This week, Tehran announced it would continue a missile development program that defense analysts say could allow Iran to launch nuclear weapons. It was a public threat that has understandably stirred strong response from the U.S. and the west: the risk of nuclear proliferation by a fanatical regime is indeed a threat to millions across the region. But there is another, potentially greater threat from within Iran, one made more insidious by the fact that no one outside of Iran seems to care but which nonetheless imperils the values and moral conscience of the civilized world. I am speaking of the massacre of some 30,000 Iranians—including my uncle— at the hands of the state in 1988. And the arbitrary killings and executions continue.
In 1981, during the early years of Iran’s so-called “Islamic Revolution” my uncle Mahmood ‘Masoud’ Hassani was 21 years old and in his second year studying Economics at Tehran University. On June 30, my uncle never returned home from school.
Nearly two traumatic months passed before Masoud called my family to say he had been in jail since his disappearance and had been sentenced to serve ten years in the notorious Evin Prison. Even in absence of any evidence, he was convicted of ‘acting against national security’ and ‘spreading corruption on Earth’ all because he had distributed pro-democratic pamphlets near his campus.
When my uncle was in the seventh year of his sentence, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a notorious fatwa, calling for the immediate execution of Iran’s political prisoners. Death panels were commissioned to demand that blindfolded prisoners repent for their actions and those of their cellmates. Those who complied were granted amnesty. Those, like my uncle, who offered no such apology, were taken through a set of doors from which they would never return.
Without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom or being allowed to contact his loved ones, my uncle was hanged at the age of 27 sometime between July 28th and August 1st 1988.
Unfortunately, his story is not unique. In less than five months, 30,000 of Iran’s brightest students, professors and devoted activists suffered the same fate. Expectant mothers and children as young as 13 were among the victims of these systematic killings, which effectively decimated an entire generation of Iranians who had devoted themselves to the struggle for democracy.
But 29 years later, the mullahs’ regime has still not succeeded in silencing the people’s calls for freedom and justice. Last year, the son of Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the intended successor to Supreme Leader Khomeini, released an audio recording that detailed the troubling extent of the purges. In it, Iranian jurists themselves described an obvious crime against humanity. For leaking this tape, Ahmad Montazeri was swiftly arrested, but not before unprecedented public discussion began of the 1988 massacres.
Thus, 60 million Iranians who were born after the revolution came to confront an issue that had been long swept under the rug, both by Iranian authorities who fear a public uprising and by thousands upon thousands of victims’ families who, with the most noble of intentions, have silently endured their grief and sadness, for fear of reliving the horrors they know this government to be capable of. Their fears are well-founded: many members of the judiciary who oversaw the execution of Khomeini’s fatwa in 1988 occupy the same posts today.
Despite the ongoing threats of violence, torture and execution, brave Iranian youth have recently risen up to put this issue at center stage, as when presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi was overwhelmingly rejected at the polls, in large part, due to his role in the 1988 massacre.
The newfound scrutiny has forced a number of Iran’s high-ranking governmental officials to speak to the issue head-on and acknowledge the historical record. But they have not done so with contrition. On August 28th 2016, the Iranian prosecutor and politician Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi said of the mass executions, “We are proud to have carried out God's commandment and to have stood with strength and fought against the enemies of God and the people.”
As dissatisfaction, disillusionment and dissent continue to grow among Iran’s young and vibrant population, authorities have begun to feel the pressure and initiate new plans to conceal their history. There are plans to build commercial centers over the unmarked mass burial sites often frequented by families of the fallen. Doing so would destroy crucial forensic evidence that would allow for perpetrators of the 1988 massacre to be brought to justice.
Civil society organizations continue to receive unsettling news about persecution and arrests of surviving family members who have sought information about the location of their loved ones’ remains. Maryam Akbari Monfared, for instance, is currently serving a 15-year sentence at Evin Prison, without family visits or medical care. Three of Mayram’s brothers and her sister were executed in the course of the purges, and her own ‘crime’ consists of having published a letter asking for an explanation of these executions and the subsequent secret burials.
As grassroots efforts surrounding this issue gain momentum, two things should give global audiences pause. First is the ongoing impunity of the Iranian judicial system, with at least 3,100 executions being carried out since Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013. The second is the silence of international governmental bodies tasked with documenting these very sorts of human rights abuses.
For families of victims, like my own, it has become painfully clear that the maintenance of economic ties with an oil-rich country has repeatedly trumped earnest efforts to speak out on Iran’s human rights record. With an abundance of contemporary and archival evidence supplied to the appropriate intergovernmental agencies, how else might we explain their silence if not as an instance of quid pro quo? Judging from the lack of outrage or historical record in the west, do atrocities that do not directly affect others simply not happen? Are these truths inconvenient?