Justice Is Needed for the 1988 Massacre Of 30,000 Political Prisoners in Iran

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Laila Jazayeri

Director, Association of Anglo-Iranian Women in the UK

In the summer of 1988, in one of the worst stains on the Iranian regime’s record of violation of human rights, in fear of his opponents, Khomeini issued Fatwas (religious decrees) for the execution of political prisoners in Iran. He issued fatwas to massacre all who had not repented and were not willing to totally collaborate with the regime. The victims included all ages, pregnant women and children as young as 11 years of age.

The estimated 30,000 summary executions were carried out in total secrecy within three months.  Prison guards and employees were prevented to contact families of the victims as the massacre was kept diligently hidden.

Authorities in prisons, removed all televisions, radios and newspapers from prisons across Iran and stopped families visiting their loved one by turning them away from prison gates without any explanation. Sick prisoners could not receive medical treatment.  The political prisoners from the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran – PMOI/MEK(1) made more than 90 percent of the victims.

Khomeini decreed: “Whoever at any stage continues to belong to the Monafeqin (PMOI/MEK) must be executed. Annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately.” He added “… Those who are in prisons throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for MEK/PMOI are waging war on God and are condemned to execution…It is naive to show mercy to those who wage war on God.”

Khomeini formed a “Death Committee” comprised of three individuals to implement his decrees. It included a representative from the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence & Security, a religious judge and a prosecutor. These individuals were Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, Ebrahim Raisi and Morteza Eshraghi.

The task of the Death Committee was “to determine whether a prisoner was an Enemy of God or not”. The committee held few minutes of rapid trials with no defense.  The three criminal members of the Death Committee only asked one question, whether the prisoner had affiliations to the PMOI/MEK or not. Any prisoner who was not willing to collaborate with them against the MEK was viewed as a sympathizer to the organization and sent to the gallows immediately.  Any prisoner who said the name of the organization as the “Mojahedin” rather than the derogatory “Monafeqin”, was sent for execution. The political prisoners were killed in mass, up to 400 on certain nights alone. Their bodies were transported in dozens by trucks to be buried in unmarked mass graves.

The UK Independent newspaper wrote on 22 August 2013, “Before this committee a prisoner was essentially asked one question:  “Are you still loyal to the MEK?”  Anyone who responded short of total repentance and submission faced execution. Victims were charged with “moharebeh” or “waging war on God.” This meant resisting the mullahs’ rule”.

According to the Canadian journal Journalists for Free Expression of September 2016, “One by one each prisoner was called in for a re-trial that lasted no more than a few minutes, during which they were questioned about their political and religious beliefs. If their answers were less than favorable to the regime, prisoners were sent to be hanged. Meanwhile, those who received pardons were bound by conditions such as walking through an Iraqi mine field or proving their repentance by placing a noose around the neck of a PMOI supporter. Virgin girls were raped the night before their executions to prevent them from going to heaven; men and women were mercilessly tortured; mothers were beaten in front of their children; and wives raped in front of their husbands—all in a gruesome attempt to break their wills”.

On 9 August 2016, an audio tape from 1988 about the massacre was published for the first time. It was the voice of Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s heir and one of his closest confidants at the time. In the recorded tape, the late Ayatollah Montazeri speaks to a group of regime’s senior judicial and intelligence figures and acknowledges that the massacre took place. Montazeri protests the executions and says that they were ordered at the highest levels. The audio tape was published by the son of Montazeri and sent shockwaves in Iran and particularly among the regime’s officials.

Montazeri is heard saying: “Beware of 50 years from now, when people will pass judgment on the leader [Khomeini] and will say he was a bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous leader. … I do not want history to remember him like that”.

Ayatollah Montazeri also wrote several letters to Khomeini, urging him for some leniency and slowing down the executions including having mercy to the pregnant women and those who had already done their sentences. But Khomeini ordered there should be mercy to no one, including teenagers. He said pregnant women should not be spared or even be given chance to give birth to their child and should be executed immediately.

Because of his protests to the massacre, Montazeri fell from Khomeini’s grace and was sacked in March 1989. What gave weight to these revelations is that they were made by the officially ordained successor to Khomeini and the second highest authority in the land.

Current President of Iranian regime, Hassan Rouhani

At the time of executions, the regime’s current president, Hassan Rouhani was Deputy Commander-in-chief of armed forces. Since 1982 Rouhani was a member of regime’s Supreme Defense Council and a member of Central Council of War Logistics Headquarters. In those positions, Rouhani was fully aware and in full agreement with the crimes committed against humanity in Iran.  Rouhani’s position in accord with this massacre shows how preposterous and baseless is the notion that he is a moderate and a reformist.

In 2008, twenty years after the massacre Amnesty International “renewed its call for those responsible for the ‘prison massacre’ to be held accountable. There should be no impunity for such gross human rights violations, regardless of when they were committed.”… “Those responsible for the killings – one of the worst abuses to be committed in Iran – should be prosecuted and tried before a regularly and legally constituted court and with all necessary procedural guarantees, in accordance with international fair trial standards.”(5)

But to this day, the massacre has never been investigated. Those involved have never faced justice. None of the perpetrators or masterminds of this massacre has been brought to justice and none of the regime’s senior officials including the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei has been held accountable yet.

The United Nations must launch an independent investigation on this hideous “Crime Against Humanity”. The people of Iran demand justice. The deafening silence over this massacre has only emboldened the Iranian regime to continue executing political prisoners for decades. Those involved in the massacre are still in high positions and continue to commit crimes against people, including Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi who is now Rouhani’s Justice Minister.

Western countries should no longer keep their silence due to trades and economic interests. They should condemn the massacre and call for justice. The UN should take actions against the individuals involved. This will send clear message to the perpetrators that they cannot continue with their crimes without consequences and punishments.

On the 29th anniversary of the 1988 massacre of Iran’s political prisoners, let’s hope that the UN takes real action to bring individuals responsible for this massacre to justice.


  1. People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK) www.mojahedin.org/home/en
  2. Independent www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/i-was-lucky-to-escape-with-my-life-the-massacre-of-iranian-political-prisoners-in-1988-must-now-be-8779679.html
  3. Canadian Journalists For Free Expression http://www.cjfe.org/iran_marks_anniversary_of_1988_prison_massacre_with_impunity_and_silence
  4. Montazeri’s audio file in English 1988 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIqQgCVvVD4
  5. Amnesty International: Iran: The 20th Anniversary of 1988 ‘prison massacre’ https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/iran-20th-anniversary-1988-prison-massacre

Laila Jazayeri is the Director of the Association of Anglo-Iranian Women in the UK. She writes on Iranian regime’s violation of human rights with the focus on women’s rights and on the threats Iran poses to the world.

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