Report on the Symposium on Breaking the Cycle of State Violence inIranThe 1988 Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran: A Quest for Justice“[This] massacre bids comparison with Srebrenica… Katyn Forest…[and] with the Japanese death marches… This particular slaughter…was carefully planned and executed by state leaders working through thejudicial and penal system… It was a dreadful crime against humanity.” --Mr. Geoffrey Robertson, QC, 25 October 2011, University of OxfordIn an effort to publicly recognize and bring to international attention themassacre of political prisoners in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1988 andthe suffering of the victims, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation(ABF) hosted an unprecedented symposium in conjunction with Mr.Geoffrey Robertson, QC and Oxford Transitional Justice Research (OTJR)at the University of Oxford in the UK. The 1988 Massacre of PoliticalPrisoners in Iran: A Quest for Justice was held on October 25, 2011, andfor the first time, victims, eminent international legal experts, scholars,country specialists and human rights advocates came together to talk abouttruth telling and explore possible legal and political avenues of recourse forthe victims of the 1988 prison massacre.It was a powerful and meaningful experience for all who participated – inparticular for the many survivors who were present and who, for the firsttime in more than two decades, felt their ordeal and suffering wereacknowledged and taken seriously by the international community. In someway, this acknowledgment restored some of the dignity that years of prisonand invisibility had stolen from them. One panelist, who is also thedaughter of a victim of the 1988 massacre who was supposed to be releasedin March of 1989 but was killed in Adelabad Prison in Shiraz, wrote us:“The [conference] was an enriching event on different levels andabove all the simple fact of the word ‘1988’ openly and publiclyuttered was a source of joy, and an appeasing and encouragingexperience. It was as if reality made a pause and we enteredanother world, which acknowledges what happened and unburdensus from this weight.”The basis for the symposium discussion was the report, The Massacre ofPolitical Prisoners in Iran, 1988, commissioned by ABF and authored byMr. Geoffrey Robertson QC, a prominent international jurist. The reportconcludes that high level officials of the Islamic Republic committedcrimes against humanity in the summer and fall of 1988, when close to
4,000 political prisoners were secretly killed and hastily buried in massgraves in Tehran and other provinces. The majority of these prisoners hadbeen arrested in their teens and early twenties and sentenced to variousprison terms for sympathizing with the Mojahedin Khalq Organization(MEK) or with leftists and communist parties.Discussing this forgotten and unpunished crime was both necessary andoverdue. The 1988 massacre is a significant episode of a systematic anddecades-long elimination of dissidents in the Islamic Republic of Iran.Many among the victims of the 1988 killing were arrested during peacefuldemonstrations in the early 1980s, held incommunicado, tortured, andarbitrarily tried – as were many election protestors during the summer of2009. In the 1980s however, Iranians had no cell phones, computers, orinternet to allow the world to bear witness and deter the judges fromsummarily trying and sentencing thousands to death and prison. Thus,impunity became rule and the victims invisible.The day-long symposium was divided into two sessions: the morningsession was a closed-door roundtable discussion among legal experts,lawyers working in organizations focused on accountability, NGOmembers, academics, and victims who thoughtfully debated the availableavenues for justice for victims in the absence of a current venue forbringing grievances against the perpetrators. ABF’s Executive Directorstated:“Seeking justice for the victims of the 1988 prison massacre is amoral necessity and an important step to engage survivors andensure a peaceful transition to democracy. It is also the humanrights community’s only means to break the cycle of state violenceand to remind the perpetrators that there is no statute of limitationswhen it comes to unspeakable crimes.”The roundtable participants discussed the various circumstances that wouldallow the victims to seek justice at an international or national level. Theyagreed on the importance of collecting evidence and noted that consideringthe limited available options, the documentation and testimony work oforganizations such as ABF is crucial to establishing evidence in preparationfor a future venue for truth telling and/or trials. The participants alsodiscussed other suggestions such as using the UN human rights monitoringmechanisms for seeking justice or the tracking of perpetrators’ movements,as well as investigating whether any of the victims’ relatives were nationalsof other countries in 1988, in preparation for possible prosecution inanother country.The afternoon session was comprised of three different panels of legal andcountry experts, as well as victims, including Mr. Medhi Aslani (formerprisoner who survived the massacre), Dr. Ladan Boroumand (ABF), Dr.Phil Clark (OTJR), Ms. Carla Ferstman (REDRESS), Mr. Binesh Hass(OTJR), Mr. Wolfgang Kaleck (European Center for Constitutional andHuman Rights), Dr. Abol-Karim Lahidji (FIDH), Dr. Francesca Lessa
