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Bidaran writes to UN special rapporteurs

Wednesday 15 January 2020

All the versions of this article: [English] [فارسى]

We believe that should such reports issued by international bodies reflect a more thorough and accurate investigation of the facts and present the findings in a clear and concise manner, they will more effectively serve their intended purpose of informing the public and advancing the cause of justice in Iran. Regrettably, this Letter, despite the important points contained within it, falls short of that goal.

To the attention of the UN special rapporteurs
Luciano Hazan : Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
Agnes Callamard : Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Clement Nyaletsossi Voule : Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
Javaid Rehman : Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Fionnuala Ní Aoláin : Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terronsm.
Nils Melzer : Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Fabian Salvioli :Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and

The letter of September 3, 2020 prepared by a Working Group and multiple Special Rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council (the “Letter”) and addressed to a high ranking official of the government of Iran, offers an important account of the extrajudicial mass executions of political prisoners in Iran, decreed by the Ayatollah Khomeini and carried out over several months in 1988. The 18-page Letter includes two separate annexes, one that is focused on executions in specific regions of the country, and another that outlines the relevant provisions of international human rights law. Due to the significance of this report, here we offer a summary of our reflections on its content and point out flaws and shortcomings of the Letter. The intent is by no means to minimize the importance of this report or to undermine the validity of its otherwise correct and valuable findings. Undoubtedly, this document is one of the most authoritative account by an international body, on one of the most horrific atrocities of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI), setting forth these crimes against humanity in a genuine effort to seek justice.

The Letter opens with the following: “... we would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government information we have received concerning allegations of the continued refusal to disclose the circumstances of death and remains of thousands of political dissidents who were forcibly disappeared and then allegedly extrajudicially executed between July and early September 1988 in 32 cities, and the authorities’ refusal to provide families with accurate and complete death certificates.” The Letter continues: “We would further like to bring the attention of your Excellency’s Government to information we have received on six specific cases indicative of these allegations, namely: Mr. Ali Asghar Zighami, Mr. Ghorban Ali Shokri, Mr. Sayed Morteza Mirmohammadi, Mr. Heibatollah Moinee, Mr. Mehdi Gharaiee and Mr. Ashgar Mhboub.” (Emphasis in original.)

This introductory paragraph, which summarizes the overall message of the Letter, overlooks the fact that not all the thousands of the political prisoners who were executed between July and early September 1988 were “forcibly disappeared,” given the legal definition of the term. Further, the remains of a number of the executed were in fact returned to their bereaved families, and in a number of other cases information on the location of their burial was provided to the families. And there were also those whose last will and testament as well as belongings while in prison were returned to their families. These incontrovertible facts demonstrate that solely relying on the “forcibly disappeared” does not provide a full and complete account that would accurately identify all the victims of the mass killings of 1988. All evidence indicates that mass execution of the political prisoners in Iran began on July 27 and continued through the first week of September 1988, and regrettably the rendering of names into English is, in several instances, inaccurate and incomplete, as is the case for example, of Habibolah Moeeni Chaghravand. When it comes to accurate documentation of this event in recent history, it must be said that this report falls short.

The third paragraph of the Letter references the General Allegation by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances brought to the attention of the authorities in the Islamic Republic in 2017. The allegations were regarding “disappearance and killings of individuals for their political opinions or religious beliefs” as well as “destruction of mass graves.” The Letter “regrets that no reply has been received” to that General Allegation. And we learn in the fourth paragraph that there were further communications sent by the Working Group to the authorities in the IRI and that the replies from these authorities “do not address the issue of the alleged destruction of mass graves.” Considering that one of the most prominent symbols of the mass killings of political prisoners in 1988, the Khavaran Cemetery, was destroyed in 2007, The Working Group is to be commended for its perseverance on this issue, even if late. However, one must ask, what is served by sending letters that express regret without demanding immediate and concrete action? Is it not time for the relevant Working Groups within the United Nations to directly ask the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran whether it even recognizes the obligation to respond to the specific questions raised by the allegations, and if so, at what point in time would answers be forthcoming?

The logic for the regional division, as set forth in the fifth paragraph of the Letter, naming 32 cities in Iran as different sites of the crime is not clear. Categorizations that are provided without any explanation as to their relevance can undermine the reliability of the information. It is almost certain that the killings in Kermanshah and Ilam, for example, were pursuant to war crimes and therefore wholly independent of extrajudicial executions in Tehran and Karaj where the victims were not captured during armed confrontations and were instead tried and sentenced as political prisoners.

There are other details in the Letter with questionable accuracy. For example, claims of empty graves or existence of multiple mass grave sites in Ahvaz, Karaj, Rasht, Tehran and Mshhad have not been substantiated. Left unexamined and uncorrected such inaccuracies could on the whole hamper the task of seeking redress for the victims. 

