After 1988 massacre, Iranian political prisoners still await justice

 After 1988 massacre, Iranian political prisoners still await justice
© Getty

Earlier this month, I was honored to be able to speak to a rally of the Anglo-Iranian communities in Trafalgar Square, who had gathered in memoriam for the 30,000 political prisoners who were killed in a massacre that ended in Iran around this time 29 years ago.

The mass executions primarily targeted members and supporters of the Iranian opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI), following a fatwa by the founder the Islamic Republic, Khomenei, in which he declared that all remaining opponents of the clerical regime were guilty of “waging war against God” and should be summarily executed.

The fatwa led to the establishment of “death committees” in major cities throughout Iran, which sentenced PMOI activists to hang after trials that lasted as little as one minute. These actions sought to totally stamp out the pro-democratic opposition, but the PMOI continues to thrive even today, now as the main constituent organization in the broader Iranian coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

The Trafalgar Square rally was part of an international campaign with similar rallies by the Iranian expatriates in Europe and North America to frame the weeks-long commemoration of the 1988 massacre.

The main such gathering is the NCRI’s annual gathering in Paris, which took place only July 1 this year and attracted an estimated 100,000 people, including Western politicians who are active supporters of the NCRI.

I am proud to say that I am among those who were present at both that and the more recent rally to urge justice for the victims and survivors of the massacre. I have also watched closely in the intervening two months, to see the ongoing Iranian human rights crisis continue to evolve, both in terms of the regime’s abuses and the domestic and international response to them.

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Naturally, neither the Paris gathering nor the Trafalgar rally was limited to discussion of the 1988 massacre. That is only the worst single incident in the history of the Islamic Republic, but it is representative of the overall nature of the clerical regime in Tehran. The brutality remains prominently on display as activists continue calling attention to mass executions, suppression of dissent, and torture of political prisoners.

In just the two months since the Paris rally, approximately 200 people have been put to death by the Iranian judiciary, and this figure only refers to those who were formally hanged. There is no telling how many others might have died as a result of torture or denial of medical care or the generally atrocious conditions of the Iranian prison system.

Those conditions are something that Amnesty International, among other organisations, has recently called attention to on several occasions. Some of its statements to this effect have been focused on the hunger strike in Raja’i-Shahr Prison that is still being carried out by some two dozen political prisoners, many of whom are serving long sentences for their support of the PMOI.

Amnesty’s Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director, Magdalena Mughrabi said:

“The fact that detention conditions have become so poor that desperate prisoners feel they are forced to go on hunger strike to demand the most basic standards of human dignity is disgraceful and highlights the urgent need for reforms to Iran’s cruel prison system.”

This is something that I and my fellow supporters of the NCRI have tried to call attention to, and the Trafalgar rally certainly put much emphasis on the Raja’i-Shahr hunger strike, which is entering its third week and has led to severe deterioration in the participants’ health.

This particular hunger strike is especially significant because of the breadth of participation and the fact that it was initiated in response to an intensified crackdown on prisoners in the facility’s political ward. But by no means does this protest exist in isolation. Indeed, there has reportedly been a major upsurge in hunger strikes over the past several months.

Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, a Tehran prosecutor, recently acknowledged that these hunger strikes are a serious threat to the regime. And although he vowed that the government would resist prisoners’ demands for improved conditions and diminished repression, his comments also betrayed anxiety over the rising tide of public outcry.

Unfortunately, the regime may be able to uphold Dowlatabadi’s vow for the time being, because although the regime’s contempt for human rights remains a matter of public record and a source of activism among Iranians and the expatriate community, this has not yet led to an appropriate shift in European policy.

After weeks of silence on the current hunger strikes, the United Nations has finally issued a statement calling on the Islamic Republic to address the plight of prisoners. But silence persists within the leadership of the West and the United Kingdom. And none of these have put recent human rights abuses in the context of past crimes like the 1988 massacre, for which the regime has never been held accountable.

As I repeated at my speech to the activists in Trafalgar Square, and as I will repeat at every opportunity for as long as is necessary, the UN Human Rights Council has a vital responsibility to open an inquiry into the massacre of Iranian political prisoners in 1988, and the West has an equally vital responsibility to undo the mistake of decoupling human rights issues from its other policies toward the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian regime will continue to receive a message of impunity from the West, and it will persist in its disregard for human rights as long as these recommendations continue to be ignored.

The Iranian people and the expatriate community are doing their part to push back against this message of impunity, and there are many Western politicians who are doing the same. But it will take broad-based collective action to fully address the scope of Tehran’s current and past crimes.

Sir David Amess, Conservative MP for Southend West in the UK House of Commons and co-chair of the British Committee for Iran Freedom (BCFIF), www.iran-freedom.org.