On Saturday, I joined a one-day symbolic hunger strike in Stockholm alongside dozens of other Iranians living in European countries.
Our aim was to draw urgent international attention to the plight of numerous Iranian political prisoners who have been on hunger strike now for over three weeks over the appalling abuses they are facing at the hands of the religious dictatorship.
On July 30, wardens in Iran’s notorious Rajai-Shahr Prison raided the ward for political prisoners, beating dozens of defenceless oppositions activists and confiscating their belongings. The inmates, some of whom are vocal supporters of the main democratic opposition People’s Mojahedin (PMOI or MEK), were subsequently transferred to an isolated high-security section of this prison which is equipped with CCTV. More than 60 surveillance devices and 40 closed-circuit cameras have been installed there to prevent any leakage of reports to the outside. All openings and windows have been covered and sealed with metal sheets.
To its shame, European Union officials have remained silent on the political prisoners’ brutal treatment. Indeed, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini went to Tehran on August 5 to attend the inauguration ceremony for Hassan Rouhani’s second term as President. Mogherini failed to utter a word of condemnation over the mullahs’ human rights abuses, even though at least 18 political prisoners were on hunger strike while she was in Tehran.
Iran has a history of mistreating political prisoners. But the most grizzly case of all took place in the summer of 1988. Days after Ruhollah Khomeini reluctantly accepted a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war, he attempted to strengthen his grip on power by eliminating all political opponents who were languishing in prison.
Thousands of dissidents, the vast majority MEK affiliates who were already serving prison sentences, were taken before three-man ‘Death Commissions’ and asked if they continued to support the group. Those who said yes were immediately taken away for execution.
At least 30,000 political prisoners were killed in a massacre that lasted all of August and most of September of that year.
In 2016 an audio tape surfaced of Deputy Supreme Leader Ayatollah Montazeri chastising members of the ‘Death Commission’ as the executions were being carried out. Montazeri told the ‘Death Commission’: “The greatest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you.” Montazeri was subsequently cast aside by Khomeini.
For nearly three decades the 1988 massacre has been a taboo subject. But since the summer of 2016, Iranian civil society has defied the government by breaking the taboo on openly discussing the massacre and demanding justice.
The Iranian people used the campaign period prior to the regime’s sham ‘election’ to highlight the call for justice.
On August 2, Amnesty International pointed to a campaign by a generation of young Iranians who seek an inquiry into the mass killings of political prisoners in 1988.
Amnesty’s report said: “Human rights defenders targeted for seeking truth and justice include younger human rights defenders born after the 1979 Revolution who have taken to social media and other platforms to discuss the past atrocities, and attended memorial gatherings held at Khavaran.”
It added that there has been “a chain of unprecedented reactions from high-level officials, leading them to admit for the first time that the mass killings of 1988 were planned at the highest levels of government.”
One consequence of Western silence over the brutal killings in Iran has been to fuel a culture of impunity for Iran’s theocratic rulers who continue to violate international law and human rights.
On Sunday, Alireza Avaie officially took office as Iran’s new Justice Minister. Avaie sat on the ‘Death Commission’ in Dezful, south-west Iran, which sent large numbers of political prisoners, including those who were minors when they were first arrested, to their deaths.
By appointing Avaie as Justice Minister, Rouhani has proven the fallacy of his claim to moderation. Since he first took office in 2013, more than 3,000 people, including women and juvenile offenders, have been executed by the regime. Iran currently is the global record holder for executions per capita.
The issue of the 1988 massacre and the consequential impunity enjoyed by Iranian officials affects the collective conscience of the Iranian people, and this cannot be set aside until the perpetrators are brought to justice.
According to international law there is no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity. It is high time for the European Union to support a commission of inquiry led by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) into the 1988 massacre in Iran to end the impunity for Iranian officials and to send a message to the people of Iran that as they stand up to a regime that has denied them their basic rights, the international community will side with the millions who cry freedom, and not with the mullahs who have stolen that freedom.