On April 17, prisoners held in Ward 350 of Tehran’s Evin Prison were brutally attacked by their guards. According to human rights organization FIDH, dozens were injured and more than 30 prisoners were sent to solitary confinement, where they were further abused.
Ward 350 holds political prisoners, and many of its residents were incarcerated for their participation in the 2009 Green Revolution. Families of the prisoners say that the attack was carried out by members of the Prison Special Guard accompanied by plainclothes thugs sent by the Intelligence Ministry. Officials claim that there was no violence, simply a “routine crackdown on illegal possession of cellphones“.
For 42 years, successive Iranian regimes have used Evin Prison to hold alleged enemies of the state. It is notorious in Iran, a byword for torture, rape, and forced confessions. But the persistent abuses, and even this month’s mass violence, pale beside what happened inside Evin and other Iranian prisons a quarter-century ago.
In late July 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning all imprisoned enemies of the revolution to death. He set up special commissions to carry out these executions, and instructed them to begin work immediately. As Geoffrey Robertson relates:
“[P]risons in Iran crammed with government opponents suddenly went into lockdown. All family visits were cancelled, televisions and radios switched off and newspapers discontinued; prisoners were kept in their cells, disallowed exercise or trips to the infirmary. The only permitted visitation was from a delegation, turbaned and bearded, which came in black government BMWs or by helicopter to outlying jails: a religious judge, a public prosecutor, and an intelligence chief.”
Over the next 5 months, at least 4,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 political prisoners were slaughtered on the say-so of these “death commissions”.
The first victims of the purge were members of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (alternately: the MEK, the PMOI, or the MKO), a leftist revolutionary organization that had split from the regime in 1981. Shortly before the killings, MEK forces had invaded western Iran from Iraq. Many in Iran felt that the prison massacres were retaliation for the unsuccessful attack, but evidence suggests that the regime had planned the executions the year before, when officials began “re-questioning and separating all political prisoners according to party affiliation and length of sentence”.
MEK prisoners were taken before the death commissions and asked a single question: “What is your political affiliation?” Anyone who answered “Mojahedin” was taken away and executed. Prisoners who gave the correct answer of “Monafeqin” (“hypocrites”, the regime’s term for the MEK) were asked a series of follow-up questions about their loyalty, including whether they would be willing to walk over land-mined fields. A wrong answer to any of these also led to execution and burial in an unmarked, mass grave.
Once the Mojahedin had been exterminated, the death commissions turned their attention to members of other left-wing groups. These prisoners faced a more involved interrogation, aimed at uncovering their religious beliefs. Those who were found to be apostates from Muslim families were executed. Others, including female leftists, were tortured until they agreed to pray. By November 1988, “the country’s political prisoners had either been executed or else flogged into submission by a regime which would think it safe to release them over the next few years“.
It was months before the families of the executed heard any news of them. When they were finally notified, they were not told where the bodies were buried, and were required to sign away their right to hold a funeral or memorial service. Officially, these deaths simply did not occur.
The 1988 prison massacre is remarkable not only for its scale, but for the success with which the Iranian regime managed to keep it hidden from the international community. One researcher, chronicling these events twenty years after the fact, noted that he had “found no more than ten or fifteen English-language news reports of the massacre and only a handful of book chapters addressing the topic”.
In 2007, victims’ groups founded the Iran Tribunal, to provide symbolic justice for the mass slaughter. In its final judgment last year, this people’s tribunal concluded that the execution of thousands of political prisoners constituted crimes against humanity for which (contra international legal precedent) the State of Iran could be held responsible. But despite the headlines generated by these proceedings, and the fact that human rights groups have continued to report on the massacre, Iran faces little resistance from the international community to its official policy of denial. And as long as the regime refuses to acknowledge this atrocity, thousands of families are left wondering where their loved ones are buried.
*photo of Evin Prison from Wikipedia.