On March 14, 2017, a side meeting entitled “Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran from 1988 to 2017” was held at the UN regarding the Iranian massacre of political prisoners in 1988 and is referred to as an “ongoing massacre” in the opening comments. In the Special Rapporteur’s report to the UN Human Rights Council on March 13, it was noted that two paragraphs dealt with current events regarding the massacre.
One was the arrest of the man who released the audio tape that brought the massacre to light last year (he had been sentenced to 21 years for releasing the tape) and the arrest and imprisonment of a political prisoner for writing a letter, wanting to know what happened to her brothers and sisters who were executed in 1988. Thus, the effects of the massacre are not limited to the deaths that occurred 30 years ago, but have consequences for individuals in the present.
The meeting included speakers that could address the death penalty, as well as various issues particular to the events in 1988. This included a speech by Tahar Boumedra, who has worked as a UN representative in Iraq and specializes in the death penalty. Lawyers for the victims’ families, including Azade Zabeti, also spoke at this meeting.
Mr. Boumedra noted that last September to announce the establishment of the Justice for Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran and a plan was put in place to bring that issue back to the agenda of the United Nations and the international community as a whole.
He reported on the progress since that meeting in the fall of 2016. One of the keys of his report was the efforts of his team to establish that the massacres throughout the period from 1981 to 1988 were documented and verified. It has also been documented that current members of the regime’s government in Iran have admitted to participating in these massacres “as part of God’s will”, including the current Minister of Justice.
Boumedra also noted that the UN has been following this situation since the massacres took place and that they were well informed by the families of victims and multiple reports from various sources. “The institutional memory of the United Nations is next to nil,” said Boumedra. He noted that they don’t revive their reports or build on those reports. After all the work in the years immediately after 1988, the UN went silent on the massacre. It is that silence he feels they must fight against.
Other speakers focused on the various efforts to bring justice to the victims and how the 1988 massacre still impacts the victims, their families and the Iranian people today. Parallels between the 1980s and the current conditions of Iran were also drawn.
Alfred de Zayas, the UN Independent Expert on Promotion of Democratic and Equable International Order, spoke at this event. He welcomed the report from the Special Rapporteur, especially the information regarding the 1988 massacre.
One of his first points is that these reports actually talked to the victims of these events. As diplomats, it can be easy to miss this critical step, which is key to understanding the events in Iran. “We need to see and talk to the real victims and not just talk to the diplomats,” said de Zayas. He also spoke of the need to condemn and identify these actions as crimes against humanity and the detentions as arbitrary detentions.
He also praised the Albanian government for opening its arms to the members of Camp Liberty. He also noted that international law requires accountability. “We have been faced for far too long with a culture of silence,” said de Zayas. “Who remembers this massacre of 1988? It was just filed away and forgotten…it is good that it is coming back to the fore.”
He also urged a committee to investigate this massacre, saying the international committee owes it to the victims. De Zayas noted that the international community needs to clean it up and can’t just turn the page and look to the future. He also supported sanctions to make progress.
“I encourage all here present…to write to us, the rapporteurs. It impacts many of our mandates…” said de Zayas, when talking about the human rights violations within Iran. He also encouraged writing to the various members of the Human Rights Council and the Secretary General of the United Nations for a Commission of Inquiry regarding the massacre. Doing so, he believes will make progress toward addressing this issue at the international level.
For de Zayas, violence is not the answer to regime change, but consistent pressure on the Iranian regime is key to making significant change in Iran for its people.
The meeting ended with the memories of a witness from that 1988 massacre. She talked about the lack of legal representation for those who were executed and many families still do not know what happened to their loved ones or where they were buried. Her own sister was tortured and killed, despite being pregnant at the time. Causes of death were also fabricated, as the witness attested that the one for her sister said that she died a natural death at home, even though she was incarcerated at the time.
Asking questions in Iran also means risking imprisonment yourself. The acts behind the massacre are still continuing within Iran today and the perpetrators are hiding within the Iranian government. All the speakers called for justice for these individuals and the Iranian people through international courts or tribunals.