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Hounded Beyond The Grave: Dead Iranian Dissidents Not Allowed To Rest In Peace


The shattered gravestone of Mostafa Karimbeigi, who died during mass anti-government protests in 2009. (file photo)

It's an ordeal that many hundreds of Iranian mothers and fathers have had to endure for decades.

Many wander from cemetery to cemetery looking for the unmarked graves of their dead children.

If they're lucky enough to find the burial spots of a relative they crouch over it, hoping their loved ones might be resting in peace. They often decorate the tombs with flowers or pieces of stone.

But not long afterwards, even these modest markings are routinely destroyed.

For their part, the bereaved parents usually return and restore the graves. Flowers are replaced and broken tombstones are repaired, only for these burial plots to be desecrated once again by people hellbent on eradicating any trace of the deceased.

It's an endless challenge for many relatives grieving the loss of family members deemed to have been hostile to the Islamic republic.

Ever since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, a seemingly untold number of graves and tombs belonging to dissidents, religious minorities, and even those who died during crackdowns on peaceful protests have been desecrated or destroyed, as if the authorities want to erase their memory.

Many hundreds of these people have also "disappeared" or been reported dead, even though their remains have never been returned to their grieving families.

Culture Of Destruction

Although the practice of wreaking violence on corpses and graves had occurred previously in Iran, it took on a new dimension almost immediately after the downfall of the country's last shah and the establishment of an Islamic republic dominated by the clergy.

The man who spearheaded the initial assault on tombs and mausoleums was a cleric, Sadiq Khalkali, whom revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini selected to head newly created courts shortly after taking power in 1979.

He quickly became notorious as Iran's "hanging judge," ruthlessly ordering hundreds of summary executions often after trials that lasted just a few minutes.

Armed with dynamite, bulldozers, and sledgehammers, Khalkhali and his followers also began demolishing the mausoleum of the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah (1878-1944), the "father of secular Iran" who is still seen by many as having brought social progress and prosperity to the country.

Sadiq Khalkhali (center) destroying the tomb of Reza Shah in 1979.
Sadiq Khalkhali (center) destroying the tomb of Reza Shah in 1979.

After that, it wasn't long before the graves and tombstones of dissidents and religious minorities, such as Baha'is and Yarsanis, were also routinely targeted by supporters of the Islamic republic.

In the subsequent decades, Baha'i cemeteries have been frequently attacked and destroyed, while the bodies of many hundreds of dissidents have been left to rot in unknown graveyards and unmarked mass graves.

'Abandoned' Sections

Even in Iran's largest cemetery, Tehran's Behesht Zahra graveyard, which is the final resting place for some 1.6 million souls, there are many who have not been allowed to lie in peace.

This is particularly apparent in sections 33 and 41, which hold the remains of Marxist rebels and political prisoners, respectively, who were executed during the bloody early years of the Islamic republic in the 1980s.

Described by state media as being "abandoned," section 41 has been violently attacked by anonymous thugs several times over the years. Many of the graves' headstones have been shattered and left without any markings, which means the relatives have resorted to simply using pieces of stone, iron, or concrete to mark the final resting place of their loved ones.

A faded plaque marks section 41 in Tehran's Behesht Zahra cemetery.
A faded plaque marks section 41 in Tehran's Behesht Zahra cemetery.

There are no images of the deceased among the broken grave fragments and even unobtrusive plaques adorned with names are habitually smashed.

Across the city, in southeastern Tehran, lies another graveyard that stands as an infamous reminder of one of the worst atrocities committed by the Iranian regime.

The 'Place Of The Damned'

Known informally by many Iranians as Lanatabad, or "the place of the damned," the Khavaran cemetery was traditionally a burial ground for people from religious minorities who were interred there because they were "apostates" and should not "contaminate" the resting places of Muslims.

But today, Khavaran is believed to be the burial place for thousands of mostly young prisoners and dissidents who were summarily executed and disposed of in mass graves over the course of just a few weeks in the summer of 1988.

The plots in the cemetery are unmarked. Iranian authorities do not allow the families of the dead to mourn there and the identities of many of those who've been buried are still unknown to relatives.

Mansureh Behkish is a member of Mothers of Khavaran, a group that represents the relatives of many of those believed to have been interred in the graveyard. She says she lost six family members during the mass executions of prisoners and dissidents in the 1980s.

Mansureh Behkish (file photo)
Mansureh Behkish (file photo)

She believes at least some her relatives' remains are in Khavaran, but she cannot be sure as her families didn't receive their loved ones' bodies after they were executed.

"We presume that my sister, Zahra, and two of my brothers, Mahmud and Ali, are buried somewhere in Khavaran," she told RFE/RL, adding that the regime's attitude toward the deceased makes it impossible for them to know exactly where they've been laid to rest.

"They gave us neither a tombstone nor a sign," she said, outlining the difficulties people have in finding their family members. According to Behkish, if the relatives get any information from the authorities about their relatives, it is often little more than a handwritten number with a vague description of the location of the graves.

"Some families searched the place at night or clandestinely and found the buried bodies of their loved ones," she said. "But many have not [done this]."

Iran's Khavaran cemetery is a mass grave site for political prisoners killed in a spate of executions in 1988. (file photo)
Iran's Khavaran cemetery is a mass grave site for political prisoners killed in a spate of executions in 1988. (file photo)

Even if someone knows where their family member is buried, Behkish said they are often prevented from marking the space.

According to Behkish, the Iranian officials fear of these people's memory being honored is so strong that they have habitually strived to raze any trace of them to allow a place of commemoration.

"During all these years, Khavaran has been [completely] demolished many times," she said. "They have smashed the [remains of the victims] one after another."

