Text of remarks by UN Special Rapporteur on Iran at JVMI panel in Geneva on 19 June 2024

Verbatim text of remarks by UN Special Rapporteur on Iran, Prof. Javaid Rehman, at a JVMI side event in Geneva on 19 June 2024, announcing a new landmark report on Iran’s atrocity crimes:

Thank you chair. It is a great privilege and honour for me to be talking to you this afternoon. I take a sense of pride and achievement, because I have now completed my report on what I call ‘atrocity crimes and grave violations of human rights’ committed in the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1981, and they go on to the 1988 massacre. It’s a very detailed report. It’s taken me a very long time. In fact, I started working on it from the time that I started my mandate because this is such an important issue in the lives of thousands of people. It is not a historical issue, as many people think. It is a live issue. There are serious concerns about gross violations of human rights. However, the last six months I have been exclusively focused on the writing of this report.

Now, I begin this report with two quotations.

One is from the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri. And some of you, in fact many of you, will be aware of this quotation. It’s been highly cited when he says to the Death Commission:

“The greatest atrocity in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed at your hands, and in future your names will go down in history as criminals.”

This is a very important statement because Montazeri, at the time that he made this statement, was the designated successor to the then Supreme Leader. And Montazeri knew what was going on. The levels of atrocities, the atrocity crimes that I have detailed, were in his mind when he recorded that statement on 15 August 1988. And there is a whole story behind that.

This audio was leaked in 2016. But the magnitude of crimes were made evident through this statement.

Now, the second quotation is my own. I say in that quotation that:

“The death of Ebrahim Raisi on 19 May 2024 must not result in denial of the right to truth, justice and reparations for the Iranian people. Raisi was a member of the “Death Commission” that committed crimes against humanity including mass murder, the arbitrary, summary and extra-judicial executions of several thousand political prisoners in 1988. Those who committed crimes against humanity during the 1980s and subsequently must be held accountable and impunity must end in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

So that is the bottom line, that in this report I’m saying that there must be accountability for atrocity crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and other serious crimes in international law. So that is the overall idea.

At the beginning of the report there is a summary in which I explain why this report is relevant. And I say that this report is relevant because it is affecting people today. It’s affecting their lives. And I quote here from my report, I say:

“The tragedy of these crimes is that their survivors and witnesses remain in immeasurable grief and an undeniable victimhood presents a living testimony to these atrocities. As survivors mentioned in their testimonies to the Special Rapporteur, they are all faced with their mental and psychological trauma on a perpetual basis as they search for a dignified, respectful, and humane closure to their daily suffering and pain. In innumerable cases, families of those forcibly disappeared continue to search for their loved ones, as the authorities continue to violate their rights. These victims and survivors look towards the United Nations and members of the international community for truth, justice and accountability.”

I have emphasised that this is not purely historic, I mean, obviously, one element is what you saw last week happening, with the release of Mr. Hamid Noury. And that is an element which we can discuss if we have time. But there are other interrelated and important contemporary issues which we must bear in mind as to why the 1980s and 1988 are relevant today.

So, for example, if you look at the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement protest which started, as you would know, from September 2022, that wasn’t the start of women’s struggle for equality and rule of law and women’s rights. It goes back to the time when Khomeini came into power in 1979, and then he started placing restrictions, ultimately to the point of enforced hijab. So, you have to look back at what happened in the 1980s.

Again, if you look at many of the security offenses, the application, the arbitrary and overboard application of national security offenses, such as Moharebeh, which means “war against God’, and Efsad fel Arz, or “Corruption on Earth”, which means spreading corruption on earth, these are not products of today, they are products of the 1980s. And many of the victims who were executed were actually executed for national security offenses. Again, you look at the judicial system, you look at the court system, you look at the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts. These are products not of today. These are products which go back to the 1980s. And therefore, I think that we must bear in mind that when we ultimately analyse the crimes that were committed in the 1980s, these go back and these have relevance to contemporary issues.

