“You [Iranian officials] will be in the future etched in the annals of history as criminals. The greatest crime committed under the Islamic Republic, from the beginning of the Revolution until now, which will be condemned by history, is this crime [mass executions] committed by you.” Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri warns the Islamic Republic – the Judiciary, intelligence, the IRGC and all other officials involved, in an audio disclosed recently.
Montazeri’s son, Ahmad, a moderate cleric, posted the audio on his website but was ordered by the intelligence to remove it.
Born in Esfahan, Iran, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic, a human rights activist, Islamic theologian and the designated successor to the Islamic revolution’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Rooh Allah Khomeini, until the very last moments of Khomeini’s life. His pictures were posted next to Khomeini’s in the streets.
Many believed that he could have stayed silent, acquiesced, and followed the agenda of the ruling leaders – including Khomeini, Rafsanjani, Khamenei, and the senior cadre of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – in order to receive the highest religious and political position in the Islamic Republic. But Montazeri felt that he did “not have a response on the Day of Judgment” and that he felt that it as his duty to speak up and “warn Imam [Rouh Allah Khomeini].”
Montazeri’s fate changed dramatically. He always felt compelled to speak up; he thought the Islamic Republic had significantly diverted from the ideals of the revolution, he believed religion was intervening in the political affairs of the state, the image of Islam was being tarnished by the Islamic Republic, and he thought people should be given more power over the government.
Montazeri’s falling out with the ruling establishment reached its high point in 1989 right before Khomeini’s death. Montazeri – the Grand Marja’ and one of the most knowledgeable Islamic theologians – was replaced by a junior cleric Ali Khamenei. The IRGC, which had grown from being the child into the father of the revolution most likely needed a low risk Supreme Leader who would not challenge the military and primarily act as the institution’s puppet.
One of the core tensions between Montazeri and the ruling elite was his criticism that the government’s policy is violating the inalienable rights of the people and restricting their freedom. The surfacing of this audio by Montazri has shed light on underlying pillars of the Islamic Republic in consolidating its power and governing.
One of the core tensions between Montazeri and the ruling elite was his criticism that the government’s policy is violating the inalienable rights of the people and restricting their freedomDr. Majid Rafizadeh
Crime against humanity
In reference to one of the worst mass executions in the modern history of the Middle East, being carried by the government officials, Montazri stated that “I am a straight-talking person. I don’t hold back what is in my heart. In contrast to some gentlemen who do what is politically expedient…Believe me, I haven’t been able to sleep and this issue (executions) occupies my mind 2-3 hours every night … how will you respond to the families? how much Shah executed? Compare our executions to his!”
When he was asked by an official for his permission to execute 200 people, he retorted fiercely “I don’t give permission at all. I am even against a single person being executed.”
Many members of those who were executed were from the opposition group, MEK which is led currently by Maryam Rajavi. Amnesty International estimates that in the summer of 1988, the overall number of people executed were 4,500. Some estimates reach as high as over 30,000 people. Many of them belonged to the MEK.
“In my opinion, this (the mass executions) is something that intelligence was after, and had invested in, and Ahmad Agha, Mr. Khomieini’s son, has been saying for three or four years.
“The Mojahedin, even the ones who read their newspaper, to the ones who read their magazine, to the ones who read their statements – all of them must be executed” and then people chant during the Friday prayers that the monafeqin (Mujahedin) prisoners must be executed… And when [the Iranian officials of the Judiciary system] want to ask the Imam, instead of telling him that [executions] on such vast scale do not serve our interests and would be damaging, they ask whether we should execute them in the provinces or in the cities!!” Montazeri said.
