Top Iranian Official Defends 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran – February 2021

Mohammad-Hossein Saffar Harandi, a member of Iran’s powerful Expediency Discernment Council, defended the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in an interview with Iranian state television on 23 February 2021. He told Channel 3’s Bedouneh Tavaqof program that the victims deserved to be killed.

Saffar Harandi, a retired Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) General, is a former Islamic Guidance Minister in Iran.

As he was making his claims, Saffar Harandi was challenged by a young man during the interview on state television. That scene showed once again both the eagerness of Iranian society for accountability over the massacre, and the impunity that exists among Iranian officials.

Claims by Iranian officials that imprisoned opposition members were planning to take part in a nationwide mutiny in 1988 have been widely rejected both by international human rights groups and UN human rights experts.

23 February 2021: Mohammad-Hossein Saffar Harandi defends the 1988 massacre in an interview on Iranian state television’s Channel 3.

Background to Iran’s 1988 massacre:

In 1988, the government of Iran massacred 30,000 political prisoners.

The executions took place based on a fatwa by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

Three-member commissions known as ‘Death Commissions’ were formed across Iran sending political prisoners who refused to abandon their beliefs to execution.

The majority of the victims were members of the main opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), otherwise known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

The victims were buried in secret mass graves.

The perpetrators were never charged, and they continue to enjoy impunity.

Since 2016, the names of nearly 100 ‘Death Commission’ members have been revealed. Many still hold senior positions in the Iranian government and Judiciary. They include the current Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi and Justice Minister of Iran Alireza Avaei.

Iranian officials and state media continue to defend the 1988 massacre and threaten those who demand accountability and justice.

Seven UN human rights experts in December 2020 stated that the 1988 massacre “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

Transcript of remarks by Mohammad-Hossein Saffar Harandi:

Saffar Harandi: The MEK plotted Operation Eternal Light with Saddam. They thought the Islamic Republic had become so weak that it was forced to accept the [UN] resolution, and if we attack it now, it is defenseless, and we can reach Tehran. They had planned their invasion to reach Tehran. In each of the towns on the way, they coordinated their forces to foment a local uprising, and for their military forces to later join them. They planned for their infiltrators to foment unrest in the prisons, and they began their activities in some of the places so that their physically fit members in the prisons would join them, and together they would overthrow the Islamic Republic and carry out a coup d’état against the people. This was the essence of the MEK’s plot. They have admitted this. Some of their central committee members who were later arrested during the operation have said so. Fortunately, they were obstructed. They were obliterated in one spot. And it became clear how stupid this all was. Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani] would say in the Friday Prayers that we let them come inside, and besieged them and obliterated them all. This was the derogatory description he used for them.

Now, what’s the story of the executions [of 1988]? Their plan was for those members who were inside the prisons to assist them – and some, as I said, had done so. The decree [by Khomeini] stated that anyone who still maintains the same position that if the circumstances arise they would again take part in a terrorist operation by the MEK, this person is condemned. They would bring them one by one and speak with them individually and ask, ‘What’s your position on this invasion by the MEK?

Are you with them or not?’ If the person said, ‘I say proudly that I stand with them,’ they would warn him, ‘You’ll fit the criteria for execution. Based on Islamic law, anyone who sides with outlaws would be condemned just like them.’ That person would respond: ‘Yes, I am proudly with them.’ They’d reply: ‘Fine. You yourself are choosing death. So go.’ Anyone who said: ‘No, I was not with them. I don’t want to be with them,’ would serve the rest of his prison term, and most were eventually freed from prison. This is the story of those who were executed at the time. Sometimes the numbers are exaggerated. The numbers weren’t as high as the MEK claims.

Question: Sir.

Saffar Harandi: Mr. Montazeri came to the defense of these people. That means Mr. Montazeri was defending those who attacked the Islamic Republic. When these people entered West Islamabad Hospital, they shot and killed the injured people. If you watch the film Midday Adventures 2, it shows a part of this catastrophe. Now how should we judge Mr. Montazeri who defends them?

Question: No, look sir. Something is not right. Your conclusion is incorrect. Mr. Montazeri didn’t defend those who attacked the country. I’ll give you an example. Imagine, someone steals something …

Host: Sorry, please keep it short…

Question: I’ll finish quickly.

Host: …because though I want you to speak, but we should also have time.

Question: Imagine someone steals something, and I say, ‘Well done, what a great heist.’ Do I deserve to be prosecuted? Do I deserve to go to prison? No. Now regarding those prisoners. Look, we have a legal concept regarding an uncommitted crime. That’s when someone thought of committing a crime, but didn’t go through with it. For example, imagine I want to kill you. But I see the police standing here, and I have cold feet and leave. I shouldn’t face prosecution just for having the thought. The same goes for those prisoners.

Saffar Harandi: But who were they? […] No. Those prisoners already had a death sentence. The Islamic Republic had reduced their sentences. …

Question: No. So if the sentenced was reduced, why were they executed again?

Saffar Harandi: … It’s different from someone walking in the road and saying […]. They had been convicted. But in prison instead of being executed, Islamic compassion had been shown to them and their sentence had been reduced. But now he shows that he hasn’t changed, so they say he must be executed.