Behkish added that the names of these people are also often removed from official databases of the deceased in graveyards. She said even the names of her brother and mother, who are buried in Behesht Zahra, "are not in the cemetery's computer anymore."

Other Victims

The practice of confiscating corpses and smashing tombstones continues to this day.

Many families whose children were executed by Iran or killed in street protests in recent years say they have been forced to bury them at night without a conventional funeral. There are also numerous people who say they are still looking for their relatives' burial places.

Ramin Hossein Panahi was executed in September 2018 along with fellow ethnic Kurds Zanyar and Loqman Moradi, for supposed acts of sabotage in a case described by Amnesty International as "a breathtaking miscarriage of justice from start to finish."

Ramin Hossein Panahi
Ramin Hossein Panahi

Ramin's brother, Amjad Hossein Panahi, says the young men's families are still waiting for their bodies to be returned.

"Two years later, we have no information about their burial place," he told RFE/RL. "My mother has been restless for two long years, and in these two years, she has visited all the cemeteries in Iran…. This is the suffering that this regime has inflicted on parents and others."

Besides subjecting the families of the deceased to "a kind of psychological torture," Panahi suggests the standard desecration of these graves is rooted in the Iranian regime's fear that they may become shrines for those opposed to the government. "They do not want to establish a spot where families and activists may hold gatherings," he said.

Families of those buried in Khavaran hold a ceremony for their loved ones. (file photo)
Families of those buried in Khavaran hold a ceremony for their loved ones. (file photo)

But it seems it is not only perceived counterrevolutionaries and seditionists whom the Iranian regime continues to hound in their graves.

Even Persian literary giants, such as Houshang Golshiri and Ahmad Shamloo, whose outspoken activism often enraged hard-line elements in Iran, have had their tombs damaged and broken repeatedly.

The gravestones of ordinary people who died at the hands of the security forces while simply taking part in anti-government protests have also reportedly been targeted with systematic attacks and vandalism.

For instance, 24-year-old chemical-engineering student Kianoush Asa died shortly after being shot and wounded by Iranian Basij paramilitaries while attending a peaceful demonstration in Tehran in June 2009.

Upon being taken to the hospital, he and several other injured protesters were later taken away by security officers. It was not until more than a week later that authorities informed Asa's family that their son had died.

In the years since, the family say his grave has been repeatedly vandalized, with acid being sprayed on his tombstone and saplings they planted in his honor being chopped down.

More recently, the authorities were blamed for smashing the tombstone of Pouya Bakhtiari, a 27-year-old electrical engineer who was shot dead at a demonstration in November 2019 protesting a sharp hike in fuel prices.

It seems even some of the innocent people who died when a Ukrainian passenger plane was mistakenly downed by the Iranian military have not been spared unwanted attention in death.

Babak Ghafouri-Azar, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Farda whose cousin, Siavash Ghafouri-Azar, and his wife, Sara Mamani, died in the tragic crash that caused huge international embarrassment for Tehran, said their headstones have been smashed and pictures of them removed from their graves.

'This Is Against Shari'a'

The longstanding desecration of graves belonging to people deemed hostile to the Islamic republic has repeatedly sparked international condemnation.

Amnesty International, for example, has denounced the "disrespectful treatment" of the remains of people who died in the "ruthless" slaughter" of 1988 as something that has "compounded the suffering of bereaved family members."

It's a practice that is also causing considerable disquiet in Iran itself.

Iranian scholar and cleric Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi (file photo)
Iranian scholar and cleric Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi (file photo)

"They should not cause suffering for the survivors; punishing the victims' relatives is not permissible," says Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi, a prominent cleric and Islamic scholar based in the holy city of Qom. "What sin have these survivors committed? It is never permissible in Islam to inflict mental torture and punishment on a deceased person's survivors. This is against Shari'a."

But despite widespread criticism and repeated Iranian denials of responsibility, the practice of desecrating graves appears to be continuing unabated.

In September, Iran executed the popular champion wrestler Navid Afkari, who had been controversially convicted of killing a government employee during mass anti-government protests in 2018.

In a case described by Amnesty International as a "horrifying travesty of justice," Afkari maintained that his confession was obtained through torture and his death sparked an international outcry.

Just last month, it was reported that Iranian authorities had destroyed his grave.

A Galvanizing Effect?

Despite apparently trying to drive the families of the dead to despair, Mansureh Behkish maintains that these efforts to obliterate the memory of victims of the Iranian regime have been counterproductive.

"This is a sign of the establishment's fear," she said. "By destroying the graves, the regime wrongly thinks it would frighten the victims' families and silence their voices. All the pressures the regime has exerted has done nothing but intensify people's dissatisfaction with Iran's rulers. As they destroy the graves, people's voices get louder."

The bullet-riddled gravestone of Neda Aqa Soltan, a young protester whose death during anti-government demonstrations in 2009 sparked international outrage. (file photo)
The bullet-riddled gravestone of Neda Aqa Soltan, a young protester whose death during anti-government demonstrations in 2009 sparked international outrage. (file photo)

For some, the destruction of their loved ones' graves has even had a galvanizing effect.

Comparing the current regime to a "Zahak" -- a mythical figure who embodies evil in Persian folklore -- the mother of Neda Aqa Soltan, a demonstrator killed in the 2009 protests, proudly declared that she would be leaving her daughter's gravestone the way it was after it had been smashed and riddled with bullets.

"It will go down in history as a reminder that [today's] Zahak was terrified of even Neda's tomb and memory," she said.

The family of Mostafa Karimbeigi, another victim of the 2009 unrest, has also not replaced his shattered tombstone.

"I prefer my brother's broken grave to thousands upon thousands of tombs with their golden domes," his sister, Maryam Karimbeigi, tweeted.

"A mountain of honor and courage lies there, something that cannot be found in the living members of the Islamic establishment, let alone in their dead."

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