(OTJR), Dr. Chowra Makaremi (daughter of a 1988 victim), Dr. OlgaMartin-Ortega (University of East London), Dr. Corinna Mullin (School ofOriental and African Studies), Dr. Sarah Nouwen (University ofCambridge), Dr. Nicola Palmer (OTJR), Mr. Geoffrey Robertson QC(Doughty Street Chambers), and Ms. Jennifer Robinson (Finers StephensInnocent).Mr. Robertson opened the afternoon session by presenting the 1988massacre in its historical context and qualifying it as a crime againsthumanity. He continued by exploring the existing mechanisms that mayallow victims to seek justice:"Today it would be possible for the [UN] Security Council toset up a special court (as they did with Lebanon) to investigate, [toinstall a] prosecutor who could bring charges. But of course no onewould be there to answer because… the perpetrators all remain inhigh position in the state of Iran. The International Criminal Court[ICC] can only deal with… crimes committed after July 2002, sothat is not a possibility. Other than this, one of the worse continuingcrimes of this state is that it does not allow the thousands ofrelatives to mourn; it doesn’t even allow them to know where theirchildren are buried… so that is a continuing crime that the ICCmight investigate… International criminal law, while it has come along way, has not come far enough to feel the collars of those whoare responsible for one of the worst, if not the worst, singleatrocity.”Ms. Robinson, a lawyer who collaborated with Mr. Robertson and traveledthroughout Europe to interview victims, discussed some of the findings ofthe report, including the concept of genocide used to describe the massacreof the Mojahedin killed for being “hypocrites” and for “waging war againstGod.” She noted the courage and key role of survivors who testify andtalked about the humbling effect of meeting and hearing the harrowingaccounts of torture and knowing about the sufferings of the survivors forher personally. Impunity, she stressed, continues to take a toll in Iran today:“The situation in Iran today illustrates the consequences forimpunity for crimes against humanity that have never been properlyinvestigated and prosecuted. Some of those perpetrators - thoseinvolved in the events of 1988 - remain in powerful positions injudiciary and state in Iran today where dissidents continue to beimprisoned and persecuted for being Mohareb, warriors againstGod…”Another speaker, Dr. Lahidji (Vice President of FIDH), also compared thestate policies today - aimed at spreading fear, breaking prisoners, andproducing repenters - with those of the 1980s, and stressed the importance
of seeking justice in national and international venues.Ms. Fertsman (Director of REDRESS) emphasized that justice is aboutacknowledgment of the harm that has been done. She pointed to the “cloudof suspicion” over the families of those who were murdered in 1988.“Justice is about dealing with this cloud of suspicion and making it clearthat what was done was wrong.” She noted that Iran has an obligation toinvestigate, prosecute, and offer reparations to survivors and familymembers, “including compensation, measures of satisfaction, which wouldinclude accounting for the dead and guarantees non-repetition.” Onesurvivor of the massacre shared his feelings about the power ofinternational acknowledgment:"For years, we were crying for having such a meeting. After 23years [having] survived within those circumstances, such reports,like the report by Geoffrey Robertson … has a real impact. Andwhatever all those people who are working here will do, theoutcome – even [if] you fail the legal ground, even [if] you fail inother political grounds – that the truth comes out – to be known byinternational communities, to be known by [the] local population,by the countries – that is to me – that is the justice – to recognize.To know what happened."Mr. Kaleck (Secretary General of the European Center for Constitutionaland Human Rights) enumerated various venues for justice outside Iran andvarious legal precedents, but stressed the need to be realistic in theexpectations from the international community in terms of justice. At thesame time, he noted:“If you are only realistic [about the options for justice], reality canparalyze you. All the important efforts undertaken by human rightslitigators, for example, [the] Alien Tort Claims act of 1988, the Filarta caseagainst the torturer from Paraguay, Pinochet [in] 1988 here in the UK,were undertaken by people who were not realistic at all. They were hardprofessional workers and they were visionaries, and only this combinationmade the breakthroughs in human rights litigation possible.”Panelists also discussed the impact of criminal pursuit and impunity invarious transitions and countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Spain,Uganda, and Sudan. Dr. Ortega (University of East London) talked aboutSpain’s civil war and the path of forgetting, which was, for decades,supported by the argument: “It is not the time now.” She noted the seriousconsequences of such a path on a society that lived with guilt and wherethose in power during the civil war continued to be in the military andjudiciary.Dr. Lessa, (OTJR), provided insights on various phases of transition inArgentina and Uruguay and pointed to similarities with Iran in terms of the
physicial elimination of political opponents and the denial by the state ofthe right to bury the dead and mourn them. The lessons learned from theseexperiences are multiple, including the importance of calling for the right totruth for the relatives of victims and the broader society.Dr. Nouwen (University of Cambridge) spoke about the comparisonsbetween Iran and the Sudan where “there is an urge for justice, but there isno transition.” She discussed the negative and positive impact of the workof the ICC in the case of Sudan where the ICC arrest warrants opened thedebate on transitional justice. She called on human rights advocates toconsider political as well as criminal venues to seek justice:“If you have the long-term view and say that the regime must firstchange, then the advice would be, act as a prosecutor… collect as muchevidence as you can now so that your case is ready when the moment isthere. When you are more focused upon transformation, then make surethat you sell transitional justice in a way to the regime that… transitionaljustice could actually enhance the regime also in rebuilding… therelationship with its people and with the wider world.”Several experts pointed to the importance of the documentation work