Now, if I have a few more minutes, I want to speak a little bit on the actual crimes that were committed and that I have analysed. I wouldn’t go into the details of the methodology and the framework because that can take us to the procedural aspect.

What I have done is I have looked at, as I said, atrocity crimes. And you would ask me, what do they mean? Essentially, atrocity crimes mean crimes against humanity. They mean genocide. And I also look at the possibility of war crimes because they have become relevant, particularly looking at the judgment of the Swedish District Court in the Noury case.

And when we talk about crimes against humanity, because these are the most relevant ones, particularly in the context of the 1988 massacre, you can look at Article 7 of the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court’s statute. And you may ask, okay, the statute was adopted in 1998 and came into force in the year 2002. Why would it be relevant in the massacre of 1988 or prior to that? It is relevant because it is part and it is recognised that the offenses contained in the Rome Statute relating to crimes against humanity now form part of customary international law. And once we agree that these are customary international law provisions, then you have to look very closely as to what happened, what crimes these are.

And I highlight the crimes of murder, extermination, imprisonment, severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law, torture, rape, sexual slavery, persecution against identifiable groups or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, or other universally recognised grounds as impermissible. And then importantly, the issue of enforced disappearances and also inhumane acts of a similar character, intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental and physical health.

So, all of these crimes I have analysed in great depth when I’m looking at the 1988 massacre. And just to give you a brief summary of my analysis, the key elements of what happened in 1988 was that thousands of political prisoners were targeted and murdered. There was no fair trial for them. There was this fatwa. Imam Khomeini issued that fatwa, in which he said that all of those monafiqeen (Mojahedin), as he termed it, all of those monafiqeen who remain steadfast must be executed. And he used this terminology through a religious prism, but he also urged the commissioners that he mentioned to show their revolutionary zeal, or religious zeal, to show no kind of consideration to principles of rule of law and human rights.

So that was the basic agenda on which he ordered the executions. Now, you could not, by any stretch of imagination, call these commissions lawfully constituted. They were arbitrary. They were judging people not on the basis of any offenses that people may have committed. And it is interesting that the people who were prisoners, actually, many of them had not committed offenses of any sort. They were there because they were activists. Many of them were incarcerated for small activities, such as publishing pamphlets or distributing them, or simply not having been able conscientiously to repent for what they had done.

So, the whole exercise of the Death Commissions was not to use law. It was simply to execute people based on what those commissioners felt, whether they were going to repent or whether they were going to be steadfast in their political ideological positions. And that is what happened, that the commission sent thousands of people to their execution.

In my analysis, I also look at other forms of crimes against humanity, such as torture. Torture was exercised at a very large scale because there was this anger and hostility and venom against these prisoners. I mean, these prisoners were punished for their ideological position. They had a political position. They were tortured because of that. So, torture was exercised.

These mass executions, arbitrary executions, were dispensed. And then what happened was that, obviously it was not a court of law, so they did not have any rights. They could not question the judgments of these commissions. They were executed at a very short notice. Many of them could not defend their case. They were asked questions that were not legal.

They were asked, for example, would you betray the PMOI, or would you help support the execution of your prison mates?

I mean, these were not legal questions.

And therefore, the sole task of that commission was to establish whether these individuals could ever be trusted, in their judgment, to renounce their ideological position. And even if they did, many of them were still executed.

So, there was this inherent plan to somehow get rid of these political opponents.

And as you know, in another wave of executions, which took place later in August of that year, these commissioners turned against and turned around towards Marxists, atheists, and leftists and executed them at a very large scale. And the questions in that context was whether they had become apostates or whether they still believed in the religion which they were born into.

There were all sorts of questions that were raised around their religious ideological position. Many of these men who said that they no longer believed in Islam or followed the Muslim faith were executed. Women were tortured. Some of them committed suicide. But the idea was that because these people were no longer Muslim, to either execute them or to torture them.

What happened subsequently was that there was complete secrecy. It was all shrouded in secrecy. There was no information given as to what was being done to these political prisoners.

