The Blog

Iran Buries the Past

The Islamic republic bulldozes the mass graves of political victims.

11:00 PM, Feb 11, 2009 • By NIR BOMS and SHAYAN ARYA
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As preparations begin in Iran for the festivities marking the Islamic republic's 30 year anniversary, another somber Iranian anniversary is commemorated. Twenty years ago, some 10,000 political prisoners and regime opponents were brutally killed following a fatwa from then supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The executed, some as young as 15 or 16 years old, were buried in mass graves. Many of the political prisoners were affiliated with radical left-wing groups and the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (aka People's Mujahedin of Iran). Some of the prisoners were only a few weeks away from finishing their sentences and regaining their freedom when Khomeini gave his fatwa.

This year, the families' twenty-year-old wound was repopened. To celebrate the start of its fourth decade, the Islamic republic decided that it is time to erase its bloody past. Government bulldozers razed the mass grave of Khavaran, where the majority of the massacred prisoners were buried and where families had placed make-shift memorials for their loved ones. Reportedly some trees were planted over the site.

Khavaran is perhaps the most famous political grave-yard in Iran. The Islamic regime's early victims, hundreds of the late Shah's supporters, were buried by their families in cemeteries throughout Iran. Some were buried with assumed names to protect their grave sites. Khavaran is different; it was never a cemetery. It was a piece of undeveloped land next to a Baha'i cemetery, where most of the buried had been executed in 1980. Execution of political prisoners hadn't ceased in Iran a decade later.

Between August 1988 and February 1989, under the presidency of Ayatollah Khamenei, the second massive wave of executions of political prisoners occurred. In all, between August 1988 and February 1989, close to 10,000 prisoners are believed to have been killed in executions around the country. The exact number may never be known. Many of these victims are buried in Khavaran near Tehran.

Amnesty International has called for the Iranian government to cease its destruction of the graves at Khavaran and investigate the massacres that occurred there, but conducting an investigation and bringing those responsible to justice is a tall order. There is no high ranking official in the Islamic regime who was not directly involved in the massacre: from the supreme leader who served as president during the massacre to so called 'reformers' like Saeed Hajarrian, a senior political advisor to President Khatami who was a high ranking official in the Intelligence Ministry at the time. Khatami has remained silent. He has never acknowledged the massacres, let alone considered bringing those responsible to justice.

Some in Iran, however, have been willing to speak up. Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who had been a designated successor to Khomeini, was removed from political power partially because of his opposition to Khomeini's fatwa. Ayatollah Hussein Kazemayni Boroujerdi, who is in jail for openly calling for separation of religion and state, issued a message from prison: "How sad it is (to see) the official celebration and pride that government controlled official media in Iran demonstrate on the occasion of the anniversary (of the Islamic revolution) while a whole nation is drowning in an ocean of misery, prisons are overflowing with innocent prisoners, and the regime is busily building more prisons to house them." The massacre victims' families, in shock of from seeing their loved one's unmarked graves being overturned, easily identify with the dissident Ayatollah.

In his inaugural address, U.S President Barack Obama said, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." It is clear that the president had the Islamic Republic of Iran in mind when he made his remarks. Iran still has some secrets and cellars that are yet to be opened. Underground nuclear facilities may hide one story. The mass graves of Khavaran hide many others. President Obama, who is about to engage the Islamic republic, should insist on opening them all. He should do so not only out of decency towards the dead, but to secure a better future for the living.

Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and a co-founder of the CyberDissident project. Shayan Arya is an Iranian activist and a member of Constitutionalist Party of Iran .