Iran, 5000 political prisoners were massacred to terrorize society


17th January 2022

At the end of July 1988, a great massacre of political prisoners began throughout Iran. Why did the Islamic regime and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, decide to commit this crime against humanity? In what context? For what purpose?

The Streets and the West Drive Out the Shah
In late 1978, Iran was on the verge of a social and political revolution: the working class joined the students and the middle class, and more than two million people marched in Tehran against the policies of the Shah (King in Farsi). Fearing that Iran would become a new satellite of the Soviet Union, U.S. President Jimmy Carter sent General Robert Huyser on January 4, 1979, to convince the Shah to leave the country. He stayed for a month to get the Iranian generals to stop the bloody crackdown on protesters and to facilitate the transfer of power.

At the Guadeloupe Conference, January 4-7, 1979, Carter persuaded his allies Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Helmut Schmidt, and James Callaghan to drop a regime that had until then enjoyed their unreserved support.

Thus supported by Western leaders, Ayatollah Khomeini landed in Tehran on February 1, and the “Supreme Revolutionary Leader” imposed the Islamic regime.

The repression of the opposition was very rapid: Since the priority was to gag the most resistant and militant regions, Kurdistan, which demanded more freedoms, was targeted by an order from Khomeini on August 19, 1979. Newspapers headlined, “Forty people shot dead in Sanandaj, Marivan, and Saqqez.” As resistance continued, the air force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard bombed bases of Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraq on September 9, 1979.

Women were among the first to resist the Islamic regime's regressive restrictions. They took to the streets to protest the compulsoryhijab introduced in March 1979: "We did not make the revolution to turn back time." Saba Kord Afshari, born in 1998, was recently sentenced to 24 years in prison, 7.5 of them suspended, and is currently in Islamic prisons. Her crime: walking on the street without a hijab and sharing a video on social networks.

When the wind of freedom blows

Workers in various sectors of the economy, especially in the oil industry, formed strike councils and committees during the revolution. They now wanted to manage the production units themselves. The first president of the Islamic Republic rejected this: “There will be no more workers' councils.” A myriad of political groups and parties re-emerged, once banned because the Shah recognized only one party, his own. A multitude of books and newspapers, previously banned, were freely published. Political gatherings took place everywhere, including schoolyards and university lecture halls. Young people as young as 14 or 15 became politically active.

Women increasingly mobilized against the hijab mandate and against proposed laws that considered them to be half of a man. Turkmen peasants formed their own councils and implemented their demands: “The land belongs to the one who works it.”

So we witnessed the radicalization of the revolution after the mullahs came to power. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Western powers were right, because no one but the Islamists could have extinguished the revolutionary flame so well. The Islamic regime began repression immediately after taking power, but the era of freedom held relatively well until June 1981, thanks to the fighting spirit of regions such as Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Baluchistan, and the Turkmen Sahra, as well as the social movements, women, and workers who wanted to maintain their factory councils against the “Islamic labor councils” imposed by the regime.

But one historical fact helped the capitalist mullah regime to suppress these movements: war.

War as “heavenly food”?
The Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein officially declared war against Iran on September 22, 1980. He wanted to occupy Khuzistan, which he called “Arabistan” because a large Arab population from Iran lived there. Khomeini and his regime, which was totally incapable of responding to the social, economic, political, and cultural demands of the social movements, welcomed this war with open arms: Khomeini wanted to “export” the Islamic revolution, since the majority of Iraqis were Shiites. While there were already numerous political prisoners, from now on any movement would be stifled under the pretext of war.

In 1982, Saddam Hussein proposed ending the war without demanding the annexation of Khuzistan, but Khomeini continued it for another six years, claiming, “To get to Jerusalem, we have to go through the Iraqi Shia towns of Najaf and Karbala.” On July 20, 1988, Khomeini accepted UN Resolution 598 to end the war, declaring that he had “drunk a bowl of poison.” This ended the longest conventional war of the 20th century, with 262,000 military and civilian casualties on the Iranian side and 105,000 on the Iraqi side.

States often wage wars to respond to a crisis with an even more colossal crisis. Unable to provide an answer to the social and societal crises, the Islamic State in Iran thought the war was “heavenly food” to prevent society from evolving toward greater freedom. This calculation turned out to be completely wrong: The many problems brought about by the war were added to the existing demands that had accumulated over eight years.

The “Commission of Death”
How do you deal with such a situation when you are at the head of a very authoritarian theocratic state? The answer lies in Khomeini's fatwa (religious decree) that ordered the massacre of political prisoners that would last throughout the summer of 1988.

Historian Ervand Abrahamian writes, “On July 19, 1988, prison doors were closed and televisions were turned off. Letters and packages were no longer distributed to prisoners. Visits from prisoners were stopped and even their family members were removed from the vicinity of the prisons. Prisoners were ordered to stay in their cells and to stop going to the infirmary, workshops, etc.” For the fatwa to be implemented, the “Commission of Death” was formed. One of its four members, Ebrahim Raissi, then a deputy prosecutor in Tehran, is now the sitting president of the Islamic Republic. It was these four who would decide the lives and deaths of several thousand women and men, who were imprisoned primarily for their political activism. Young people that had been arrested for handing out leaflets in the streets or selling political newspapers. Many political prisoners who had served their sentences remained in jail: some were questioned again by the “commission of death” and sentenced again. Cruelties were committed against women; cases of rape of political prisoners before their execution became known. Unmarried women were considered virgins, and since Islamic laws dictate that a virgin woman goes to paradise in any case, agents of the regime raped them before hanging them.