Montazeri points to the un-Islamic, illegal and unjust elements of these executions which also included executions of children and pregnant women. “So, now, without their having carried out any new activities (the prisoners), we go and execute them. This means that all of us screwed up, our entire judicial system is wrong. Isn’t that what it means? We are among ourselves here. I mean, we want to take stock… This one guy, his brother was in prison. Eventually when, you know, he got caught up in this, they said his sister was also suspect. So they went and brought the sister. They executed the guy. The sister – it was only two days since they had brought her – when they told her (of the brother’s death), she said, I liked these people. They said the sister was 15 or 16 years old. They said, now that her brother has been executed, and after what she said, execute her too, and they did.
“In Esfahan, a pregnant woman was among them [those massacred]. In Esfahan they executed a pregnant woman…. [In clerical jurisprudence] one must not execute a woman even if she is a mohareb (enemy of God). I reminded [Khomeini] of this, but he said they must be executed. In the month of Moharram, at least in the month of Moharram, the month of God and the Prophet, it shouldn’t be like this. At least feel some shame before Imam Hussein. Cutting off all meetings and suddenly engaging in such butchery, dragging them out and Bang! Bang!!! Does this happen anywhere in the world? …”
Montzaeri recognized the Bahai faith and argued that they should be treated equally. He argued that opposition should not be addressed by executions but by challenging their ideology.
“Executing them without (their having committed) any new activities brings into question all prior judges and judgments. How do you justify executing someone who was sentenced to something less than execution? Now we have cut off all meetings and telephone calls. But tomorrow what answer can we give to their families? ... Ultimately, the Mujahedin-e Khalq are not simply individuals. They represent an ideology and a school of thought. They represent a line of logic. One must respond to the wrong logic by presenting the right logic. One cannot resolve this through killing; killing will only propagate and spread it”.
The government could not eliminate Montazri the way it did with other opposition leaders due to his religious authority and the large number of followers he had. He was put under house arrest and his speeches and activities were heavily controlled.
Power and positions
Ironically, all those people to whom Montazri is addressing and warning in the audio, all of those who were involved in these crimes, appear to enjoy high positions currently. Mostafa Pourmohammadi was a representative of the intelligence ministry to the notorious Evin prison, and he was recently appointed by the so-called moderate president Hassan Rowhani to be justice minister. Ebrahim Raeisi was a public prosecutor and is currently the head of Astan Quds Razavi, which has billions of dollars in revenues.
Hussein Ali Nayeri was a judge and is now the deputy of the Supreme Court of Iran. In his memoir, Montzari writes that he told Nayeri to stop the executions at least in the month of Moharram, but Nayeri said: “We have executed so far 750 people in Tehran… we get the job done with [execute] other 200 people and then we will listen to whatever you say”. Montazeri wrote several letters to Khomeini as well warning him.
What is crucial to point out is that realistically speaking, these people are only few of those who would be involved in such large scale crimes against humanity. They have been awarded higher positions, power, and money.
Montazeri advised the ruling politicians that “Beware of 50 years from now, when people will pass judgment on the leader (Khomeini) and will say he was a bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous leader…. I do not want history to remember him like that…”
The writings, messages and audio from Iran’s ex-heir Supreme Leader highlight the systematic method that the officials of the Islamic Republic used to address opposition. Executions or brutal punishments to opposition has become the cornerstone of Iran’s political establishment. Iran ranks top in the world when it comes to executions per capita.
Montazeri’s audio points to one of the worst crimes against humanity committed in modern history and it continues to occur. It points to the means that the government uses to control the population and silence opposition. It points to the interconnectedness of Shiite Islam, power and authoritarianism, and it points to the dominance of the IRGC, intelligence, Khamenei and their loyalists.
Its worth noting that the revelation of this mass execution was pointing to only one summer of the 37-year history of the Islamic Republic. What else is hidden there that we are not aware of?
Finally, it is incumbent on the human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct rigorous investigations and bring those who have committed and continue to commit these crimes – and more likely who currently serve in high positions in Iran – to justice. Calls to bring these people to justice are increasing.
International organizations and the international community have done that before, such as for members of the Nazis. No individual or institution that commits crimes against humanity should live comfortably without being held accountable.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org, @Dr_Rafizadeh.