December 2020: UN experts echo call for international investigation into Iran’s 1988 massacre

Seven United Nations experts have sent a letter to the Iranian authorities stating that the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners could amount to “crimes against humanity” and vowing to call for an international investigation into the mass murders if the authorities continue to refuse to uphold their obligations under international human rights law. The letter by the UN Special Rapporteurs is dated 3 September 2020, but it was published on the UN website on 9 December 2020 in the run-up to International Human Rights Day.

An investigation by Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI) found that 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 victims were buried in secret mass graves. Many of the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity, including current head of the Judiciary Ebrahim Raisi and Minister of Justice Alireza Avaei.

Among the letter’s signatories are Luciano Hazan, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Javaid Rehman, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran; Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and Fabian Salvioli, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

The Special Rapporteurs sought the prosecution of the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre.

Their letter read: “Between July and September 1988, the Iranian authorities forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed thousands of imprisoned political dissidents affiliated with political opposition groups in 32 cities in secret and discarded their bodies, mostly in unmarked mass graves”.

“While it is believed that all of the individuals who disappeared during this period have been killed, individual information has not been provided to families about the fate and whereabouts of their relatives, the circumstances leading to their execution and the location of their remains. This continues to cause extreme anguish to the families of the victims, some of whom still disbelieve that their relatives are dead”, the UN experts wrote.

“The Iranian authorities have also excluded the names of the overwhelming majority of the victims from publicly available burial registers to conceal the location of the remains”.

“The families of those disappeared and believed killed face an ongoing ban on conducting commemorations or memorial events”.

The UN experts pointed out that Iranian authorities have particularly attempted to suppress gatherings at the Khavaran mass-grave site, which has gained a symbolic meaning in the families’ efforts to obtain truth and justice.

“Actions taken include photographing and recording family members visiting the grave site, threatening, beating and arresting families at the site, threatening families not to visit the site, raiding homes of families who hold memorial ceremonies and closing off the main entrance and roads leading to the site”.

“The families, survivors and human rights defenders are also the subject of persistent threats, harassment, intimidation and attacks because of their attempts to seek information on the fate and whereabouts of the individuals and their demands for justice. Several human rights defenders are serving sentences for participating in commemorative gatherings and families have faced prosecution under vague national security-related charges”, the letter added.

The impunity must stop

“There is a systemic impunity enjoyed by those who ordered and carried out the extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances”, the experts said, adding: “To date, no official in Iran has been brought to justice and many of the officials involved continue to hold positions of power including in key judicial, prosecutorial and government bodies responsible for ensuring the victims receive justice”.

“Media outlets in Iran frequently publish distressing statements from high-level officials glorifying the executions and describing the perpetrators as “national heroes” and call any public criticism or documentation of the killings as support for terrorism”.

The Special Rapporteurs further stated: “According to the source, the mass, secret extrajudicial killings in 1988 amounted to crimes against humanity of murder, extermination, persecution, torture and other inhumane acts, and the systematic concealment of the fate and whereabouts of the victims amounts to an ongoing crime against humanity of enforced disappearance”.

The UN experts said they are “seriously concerned by the alleged continued refusal to disclose the fate and whereabouts of thousands of individuals who were reportedly forcibly disappeared and then extrajudicially executed in 1988. We are further alarmed by allegations of the authorities’ refusal to provide families with accurate and complete death certificates, the destruction of mass graves, the ongoing threats and harassment of the families, the lack of investigation and prosecution for the killings, and the statements from the Government denying or trivializing the cases and equating criticizing the killings as support for terrorism”.

“We underline that an enforced disappearance continues until the fate and whereabouts of the individual concerned are established irrespective of the time passed, and that the family members have a right to truth which means the right to know about the progress and results of an investigation, the fate or the whereabouts of the disappeared persons, and the circumstances of the disappearances, and the identity of the perpetrator(s) (A/HRC/16/48)”.

“We note that as early as 1989, the UN Special Representative on Iran observed that “the information emanating from various sources… confirmed that politically motivated mass executions took place in the second quarter of 1988” (A/44/620, para 110). We further note that in 2017, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, recognized that overwhelming evidence shows that thousands of persons were summarily killed and called for a “thorough and independent investigation into these events” (A/72/322). We are extremely concerned that no such investigation has been conducted to date”.

Justice over Iran’s 1988 massacre

The letter stated: “We call on your Excellency’s Government to urgently conduct a thorough and independent investigation into all cases, to disclose detailed information on the fate of each individual and to prosecute perpetrators”.

“We are concerned that the situation may amount to crimes against humanity. Should your Excellency’s Government continue to refuse to uphold its obligations under international human rights law, we call on the international community to take action to investigate the cases including through the establishment of an international investigation”, the UN experts added.

The UN experts called on the regime to answer questions about steps taken to guarantee the right to truth in relation to the individuals allegedly executed in 1988 and on the alleged refusal to provide families with accurate and complete death certificates.

“We would appreciate receiving a response within 60 days. Passed this delay, this communication and any response received from your Excellency’s Government will be made public via the communications reporting website. They will also subsequently be made available in the usual report to be presented to the Human Rights Council”, the letter added.