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UN should help end impunity in Iran and throughout the world

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In 1996, on behalf of the Spanish President Allende Foundation, I filed a criminal complaint in Spain, under the principles of universal jurisdiction, against Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet and other leaders of his military junta. The charges detailed genocide, systematic torture, politically motivated killings and terrorism. The defendants were then enjoying absolute impunity in Chile.

I led a multinational team of lawyers in prosecuting those officers in absentia for more than 4,500 cases of murder and forced disappearance, and for the torture of more than 30,000 survivors of Pinochet’s years as dictator of Chile (1973-1990). I was in Santiago’s presidential palace, Palacio de la Moneda, when the coup took place in 1973 and saw Pinochet’s crimes first-hand. The executions and torture perpetrated in Chile remain fresh in everyone’s memories.

{mosads}But the number of killings pales in comparison to the case that could be brought against leaders of another inhumane system whose crimes recently have garnered my attention. In just a few months during 1988, the Islamic Republic of Iran executed an estimated 30,000 political prisoners and advocates for democratic governance, mostly members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).


On the request of the foundation and a Spanish court of justice, Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 to be extradited and put on trial. Later, he was arrested and indicted in Chile. The United States (under the Clinton administration) did not object. Since then, impunity has ended and hundreds of officers of the Chilean state have been judged and condemned for their crimes against humanity. Many of the leading perpetrators of similar crimes in Iran remain alive; some even hold prominent positions in politics. This means that they still could be arraigned in an international criminal court, if the United Nations takes the necessary measures under the charter.

In the interest of encouraging that outcome, I participated in a civil society hearing on Feb. 1 in Geneva, at which a mock indictment related to the 1988 Iranian massacre was presented and discussed. The proceedings included eyewitness testimony from former Iranian political prisoners and their families, as well as expert opinion from fellow human rights experts including former United Nations judges.

It is my hope, of course, that the Feb. 1 hearing will prove to be a precursor to more formal proceedings by the United Nations. If these proceedings take place, it will be a step toward long overdue legal accountability for some of the world’s worst and most organized violators of human rights, and an encouragement to reduce impunity for crimes of this nature in other countries. Formal trials will likely help to bring some closure to those families that still have not identified the final resting places of their loved ones 30 years later.

Additionally, it is my hope that newfound attention for the 1988 massacre and the subsequent crimes of Iran’s political/religious system will help to reiterate the message that was previously sent by my colleagues and me through our prosecution of the Pinochet crimes. The essence of that message is that, while some officers may enjoy impunity as they commit human rights violations and misuse the instruments of the state, this impunity need not continue forever, much less be accepted by human rights advocates and foreign observers who have the legal mandate to investigate such crimes.

There is a widespread feeling that many world leaders have failed to recognize the role that they can and must play in bringing an end to the impunity of human rights abusers across the globe. Instead, they have tended to look away from dangerous and criminal situations because local populations had no effective means for redress.

Tragically, this impulse has led to situations in which rampant human rights abuses have recurred or worsened over time. But in some cases, the threat of this outcome is lingering, and it might still be prevented. About one week before the hearing in Geneva, the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi visited the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe as part of the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s efforts to encourage international action to help those arrested during recent protests in Iran.

Beginning on Dec. 28, 2017, two weeks of nationwide protests in Iran gave rise to calls for a change of government. Those demonstrations predictably were met with a violent backlash from the Iranian powers-that-be, the full picture of which is still emerging. Thousands of Iranians have been arrested, more than 50 killed, and reports continue to trickle out of the country regarding young protesters dying as a result of torture in Iranian prisons.

“Mass arrests, opening fire on unarmed protesters, and torturing prisoners to death are clear examples of crime against humanity,” Mrs. Rajavi said. “Unfortunately, Europe has chosen silence and inaction about all of these crimes, something that contradicts many of Europe’s fundamental and joint commitments including the European Convention on Human Rights.”

As we have sadly learned, human rights abusers sometimes escape justice. Democratic nations have an obligation to intercede and protect whenever possible to either halt these abuses around the world, or raise the profile of their perpetrators and increase the chances that they face domestic or international justice at a later date.

With many experts speculating that the unrest in Iran is far from over, the day may not be far off when the Iranian people can seek justice for the crimes committed against them. By helping those people to retain access to the internet and social media, and by weakening the system’s repressive institutions through diplomatic démarches and other appropriate measures, the international community can help to protect the victims and to provide for the reparation of damages resulting from the acts of the state responsible.

Juan E. Garcés was the chief lawyer in the Spanish legal case against Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Tags Augusto Pinochet Criminal law Forced disappearance Human rights abuses Impunity International criminal law International law Military dictatorship of Chile

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