Last summer was the 28th anniversary of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran. Within less than two months that summer, thousands of political prisoners were executed by the theocratic regime. The massacre, on the direct orders of the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, remains one of the most shocking political crimes in the contemporary history of Iran, and a clear indication of the nature and the practice of the authoritarian ruling regime in the Islamic Republic.
The publication for the first time of an audio recording from nearly three decades ago in Iran has brought more clarity and information about the darkest period in the Islamic Republic. This summer, Ayatollah Montazeri’s official website, run by his family and followers, published an audio file from a meeting he held in 1988 with senior judges and judiciary officials of the “death commission courts” who ordered the mass executions of political prisoners in trials that often lasted less than five minutes. At the time, Montazeri was expected to succeed Khomeini as supreme leader.
In the audio clip, Ayatollah Montazeri told his audience, “In my view, the biggest crime in the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed at your hands, and they’ll write your names as criminals in the history. But what’s important for me is Islam’s and the revolution’s reputation, and the future of our country as well as the person of Mr. Khomeini and how history will judge.
“I don’t want Mr. Khomeini to be judged and called a bloodthirsty, cruel and brazen figure 50 years from now,” he said. He also tells his audience that he believes the authorities had a plan to execute political prisoners for a few years, and found a good excuse in the wake of the July 1988 incursion by the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran. The attack by the latter represented the last major battle of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
Ayatollah Montazeri says he felt compelled to speak out because otherwise he would not have an answer on the “judgment day”. “I haven’t been able to sleep and every night it occupies my mind for two to three hours… what do you have to tell to the families?”
Later in the recording, Ayatollah Montazeri insinuates that the number of people executed since the revolution outnumbered those put to death by Shah, overthrown by the revolution of 1979. When an official seeks his consent for the last group of around 200 people to be executed, he is heard saying fiercely: “I don’t give permission at all. I am opposed even to a single person being executed.”
The file is important evidence that documents the voice of those carrying out a massacre of prisoners and captives without due process or trials. It is important because those involved with the executions are still in power. Mostafa Pourmohammadi, the Intelligence Ministry’s representative in Evin Prison, is currently the Justice Minister in President Hassan Rouhani’s cabinet. Deputy Prosecutor General Ebrahim Raeesi is now head of Astan Qods Razavi, a religious and industrial conglomerate in Mashhad, and has been mentioned in establishment circles as a possible successor to current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
The regime immediately reacted against publication of the tape. The Intelligence Ministry directly contacted Ahmad Montazeri, the son of Ayatollah Montazeri, to ask him to remove the audio from the website. After a few days, Ahmad Montazeri was summoned and interrogated. He was eventually charged with acting against national security interests and was tried on October 19 for publishing the audio clip.
There were different reactions towards this recording among other groups. Those who were in that meeting, and were members of the “death commission,” defended their actions, and called Ayatollah Montazeri “naive”. Unfortunately, most of the reformist leaders were silent. Hassan Khomeini, grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, defended his father and grandfather. Tajzadeh, one of the prominent leaders of the reformists, asked forgiveness from the executed prisoners’ families, and indirectly condemned the massacre. The Tudeh Party of Iran thanked Ahmad Montazeri for his bravery.
Ayatollah Montazeri was the only senior Iranian official who dared to speak out at the time of the massacre. He wrote a number of letters to Khomeini condemning the executions, and shortly afterward fell out of official favor. He was later placed under house arrest and faced major restrictions until his death in December 2009.
The emergence of the audio file has revived calls for an inquiry into the executions. Over the past 28 years, survivors and families of the victims and progressive organizations have demanded the full information about the horrible conditions in the jails in those bloody days – a time when prisoners were forced to recant or face execution. They are also requesting proper prosecution of all Islamic Republic officials who were involved or knew about the massacre.
This article originally appeared in the People’s Voice newspaper in Canada.