The “Corridor of Death”
To implement Khomeini's fatwa, the commission surrounded itself with nefarious enforcers. One of them is named Hamid Nouri. In recent years, he has travelled to and from Sweden, where the vigilance of activists of the Swedish Iranian diaspora bore fruit. He was arrested on November 9, 2019, upon his arrival at Stockholm Airport. His trial began on August 10, 2021, and is expected to last eight months. Political prisoners massacred in the summer of 1988 were entitled to a “trial” that lasted no more than five minutes. He is being tried for “premeditated killing,” “violation of international law” and, most importantly, “crimes against humanity.”

Hamid Nouri worked in only one prison, Gohardasht. About 100 survivors were able to testify against him. They described the fears of prisoners in the “death corridors.” Nouri and his colleague Nasserian picked them up so that the “death commission” could decide their fate. One witness testified that he saw an officer of the firing squad driving around with a wheelbarrow full of nooses. Another saw a large stack of shoes, which had previously belonged to executed prisoners. One survivor reported that the number of political prisoners hanged was so great that large refrigerated trucks drove into Gohardasht Prison to pick up the bodies. Most were hastily buried in mass graves. One surviving prisoner reported that Hamid Nouri distributed cakes to celebrate the executions. Surviving prisoners reported that they were blindfolded while waiting in the “death cells,” and then when Nouri and Nasserian came for them, they removed their blindfolds. When the prisoners came out of the courtroom, they were escorted either to the left side of death row or to the right side, with the left side meaning they would be hanged. Hamid Nouri often appeared before the Swedish court with a smile on his lips. He appeared confident.

State Terrorism
Let us cite some examples of the Islamic Republic's state terrorism.

  • Over 200 opposition figures have been executed outside its borders.
  • It takes foreign citizens residing in Iran hostage: On July 27, 2021, two Swedes were arrested for drug smuggling (coincidence?). An Iranian-Swedish doctor invited by two Iranian universities for research purposes was arrested in Iran on April 24, 2016, because the Mullah regime considered him a spy.
  • The Islamic regime may be demanding a prisoner exchange, a type of trickery that is quite common between states. Did the French state not release Lebanese terrorist Anis Naccache, even though he was sentenced to life in prison for killing a policeman and a French citizen, in his failed attempt to kill the Shah's last prime minister on French soil? Did the French state not let Iranian terrorist Vahid Gordji escape after he took part in the bloody attack on Rue de Rennes in Paris in 1986 that cruelly killed seven passers-by?

Who were the thousands of political prisoners, women, and men, massacred during that long summer of 1988? Many regime leaders continue to support this massacre to this day, claiming that they were merely responding to armed attacks by the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). Founded in September 1965, the PMOI is a leftist political organization that practiced urban guerrilla warfare during the Shah's reign. It participated in the 1979 revolution and supported the Islamic regime in its infancy. However, Khomeini considered it “heretical” and so it was pushed aside by the regime. In June 1981, when the last free spaces had disappeared, the PMOI resumed its urban guerrilla activities again. Having regrouped during the war in Iraq, they supported the regime of Saddam Hussein in the repression of the Kurds and the Shiite population. With the support of the Iraqi regime, the People's Mujahideen launched an attack on July 25, 1988. Their leader believed he had enough support from the Iranian population to reach Tehran in a few days. But it was a total failure: within four days, 2506 mujahideen were killed and 531 captured.

Most of the political prisoners massacred in the summer of 1988 were members of the PMOI, but if one analyzes the dates of the events leading up to the first executions on July 28, 1988, one can see that the massacre had been planned long before the attack by the People's Mujahideen on July 25, 1988. On the other hand, several thousand of the executed prisoners were activists of Marxist and Maoist organizations, including the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, who opposed armed struggle. The Tudeh Party had even supported the regime for three years after the fierce repression of June 1981: it considered the mullahs “anti-imperialist”, heading towards a form of state socialism!

Fear mongering!
Why did the Islamic Republic regime and Ayatollah Khomeini decide to kill several thousand political prisoners in such a short time?

We have pointed out that the seizure of power did not lead to the revolutionary demands being withdrawn or forgotten. They even increased while the Islamic regime suppressed individual freedoms that had existed at the time of the Shah, such as the freedom to wear or not wear the Islamic hijab, to consume alcoholic beverages or to engage in artistic activities such as dancing. The imprisoned political activists supported these demands through their actions. The Islamic regime believed that if it silenced these activists, it could then silence their demands and consolidate its regime. The killing of thousands of women and men was meant to instil fear in the entire society that was struggling for freedom, equality and social justice. This tactic may be successful for some time, but sooner or later it gets cracks. That is why in November 2019, during a scant week of protests and uprisings, the Islamic regime killed at least 1500 protesters, again to spread fear. It will decidedly not stop until a final shock comes and destroys it forever.

Fear is a politics of failure.

Nader Teyf

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