byABF during the pre-transition period, regardless of what path Iranians willadopt during the transitional period. For example, Mr. Kaleck noted that:“All of our legal work has to be contextualized; what theBoroumand Foundation already achieved is a big deal. They builtup an archive; they built up an historical record, they maintain thememory of what happened there. They make the people, the victims,the families, tell their story, which is already a big part of the workthat we all do.”Two decades ago, the international community showed little outrage to thenews of the prison massacres and did not acknowledge the courage andpersistence of survivors who told the truth and reported on their ordeal aftertheir release. In recognition of the survivors of the 1988 massacres and allformer political prisoners who have contributed through their writings orinterviews to truth telling and shedding light on prison conditions in Iran,ABF closed the day’s events by honoring two survivors, Ms. MonirehBaradaran and Mr. Iraj Mesdaghi. Both former political prisoners, theyspent nearly a decade in various prisons in Tehran between 1981 and 1991,and have written extensively and meticulously about the ordeal of thepolitical prisoners in the 1980s. They have also testified for this report andwere instrumental in connecting ABF with other survivors of the 1988massacre. Ms. Baradaran and Mr. Mesdaghi were honored for their courageand their decades-long contribution to ensuring that the victims are not
forgotten. Stressing the courage of those who face the pain of speaking thetruth, the ABF Research Director stated:“When the government is the sole possessor of the “Truth”, there isno room for the fallibility of the rulers or the free will of thegoverned. So those who resist the government’s “Truth” must beeliminated. But if their elimination is public, then their resistance ispublic, and their death becomes the proof of their free will: hencethe necessity of secrecy and silence. Suffice it for the crime tobecome public, and the fallacy of the government,“Truth” isrevealed… Hence speaking the truth is uncovering the government’sfallacy. But it is not easy to speak the unspeakable. One [survivor]is paralyzed and muted by an intense feeling of shame and guilt;one is trapped in this silent crime; life continues but one does notlive. Thus telling the truth becomes a heroic act.”Following the bestowal of the awards, 15 former prisoners who were in theaudience came forward and joined Ms. Baradaran and Mr. Mesdaghi for agroup photo. It was the first time they had ever been photographed together.The room fell completely silent and there was not a dry eye in the house.In the days following the symposium, two survivors shared their emotionswith ABF:“I came across pictures of a few old friends on a Facebook page;the picture was taken at a symposium organized by you in [Oxford]to commemorate those whose lives were taken in the summer of1988. I posted a short message underneath the picture, to which myfriend responded by giving me her telephone number. And so apicture from the symposium prompted a several hours- longconversation between us. We had kept in touch - she was released[from prison] in 1989. Yet in the past 22 years we had never madeany mention of those eight years, until that extraordinary evening…It was, however, the moving words of my friend, which prompted meto write to you. She told me that for the first time in 22 years shehad managed to sleep that night. She went on to say that for 22years she had done her utmost to cope with constant panic attacks,the cries in her head of those dear individuals and the death tolls.She said that she was not feeling well during that evening’ssymposium; the cries in her head were getting louder and louderand she felt that she was going insane; that she was finding it hardto utter any words and was trying to manage the occasional smile.And I could see that restlessness in the [Facebook] picture. She toldme that she had to drive for a few hours on her way back. Sheadded, ‘... after 22 years, the pent up emotions gave way to tears
and I found myself sobbing uncontrollably all the way home. Thanksto that symposium, all those unsaid words, which had lain heavilyon my heart, were suddenly released. I felt that I was becoming anew person. I no longer felt like a stranger. After 30 years, I hadsuddenly found myself. It was as if that other self had been leftbehind in prison.’ She said that she had spent eight years inside aprison cell and another 22 trapped in a restless mind. She washappy and she was remembering strange events that had takenplace 30 years ago; events that I had to think hard to recall... Imerely wished to thank you, since my friend has come to feel aliveagain, as I am sure many others.”In the end, this is what meant the most to all who participated in thesymposium events – bringing a measure of closure through an internationalacknowledgement to the people who were directly affected by the horrificevents of 1988. This event was just the beginning of a long and difficultjourney aimed at ending the cycle of violence in Iran and hopefullyallowing healing and closure for the victims. The report and the roundtablewere instrumental in triggering interest and familiarizing some of the bestexperts in the field with the dire human rights situation in Iran and layingthe groundwork for continued discussion and support in the future.The videos of the event are available on ABF YouTube account.The Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation is a non-governmental nonprofitorganization, founded in April 2001, and dedicated to the promotionof human rights and democracy in Iran. The Foundation is an independentorganization with no political affiliation and is committed to promotinghuman rights awareness through education and the dissemination ofinformation as necessary prerequisites for the establishment of a stabledemocracy in Iran. Please visit us at www.iranrights.org andwww.facebook.com/iranrights.