Volume 22 Issue 6, June 2018

Iran’s wartime past has clawed its way into its present and shifted the focus towards a struggle for justice that has long been shelved. A joint report issued by Amnesty International and the London-based Justice for Iran, has pinned the blame on the Islamic republic for decimating the mass graves of the political prisoners who were executed during a war purge in 1988.

Numerous prisoners – approximately 4,000 or more – were killed during this massacre that occurred three decades ago as Iran’s war with Iraq drew to a close. But this dark chapter in the country’s history has been practically disregarded for many years. The cycle of neglect has pushed any attempts to demand justice for the hapless political prisoners on the backburner.

The joint report has revived the issue by calling for a fresh inquiry into the 1988 purge. These demands are not entirely new. Over the years, consistent attempts have been made to put a spotlight on the mass executions carried out 30 years ago.
In 2016, the release of a recording by a leading Iranian official at the time of the massacre indicated that the purge was “the biggest crime” in the country’s history.
Despite this fervent declaration of fault, the matter has seldom been discussed in the public domain. As a result, there is a looming suspicion of a criminal cover-up by Iranian authorities to erase and conceal historical facts about the 1988 purge.
If media reports are to be believed, Iran’s mission to the UN did not immediately comment on the Amnesty International and Justice for Iran’s findings. However, the Islamic republic’s silence cannot be viewed as pretext to forget the past and allow the issue to fall into yet another stupor of ignorance. Satellite imagery, along with photo and video analysis, has proved that systematic efforts have been made to destroy these grave sites.

The relevant authorities in Iran have employed a diverse menu of tactics to damage the sites. Most graves have been bulldozed and new buildings have been constructed on these sites. Brazen attempts have been made to convert the burial sites into roads or areas designated for waste disposal. According to Amnesty International USA, it is still not clear how many political prisoners were executed in what were billed as extrajudicial killings in 1988. In the 30 years that have passed since the purge, no Iranian official has been duly scrutinized or taken to task. To the contrary, those who were responsible for the death of so many political prisoners have assumed public office over the years and enjoyed influential positions within Iran’s governance structure.

A persistent effort has been made to conceal details about the victims. Analysts are of the view that this is tantamount to a form of enforced disappearance, which is an n


offence under international law. The loved ones of those who are believed to have died have also been prohibited from organizing commemorative events or adorning the mass graves with memorial messages. Some have even faced prison sentences and other punitive measures for demanding answers that the authorities are not willing to provide.

It is widely believed that judicial and security bodies in Iran are involved in making key decisions to either destroy or damage the burial sites. This is a logical conclusio as the mass grave sites are constantly under surveillance. Many analysts fear that crucial evidence has been tampered with or removed from the site, which could make it all the more difficult to piece together an authentic narrative of the events of 1988.

The report has acknowledged that 120 locations in the country were once used as mass graves. At this critical juncture, the watchdog organizations have obtained reliable evidence that suggests seven of these sites were used for this purpose. The Iranian authorities have been accused of targeting sites in areas in Gilan, East Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Khuzestan, Khorasan Razavi and Tehran to remove essential evidence and consequently serve their narrow interests.

The vociferous demand for accountability and justice cannot be mitigated. Justice and the search for answers can no longer remain amorphous concepts that are buried along with the spectre of Iran’s past. The allegations leveled against Iranian authorities go to the core of the country’s uneasy alliance with its troubled history.
Little or no attempt has been made to accept past mistakes and come clean about past atrocities.

The excesses of war cannot be justified through sabotage or brazen strategies to do away with the past. If the country wants to embrace democracy and move beyond its past, it must allow historical fallacies to be examined and investigated. Concealing past failures will not guarantee a better future for Iran. The systematic destruction of burial sites across Iran will only culminate in more grave political mistakes.

In a similar vein, locally-monitored investigations will verify the claims made by these watchdog bodies. It is difficult to dispute the joint report as satellite imagery and other new modes of technology have been used to corroborate its findings. But a more cogent picture will only emerge once Iran breaks it silence and engages in these matters without falling victim to the urge to keep secrets from the public.

The writer is a journalist and author. He analyses international issues.

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