by Shadi Sadr
Once again, we are at a state of war, and we have an unfinished job of exterminating the dissidents, all at once.
This is the essence of a recently broadcast Mosalas magazine interview with Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Iran’s former Minister of Justice. It has had a chilling effect on Iranian activists, particularly those in prison, at a time when the nation is worried about how far the current tensions between Iran and the United States will escalate.
The interview was released on the 31st anniversary of the mass extrajudicial execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. The Islamic Republic justified the killings by categorizing those prisoners, who were already serving their prison sentences, as wartime “enemies of the state.” The massacre, which historian Ervand Abrahamian has likened to “a medieval inquisition,” was deemed by then-Deputy Supreme Leader Hussein-Ali Montazeri as “the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the revolution.” Pour-Mohammadi served as the Intelligence Ministry’s representative on the “Death Committee” that oversaw the killings. His involvement has been confirmed by a recording of the perpetrators speaking with Montazeri.
In his interview, Pour-Mohammadi states that “we still haven’t settled scores,” strongly suggesting that the Iranian government views the 1988 carnage as an unfinished project. Now that the Iranian government claims the country to be once again in a state of war with “regime change led by the CIA, Israel, and Saudi Arabia,” one can only wonder if they are willing to repeat their actions from 1988.
The Iranian government has declared this “state of war” at a time when the space for Iranian activists is drastically shrinking. Iranian authorities have handed out heavy prison sentences for human rights lawyers like Nasrin Sotoudeh (33years) and Amir Salar Davoudi (over 29 years). Mojgan Keshavarz, Yasaman Aryani, and Monireh Arabshahi, who were arrested for defying compulsory hijab laws, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran last month. Several workers’ activists, including the prominent union leader Esmail Bakhshi—who had been subjected to severe torture and forced televised confessions—are in custody awaiting their sentences. Kurdish singer and prisoner of conscience Peyman Mirzazadeh was recently flogged 100 times in prison as part of his punishment for “drinking alcohol” and “insulting Islamic sanctities.”
Pour-Mohammadi—who is now an adviser to Iran’s newly appointed chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, another member of the “Death Committee”—is sending a signal to those who are in prison because of their beliefs or activism that in the current situation, the authorities do not have to abide by any law, even the law of war. Comparing the prisoners with villagers in his recent interview, Pour-Mohammadi said: “when you attack an enemy, some nearby villages would be destroyed… You should not be questioned for not respecting the laws for such collateral damages.”
The 1988 massacre, which amounted to crimes against humanity—including mass extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances—occurred during the final months of the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian officials used the war as a pretext to abruptly and secretly execute more than 5000 of imprisoned political activists (mainly the followers of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, along with members of other leftist organizations) and bury them in unmarked individual and mass graves across the country. According to an Amnesty International report, most of the prisoners killed were young people, serving lengthy prison sentences imposed on them due to their political opinions and peaceful activities and in an absolute absence of due process. Many were imprisoned on charges that included distributing opposition literature, taking part in demonstrations, collecting donations for prisoners’ families, or associating with those who were politically active. Others had been held for years without trial or had completed their sentences and were due to be released, whereas some who had completed their sentences were held until they were “sufficiently repentant.”
The authorities’ threats are unlikely to break the resistance of today’s young population, who are deeply affected by high rates of unemployment and prevailing corruption, the lack of basic rights and freedoms, and a wide range of gender, ethnic, and religious discriminations. However, the phantom “war” is surrounding them, more so than ever. Regardless of whether the current tension with the U.S. will eventually lead to a real war, the Islamic Republic’s use of the threat as a justification for waging an internal war against dissidents, to “settle” what Pour-Mohammadi says was left unfinished by the 1988 massacres, is a real and growing danger.
Shadi Sadr is an Iranian human rights lawyer and Executive of the UK-based NGO, Justice for Iran. She has won several awards, including Human Rights Tulip and Alexander Prize of Law School of Santa Clara University, and has co-authored Crime and Impunity: Sexual Torture of Women in Islamic Republic Prisons. Sadr has served as a judge in several People’s Tribunals, such as the 2015 International People’s Tribunal (IPT) 1965, the 2017 People’s Tribunal on Myanmar, and the 2018-19 Independent Tribunal into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience in China.