Photo illustration by John Lyman

Justice has been Delayed for Victims of Iran’s Abuses, but it Should not be Denied

The Iranian regime is constantly in the news. Its support for terrorism and its egregious conduct in the region grabs most of the headlines. What is more often left out of the scrutiny is its conduct to Iranians themselves.

Western leaders have occasionally called attention to some crimes, but they have typically followed up with absurd requests for the regime to initiate its own investigation. The three-day “Free Iran Global Summit,” which began on July 17, emphasized the futility of such requests. The online event connected Iranians from 30,000 locations in 102 countries, including Iran itself. The summit was also attended by some 1,000 dignitaries (including myself), many of whom called attention to the regime’s tendency to promote officials specifically because of their involvement in past abuses.

Two prominent examples of this phenomenon are the current Minister of Justice, Alireza Avaei, and the current head of the national judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi. Both men played prominent roles in the “death commissions” that were established at prisons all throughout the Islamic Republic in 1988, following a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini which condemned all opponents of the theocratic system as enemies of God. Over the course of just several months, those death commissions were responsible for an estimated 30,000 executions, the overwhelming majority of them activists of the MEK. The victims included teenagers, pregnant women, and political prisoners who had already served out their sentences before being called upon to disavow their political ideals and affiliations.

Together, Avaei and Raisi demonstrate that the impulse to reward human rights abuses comes from both the “hardline” and the “reformist” factions of Iranian politics. Whereas the head of the judiciary is appointed by the clerical supreme leader, ministerial appointments belong to the office of the president, currently occupied by Hassan Rouhani. Not only did Rouhani appoint a perpetrator of massive human rights abuses to the ironic position of Justice Minister; he did so twice. Avaei’s predecessor during Rouhani’s first term has bragged in recent years about his role on the death commissions.

The unified disregard for human rights by the president and the supreme leader is a major part of the reason why Iranians of every stripe have been calling out for an alternative to the indistinguishable factions that share leadership of the Islamic Republic today. This demand was clearly expressed in each of the three nationwide protest movements that have emerged since the end of 2017. Among other slogans that left little doubt regarding popular support for regime change, participants in those uprisings have been heard to chant, “hardliners, reformists: the game is over.”

This refrain ought to be loudly repeated within European and American policy circles if the Western world wishes to be taken seriously as a global defender of human rights and democratic principles. That message should also be backed up with actions that may include the closure of Iranian embassies and the pursuit of charges in the International Criminal Court for Iranian human rights abusers. Fortunately, there are growing signs of receptiveness to such recommendations. Thus, there is a glimmer of hope that after three decades of indifference, the era of lack of accountability for Tehran’s leaders might be coming to an end.

On July 17, Morgan Ortagus, the spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, underscored concerns about that lack of accountability and called for an independent investigation of the 1988 massacre. “July 19th marks the start of Iran’s so-called death commissions,” she said. “On the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, these commissions reportedly forcibly disappeared, and extrajudicially executed, thousands of political dissident prisoners.”

Ortagus went on to say, “The Iranian judiciary is widely perceived to lack independence and fair trial guarantees, and the Revolutionary Courts are particularly egregious in ordering violations of human rights. All Iranian officials who commit human rights violations or abuses should be held accountable. The United States calls on the international community to conduct independent investigations and to provide accountability and justice for the victims of these horrendous violations of human rights organized by the Iranian regime.”

It is high time for the U.S. and the EU to demand a UN investigation of the 1988 massacre. Doing so would be both morally correct and politically effective. In view of major nationwide anti-regime uprisings in Iran in the last two years, it hits Tehran’s leaders in their Achilles’ heel, namely domestic repression. It sends a signal to ordinary Iranians that the era of impunity and lack of accountability for the regime’s leaders and henchmen is over. This in turn encourages young Iranian dissidents who take part in pro-democracy protests. It tells the families of the 30,000 victims that justice has been delayed but it will not be denied.

I think the upcoming UN General Assembly is the best venue for the world community to demand an independent investigation on the 1988 massacre, described by some experts as one of the worst crimes against humanity since World War II.