ANALYSIS: Iran’s legal system and slaughter of political prisoners in 1988

Tony Duheaume
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Since the early days of the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s prisons and legal systems have been frequently used by the regime as a method to eradicate all its outspoken political opponents, as well as to instil terror into the population.

At the time of the 1988 massacre, many of those being hung, had been held in custody for several years, suffering under a horrific regime of torture and abuse. The majority of those held were one-time political allies of Khomeini that had turned against him, after realizing he was replacing one violent dictatorship with another. Others were those deemed by their accusers to be a threat to the fledgling regime, due to their popularity amongst the Iranian people.

Countless numbers of these political prisoners had been incarcerated for organizing street demonstrations against Khomeini’s rule, or had spoken openly condemning it. While many others had committed no crime at all, except for having taken part in street demonstrations.

‘Sowing corruption on earth’

Having been convicted by revolutionary courts on charges as vague as “sowing corruption on earth” or “crimes against the Revolution”, all had been convicted without access to a lawyer, because whatever the outcome of any interrogation, their fate had been sealed anyway.

Out of the thousands of prisoners imprisoned, many should have been released years earlier due to the vague or minor crimes they had committed, but with Khomeini having issued a fatwa against the majority of these detainees, condemning them to death, very few would be walking free from the various prisons holding them.

During the Iran/Iraq War, thousands of Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) prisoners were being held in Iranian prisons, many having languished there since the early days of the revolution, due to their having turned against Khomeini, after realising he had let them down, by installing a dictatorship similar to Shah Pahlavi, the despot they had just overthrown.

With these dissidents being easy target, the Iranian authorities were given the opportunity to exact revenge on this so-called “infidel mujahedin” that had betrayed them, and to eradicate this powerful opposition, the mullah leadership set up a process of “production line” mass slaughter within its prison system.

Carefully planned mass execution

Although the main target of this carefully planned mass execution, were prisoners affiliated to the MEK, there were also many extreme left-wing prisoners who had fallen afoul of the Islamic government, some of them members of the Tudeh Party of Iran (Communist Party), who had also been incarcerated for resisting Khomeini in the early days of the revolutionary government.

By late July 1988, things took a very sinister turn within the Iranian prison system, a crackdown had begun, and with the prisons going into effective lockdown, family visits were cancelled, all privileges such as televisions, radios and newspapers were taken away, the infirmary was also out of bounds to the sick, and with all inmates confined to their cells, they were deprived of any access to the prison yard for fresh air.

The only people seen to be visiting the prisons at the time, became known to the inmates as the “Death Committee”, a sinister group wearing turbans, who arrived in black Mercedes limousines. This being a team of secret service officials, and prosecutors, they had been sent to work alongside prison personnel, to interrogate the prisoners on their political and religious affiliations.

This whole policy of disruption throughout the prison system was devised to cause confusion and uncertainty among the prison population, as once the prisoners had been thrown into disorientation by the alterations in their daily routine, they would become susceptible to their captors demands, and it was in this state of bewilderment, they were taken individually from their cells to be interviewed by the “Death Committee”.

Some members belonging to this sinister group have been named as Ebrahim Raisi, who was at the time the Deputy Tehran Prosecutor, and more recently a candidate in the presidential elections, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a current minister of justice in Rouhani’s administration, Hussein Ali Neri and Murtada Ishraqi, both members of the Iranian judiciary.

Comprehensive questionnaires

Before being interrogated by the group, comprehensive questionnaires were put to all prisoners, probing into their political beliefs and ideology, and included, were questions designed to interpret as to whether the captives had repented their “crimes against the regime”, and whether they prayed.

There were columns of questions for prisoners to answer yes or no, designed to ascertain as to whether they still believed in the ideology of the “illegal” political group they had been affiliated to, and whether they were practicing Muslims or left-wing atheists.

With the questionnaires completed, prisoners were then taken from their cells blindfolded, where they were they were briefly questioned by members of the Death Committee, and during these short interrogations, various questions were thrown at them as to their affiliations, and religious orientations. Quite often, with the detainees having left the room, prison security officials would make derogatory statements against those they disliked, ensuring they were hung.

At the end of the interrogation procedure, when all questionnaires had been processed, and the atheists and communist types had been sorted from the Muslims, the slaughter began, and all mujahedin, whether male or female, died at the hands of their executioners.

Official death toll

With the slaughter over, the Iranian government’s official death toll had been published as less than a thousand, and in a misinformation campaign, it was claimed all prisoners executed were mujahedin, caught during the military incursion in the closing days of the Iran/Iraq War.

But it is now estimated by some sources that at least 30,000 were slaughtered during the now infamous 1988 prison massacre, and whatever way you look at it, the Iranian instigators of these crimes against humanity, effectively got away scot free, when under international law, they should have stood trial at The Hague.

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