Iran’s latest crackdown on dissent is fueled by UN silence over past crimes

Iran’s latest crackdown on dissent is fueled by UN silence over past crimes
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Among analysts and commentators who have been paying attention to the state of affairs in the Islamic Republic of Iran, there is widespread agreement that the fallout from recent protests, which spread to as many as 140 cities across the country, has only just begun.

The ongoing fallout takes two equally important forms. In the first place, the repression of those protests and the regime’s failure to address their economic, social and political demands means that public grievances are continuing to simmer and will certainly bubble to the surface again, perhaps with even greater intensity. Considering the unexpectedly bold slogans of the late December/early January demonstrations, including calls for the removal of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a resurgent uprising would pose a virtually unprecedented threat to the clerical regime.

This fact calls attention to the other aspect of the fallout: Tehran continues its widespread crackdown, targeting participants in the recent protests along with activists and dissidents of every stripe. By all accounts, this crackdown is worsening. While the regime initially claimed that only a few hundred had been arrested during the demonstrations, officials later on acknowledged nearly 4,000. Activists inside the country have monitored more than twice that number.


Additionally, 11 detainees so far have been identified by name as having died as a result of torture in Iran’s medieval prison system. In a disgusting yet savvy display of propaganda, regime authorities have attempted to downplay some of these deaths by insisting that they actually were instances of suicide.

“Deceased prisoners have died of guilty conscience,” Hassan Nowroozi, the spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s Legal and Judicial Committee, was quoted as saying. “The deaths of many of these people in prison may be related to regretting their acts. They realized the ugliness of their acts, and maybe that led to their suicide in prison.”

Such language is chillingly familiar. In declaring the people’s demands for democracy to be “ugly,” figures such as Nowroozi recall attention to the sentiment that all enemies of the clerical regime are enemies of God — a sentiment that was codified into law following a fatwa issued in 1988 by the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. That religious pronouncement led inexorably to the creation of death commissions in various cities throughout the fledgling theocracy, where they were tasked with identifying persistent opposition to clerical rule, and to stamp it out.

As a board member of Justice for Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI), I have extensively researched the aftermath of Khomeini’s fatwa. In the summer of 1988 alone, the regime hanged an estimated 30,000 political prisoners following minute-long interrogations regarding their political affiliations. Victims included teenagers and pregnant women, and many of those who were executed had already served out their apportioned sentences.

The main target of the killings was the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), which nonetheless remains the leading opposition group in the Islamic Republic. Although regime officials long have sought to deny the popular reach of the PMOI, the surprisingly rapid spread of the recent demonstrations led the supreme leader to publicly acknowledge the organization as a driving force behind them.

Senior regime officials now are attempting to portray thousands of detained protesters as “enemies of God.” Some of the present conditions are disturbingly reminiscent of the run-up to the 1988 massacre, and these conditions include not just popular disaffection and government reprisals inside Iran but also the lack of a serious response from much of the world.

The silence of Western powers and lack of action by the United Nations provided Tehran with the freedom to carry out its killings 30 years ago, and the persistence of that silence has provided the regime with a sense of impunity with regard to subsequent human rights abuses. If the international community in general, and the UN in particular, fail to send a clear message of intolerance for both current and past human rights abuses, it is all but certain that Tehran will continue to escalate the current situation, perhaps even to reach the level of the 1988 massacre.

Concern over that possibility, as well as the demand of justice for past victims, has been a driving force in JVMI’s efforts to focus more international attention on the 1988 massacre and its ongoing legacy. Those efforts are set to continue on Thursday with a civil society hearing in Geneva, where I will join other human rights experts in discussing a mock indictment to be brought against the perpetrators of the massacre.

This hearing will also include eyewitness testimony from survivors of the massacre, and it is my hope that world powers will bear witness to the story and feel appropriately ashamed of their silence and its effects. The United Nations should establish an independent commission of inquiry regarding the 1988 massacre, with an eye toward filing charges against the persons responsible, many of whom continue to fill positions of authority in the Islamic Republic.

Let’s hope that increased awareness about the 1988 massacre will make the international community better informed of the depths of violence and inhumanity of the Iranian theocratic regime. Let there be no illusions, silence in the face of the regime’s worsening abuses will only engender more cruelty and violence. Such silence endangers the lives of countless innocent people.

Tahar Boumedra is a former chief of the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and legal expert.