Their families were kept in the dark. These thousands of political prisoners were just thrown in mass graves. And then when families were trying to reach out to find out what happened, either there was no answer or there was repression of these individuals to say, OK, well, we’re not going to give you any answers. Take these belongings. And these people, tragically, as I said, have been sent to hell. And we did the right thing.

For a very long time, the state was secretive. They were trying to hide the mass graves. They were trying to beat and to harass family members. That harassment has still continued. One of the key concerns, which I’ve highlighted, is that the crime against humanity of enforced disappearances is a continuing crime, which is taking place against thousands of families and the survivors and the loved ones, because they don’t know. They still do not know what has happened to these prisoners because no logical certification or conclusion has been provided. The state has avoided this. So, in some cases, they have given some kind of a certificate. But the cause of death has never been explained. I mean, people, families, as I heard, were in fact tortured and put in great pressure to renounce. I mean, some families said to me that they were said that, you have to say that their loved one died at home, for example, or they did not give proper certification. They said cause of death is death, you know, something like that. And therefore, there has been no closure for these thousands of family members. They’re still searching.

These people, many of them have become mentally unstable because they cannot accept that this has happened to their loved ones.

Therefore, I’m calling upon the international community to take concrete steps towards an investigative and accountability mechanism, which would preserve all of the evidence that I have accumulated, the testimonies that I have, the submissions that I have, and judge on that basis as to what needs to be done in terms of accountability. What can be done in terms of accountability? How do we hold individuals’ accountable? What do we do to ensure an end to impunity? So that is my main conclusion.

But I also emphasise that it is very important that the survivors and the witnesses have a closure to these cases.

For example, if you look at many of the mass graves, the Iranian regime is trying its best to hide the evidence, and it has done so in many cases. I think that there has to be a dignified closure. Families need to know what happened to their loved ones. There has to be a truthful account on the part of the regime to say, look, this is what has happened. We did this, and we are open to accountability. And that is what I think ultimately the international community must exert its pressure on the Iranian regime, to hold individuals accountable who have arbitrarily murdered thousands of political prisoners.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

Question: At the beginning of your remarks, you mentioned that there was also a crime of genocide. Could you elaborate on that a bit? Do you mean that Khomeini issued a fatwa because he did not believe the PMOI were truly Muslim and were munafiq? Could you please elaborate?

Rehman: And this subject is not without its complications. We have discussed crimes against humanity in the context of the 1988 massacres. In my view, and in this report, I have also looked at the case.

I’ve made a case that the crime of genocide was committed. I mean, I’m making a case. Obviously, I’m not a court of law. But what I have looked at is the following.

One is that when Khomeini issued the fatwa, and in fact, long before that, the regime had a view that PMOI, or Mojahedin, were, in fact, a deviant sect. They were no longer Muslims. And the fatwa quite clearly says that, that they have abandoned Islam. They’re no longer Muslims.

If you look at the Genocide Convention, it is quite clear that the convention does not cover political groups. So, the exclusivity of applying the Genocide Convention to a religious group then becomes quite complicated. Because even if that religious group believes that they are Muslims, or they are from a particular religion, but the perpetrator of that violence does not believe that; they believe that these individuals were never part of that religious group.

Based on that argument, I think that there is certainly a case that, subsequent to Khomeini’s fatwa, these people were executed not simply as political opponents, but also as those who had become deviant from religion.

Also importantly, the massacre also included Marxists and atheists and what we call innate apostates who had converted away from religion. In my view, it would be too narrow a construction to exclude those who have no faith or no belief, or who believe in atheism, and to not recognise them as a group which deserves protection. So I think if you look at the broader context of how genocide could be applied, certainly in the context of my report, I have looked at, for example, the case of Baha’is, which I think provides a clear picture, because Baha’is are a religious group who were targeted in the early 1980s. Ben Whitaker who was a Special Rapporteur on Genocide actually made reference to the case of Baha’is.

But moving on to the political opposition, I think that the regime, or the people who were executing the PMOI opposition, was in fact executing them because they believed that they were no longer Muslims. They were targeting them as a religious group, and that is where I think that I build my case.