The Letter references mass graves; graves that were built in secret and away from the eyes of the public. The Letter states that it is “likely that the real number of mass graves across the country ... is far higher.” What the “real number” may be “far higher” than is not discernable given that the Letter does not provide any figures or even an approximate number of such mass graves. Further, according to the Letter “the authorities ultimately told some families verbally that their loved ones were buried in mass graves and revealed their locations. ... [and in some cities] gave a few families the location of individual graves and allowed them to install headstones.” What is not mentioned, however, is that such treatment was only haphazardly accorded to prisoners who were Muslim, whereas the leftists among the executed prisoners, who were considered infidels, were not so fortunate.
Starting from the last paragraph of page three to the end of page five, the Letter profiles six victims of the mass killings. Here we will examine the accuracy of the reporting in connection with one of these victims. The Letter provides:

Mr. Heibatollah Moinee was held in Evin prison, Tehran, and was disappeared in late July 1988, whilst serving a prison term connected to [sic] his support for the secular political organization, the Majority faction of Fadaiyan. In late 1988, persons associated with him were informed that he had been executed. No additional information was provided and his remains were not returned. In late 1980, [sic] in order to resolve an administrative issue, persons associated with him needed to annul his national identity booklet. In order to do so they were required by the National Organization for Civil Registration in Tehran to sign a paper stating he had died of natural causes. The annulment identified his home address at the time as the place of death. When persons associated with him objected to this and indicated Mr. Moinee had been in custody, the official said they should sign the paper or it would be torn up.”

Setting aside the errors in the composition of this paragraph, and throughout the Letter for that matter, which render parts of the report difficult to understand, errors of fact with respect to the identified victims may well create serious impediments to any effort to pursue reparations. Heibatollah Moeeni Chaghravand, born September 9th, 1950, was a member of the Central Committee of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fadaian (Majority), and was arrested in Tehran on November 7th, 1983. As a result of intercession of several members of the clergy and his family, in September of 1985, his sentence was commuted from death to lifetime imprisonment. Based on the testimony of three prisoners, Mr. Moeeni Chaghravand was executed in Evin Prison in Tehran on August 30th, 1988. On September 9th, 1988, the official prosecutors at Evin Prison informed his sister that he had been executed and his remains buried in Khavaran Cemetery. Some of his belongings, including his watch, were returned to his family. In 1991, due to an illness that required treatment abroad, his widow sought an exit permit to travel outside Iran. The laws of the Islamic Republic require written permission by the spouse for travel abroad. After the execution of Mr. Moeeni Chaghravand, it would require the authorities at Evin Prison, and not the National Organization for Civil Registration, to issue a letter affirming annulment of Mr. Moeeni Chaghravand’s birth certificate. The annulment notice indicates his last place of residence in Tehran in the year 1983. Accurate and unambiguous reporting is critical for any effort to seek redress for the victims.

The final section of the Letter starts on page 6 under the title “Statements from the Government” and begins as follows: “The Iranian authorities have, since 1988 onwards, flatly denied the killings, trivialized the number of deaths and claimed that many were killed in conflict.” The Letter does relate that “[m]edia outlets in Iran frequently publish distressing statements from high-level officials glorifying the executions,” and expresses grave concern regarding the mass extrajudicial killings in 1988, correctly calling them “crimes against humanity and of murder, extermination, persecution, torture and other inhumane acts,” and that “the systematic concealment of the fate and whereabouts of the victims amounts to an ongoing crime against humanity.” When it comes to statements that can be attributed to government of the Islamic Republic, the Letter appears to have overlooked much data that has been uncovered during the 32 years since and especially in the past four years: 1) The audio recording of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri in conversation with members of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s select committee to identify lists of political prisoners for extrajudicial executions; 2) Hojjatol-Islam Fallahian’s interview with reporters; 3) Mostafa Pour Mohammadi interview; 4) Ayatollah Khamenei’s book, among others.

We believe that should such reports issued by international bodies reflect a more thorough and accurate investigation of the facts and present the findings in a clear and concise manner, they will more effectively serve their intended purpose of informing the public and advancing the cause of justice in Iran. Regrettably, this Letter, despite the important points contained within it, falls short of that goal.

January 15, 2020

Bidaran :

Monireh Baradaran 
Chalah Chafiq:
Parsto Forohar 
Asgar Izadi
Naser Mahajer
Mihan Rousta
Reza Moini 

As defined by the United Nations : https://www.ohchr.org/en/hrbodies/ced/pages/conventionced.aspx



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