I joined over 150 other lawmakers and human rights experts in signing a letter urging the United Nations Human Rights Commission to launch a formal inquiry into the 1988 massacre of at least 30,000 political prisoners in Iran. Now, one of the main perpetrators of that horrendous crime against humanity, Ebrahim Raisi, is running for president.
Despite countless appeals on behalf of the many victims and their families, there has been very little progress toward holding Raisi and others to account. As the letter specified, a culture of impunity persists in Tehran with regard to this crime.
The massacre took place over several months beginning around this time of year in 1988. Then-regime supreme leader Khomeini set the stage for the killings by issuing a fatwa (religious decree), which declared that opponents of the theocratic regime should be considered enemies of God and executed swiftly
In response, prisons throughout Iran convened tribunals that came to be known as “death commissions,” tasked with interrogating political prisoners about their views. The makeshift trials focused on known and suspected members of the main opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), who made up the overwhelming majority of at least 30,000 victims. Although the 1988 massacre was aimed at destroying the opposition once and for all, the MEK survived and continued to grow in popularity.
In 2019, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the Judiciary Chief. Raisi, the leading candidate in the sham presidential elections, served on the Tehran death commission in 1988. He is a known executioner with a penchant for doling out hanging sentences. With eager compliance from the “moderate” Rouhani government’s Justice Ministry, Raisi has been involved in brutal suppression of nationwide protests in November 2019 that left 1,500 people dead and more than 12,000 in jail.
Raisi has been able to continue his abhorrent legacy because no one has held him to account for his crimes. Some former political prisoners recall that Raisi was present in torture chambers and attended executions in the 1980s as a young and uneducated but cruel functionary of the theocracy. In his current tenure over the past two years, he has overseen hundreds of executions.
The push for international investigations into the 1988 massacre and Raisi’s role has been practically stonewalled by Western policies that appease the regime by cajoling mythical “reformists.” Yet those “reformists” consistently join “hardliners” in justifying the massacre and reinforcing the culture of impunity. Which is why one of the main popular slogans during mass protests in Iran is “Reformist, hardliner, the game is now over!”
The current regime president, Hassan Rouhani, who was billed in the West as a “reformist,” chose many of the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre to serve in his cabinet. For example, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a key member of the death commissions and a Raisi colleague in 1988, became the Justice Minister. He publicly praised the massacre ahead of the start of Rouhani’s second term. Rouhani’s second Justice Minister was another former death commissioner, Alireza Avaie.
The regime’s egregious rights violations today are the ongoing legacy of the 1988 massacre. That is why it is so urgent for the Human Rights Commission and the international community to take actions that would lead to the prosecution of the main perpetrators of that massacre at the International Criminal Court. In absence of immediate, intense pressure on the regime, there is every reason to believe that the trend of human rights violations will continue to intensify.
The regime has relied on the aggressive spread of the coronavirus in Iran as a means to curtail popular protests. But as a prominent leader of the opposition, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Maryam Rajavi, said in a speech in March, recent demonstrations suggest “the fire of the uprisings has risen from the ashes of the coronavirus.”
In recent weeks, large and diverse groups of protesters have called for a boycott of the regime’s presidential elections in June. Now that alleged mass murderers like Raisi have become front runners in that sham election, the people will boycott it with even more vigor. For example, the mothers of the slain 2019 protesters and the families of the 1988 massacre describe Raisi as a “henchman” and have publicly called for a nationwide boycott.
It is time for the world to join the Iranian people in condemning the theocracy’s lies and crimes. All serious advocates for democracy and all defenders of universal human rights should aspire to establish a commission of inquiry into the 1988 massacre before more people die. The time for accountability is now.
• Patrick J. Kennedy represented Rhode Island’s First District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2011.