lives in exile in Sweden.

Every Friday, families gather on a derelict plot next to the cemetery of religious minorities in the district of Khavaran, in south-east Tehran. They call it ‘the rose garden of Khavaran’ – for a rose, in a culture where it is often safer to use poetry, represents a fallen freedom fighter. The Iranian leadership calls it the ‘place of the damned’ or the ‘cemetery of the infidels’. There, in unmarked mass graves, lie thousands of political prisoners killed by the Islamic regime.

In February 1989, the world expressed outrage when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, sentencing the writer Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy. Yet a few months earlier, Khomeini had issued another fatwa ordering the killing of thousands of prisoners of conscience. Silence.

In July and August 1988, the Islamic regime had executed in secret thousands of political prisoners throughout the country – men, women and teenagers. They were intellectuals, students, leftists, members of opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many were jailed for no more than distributing leaflets, having a banned book or being accused by ‘a trusted friend of the regime’.

The slaughter was efficient and relentless. All day long, prisoners were loaded on forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of six at half-hourly intervals. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to horrific torture. The killing was ‘an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history, unprecedented in form, content and intensity,’ wrote the historian Ervand Abrahamian in his book on Iranian prisons Tortured Confessions.

‘When they took me to the death committee in (Tehran’s) Gohardasht prison, the lobby was piled high with sandals, glasses and blindfolds. That’s all that was left of our friends. They are all gone and I am alive. Iam alive to tell their story. That is my only goal,’ says Mehdi Aslani, 49, who survived the massacre and now lives in exile in Germany.

The regime has never acknowledged the massacre, revealed how many were executed, nor why. Amnesty International has recorded the names of 2,800 victims, but survivors believe it was probably between 5,000 and 10,000. The execution of such a large number of people within such a short time, without any due process, violates many international human rights treaties to which Iran is signatory; yet the world has remained largely silent. Most of the perpetrators are still in power today. ‘Nobody has been brought to justice’ says Drewery Dyke, Amnesty’s Iran researcher. ‘Impunity for such appalling crimes only leads to further human rights abuses.’

The husband and two brothers of Rakhshndeh Hosseinpoor, now 53, were killed by the Islamic regime. She now lives in Germany with her son. ‘They have ruined so many lives. I’ve lost three members of my family, but some families have lost six or seven. So many children are without fathers and mothers, so many young widows, so much pain that never goes away… We need justice.’

‘We need people to know about the massacre of 1988 because it isn’t just the problem of the survivors and their families,’ says Reza Moini, another survivor, who works as a human rights activist in Paris. ‘It was a political act, a social act, not a private one. We need the truth for tomorrow’s youth.’

Veronique Mistiaen

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