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A 'Killing Field' In Iran Revisited, 20 Years Later

Mourners at the Khavaran cemetery
Mourners at the Khavaran cemetery
Relatives and survivors call it the "Flower Garden," but others know it as the "place of the damned." It's the Khavaran cemetery in the southeastern part of Tehran, housing the remains of religious minorities, as well as Marxists, leftists, and other "antirevolutionaries" and "nonbelievers."

It's also the burial site of hundreds -- or perhaps thousands -- of political prisoners who were executed at two main prisons in Tehran in the dog days of summer in 1988. The prisoners were hanged after a brief informal questioning by three men who became known as the "Death Commission."

Since the mass executions, relatives and friends have visited their mass graves every year on the last Friday in August or the first Friday in September. Under the watchful eyes of the plainclothes security officers, the visitors sing, pray, cry, give speeches, or stand together in silence. After a few hours, security officials ask them to leave the cemetery. Although the gathering is not officially sanctioned, and security officials sometimes harrass the participants, the commemoration has always been peaceful and without incident.

This time, however, the officials did not allow the gathering to take place, and in the preceding days, police raided a house where the families of some victims were gathered.

Of even greater significance to the victims' families is the fact that they have never received an answer to why the revolutionary regime decided to send so many young people to the gallows -- many of them political prisoners who had already spent years in jail and were expected to be released soon.

The number of political prisoners buried at the cemetery also remains a mystery. Claims range from 2,800 to 7,000, although one estimate stretches to 30,000. None of those figures has ever been proven, and the Iranian regime has never accepted the charges. Human rights organizations and some political activists have called for the formation of commissions to uncover the facts.

Some of those who were in prison at the time and survived the period have written about that dark period. One of them, Reza Ghaffari, a former professor at Tehran University, claims that what happened in the summer of 1988 in prisons had been planned for months.

"Six months before the acceptance of the United Nations resolution on a cease-fire, the regime was planning the execution of political prisoners," Ghaffari tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

Officials "were visiting prisons and said that by the order of Ayatollah Khomeini, an amnesty committee has been established and members were asking the prisoners questions," Ghaffari adds. "I remember they came to our prison in Gohardasht where I was a prisoner. They asked some questions and told us that the Imam's Amnesty Committee had decided that there should not be any political prisoners left in the prisons. At that time we had a lot of optimism and we thought that by the end of war they would release the political prisoners."

A Temporary Lull

The summer of 1988 was a low period for Tehran's revolutionary regime. After eight years of war with Iraq and hundreds of thousands of casualties, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accepted the UN Security Council's peace proposal, Resolution 598, but compared "accepting peace with the aggressor" to "drinking a chalice of poison." The decision came after a series of defeats to Saddam Hussein's army, which had the support of the West and most Arab countries.

With rumors circulating that Khomeini was ill and a power struggle emerging between him and his hand-picked successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, many people, including political prisoners, were anticipating change. The atmosphere in the prisons changed, political prisoners became more active, and a few small-scale protests broke out.

Just a few days after the announcement of the cease-fire, an Iranian opposition militia based in Iraq -- the military wing of the People's Mujahedin Organization (Mujahedin-e Khalq, MEK) -- launched an incursion into Iran with the aim of toppling the Islamic regime. With no support from the Iranian people, the incursion was swiftly defeated by battle-tested Iranian soldiers and revolutionary guards. Hundreds of militia fighters of the so-called National Liberation Army of Iran, trained by the Iraqi Army, were killed as they entered Iran.

Thousands of MEK members and sympathizers who were imprisoned across the country wound up paying the ultimate price for the incursion. But many leftists and other prisoners who had nothing to do with the attack were also caught up in the purge.

Mehdi Aslani, a political prisoner at the time, says the MEK attack on Iran gave a pretext to those in the regime who wanted to get rid of all active opposition elements.

"The pretext for the execution of religious and non-religious political prisoners in the summer of 1988 was quite different," Aslani says. "Those with religious affiliations who were mostly from the Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization went to the gallows as Mohareb [combatants with God], whereas the leftists were executed as apostates. I was in the Gohardasht prison when the Death Commission came there and [commission member] Mr. Nayeri's question was: are you a Muslim or a Marxist? The destiny of those who answered they were Marxist was predetermined."

Shrouded In Secrecy

Many memoirs and articles have been published on what the Iranian political opposition now calls the massacre of 1988. But some say that what happened in the prisons is still a well-kept secret, and few know about the extent of the executions. Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch claims that what happened in Iranian prisons should be categorized as a crime against humanity.

"In the contemporary history of Iran, the executions of '88 are considered among the most important cases of human rights abuses," Ghaemi tells Radio Farda. "Based on international human rights laws, the vast scale of those executions and the way that they were carried out unlawfully place those systematic killings in the category of crimes against humanity. The Iranian government never openly confessed to these executions, so the true scope, the number of executed prisoners, and the precise place of their burial are unknown.”

Banu Saberi, who spent months in jail, and whose husband and several other relatives were executed in 1988, says that after 20 years, she is still seeking accountability. "I have to know what happened. We want the truth," Saberi says. "Those who were condemned [to prison terms] should not have been executed based on what the clergy says... Why did they kill them? What did they want from them? What did they ask? What did they mention in their wills? What conditions did they endure? These are the things that I think should be cleared one day, and until then, the wounds in our hearts will remain always fresh."

Abdolkarim Lahiji, a prominent lawyer and a deputy director of the Federation of Human Rights Societies, has called for the executions to be acknowledged to avoid similar crimes in the future. "Until the time when what is happening in a society and the reasons for disasters and tragic events are examined, and those who commit wrongdoing are recognized, such crimes could happen again," Lahiji says.

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