1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners

1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners

The 1988 executions of political prisoners in Iran (Persian: ۱۳۶۷ اعدام زندانیان سیاسی در تابستان) refers to the systematic execution of thousands of political prisoners across Iran by the government, starting on 19 July 1988 and lasting about five months. The majority of the prisoners killed were supporters of the People's Mujahedin of Iran, although thousands of supporters of other leftist groups, including the Fedaian and the Tudeh Party of Iran (Communist Party), were also executed.[1][2]

The killings have been called "an act of violence unprecedented in Iranian history — unprecedented in form, content, and intensity."[3] The exact number of prisoners executed remains unclear. Amnesty International recorded the names of over 4,482 political prisoners reportedly killed during this time,[4] but Iranian opposition groups suggest that the number of prisoners executed was far higher, and as many as 30,000 prisoners may have been executed.[5][6]

Great care was taken to keep the killings secret, and the government of Iran denies their having taken place, but with the large scale of the operation word leaked out from survivors. Explanations offered for why the prisoners were killed vary. Perhaps the most common is that it was in retaliation for the 1988 attack on the western borders of Iran by the PMOI Mujahedin, although this happened months after the executions had begun and does not explain the executions of members of other leftist groups who opposed the Mujahedin invasion.[7]


The executions

Khomeini's order

Shortly before the executions commenced, Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued "a secret but extraordinary order - some suspect a formal fatwa." This set up "Special Commissions with instructions to execute members of People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran as moharebs (those who war against God) and leftists as mortads (apostates from Islam)."[8]

In part the letter read:

«از آنجا که منافقین خائن به هیچ وجه به اسلام معتقد نبوده و هر چه میگویند از روی حیله و نفاق آنهاست و به اقرار سران آنها از اسلام ارتداد پیدا کردهاند، با توجه به محارب بودن آنها و جنگ کلاسیک آنها در شمال و غرب و جنوب کشور با همکاریهای حزب بعث عراق و نیز جاسوسی آنها برای صدام علیه ملت مسلمان ما و با توجه به ارتباط آنان با استکبار جهانی و ضربات ناجوانمردانهٔ آنان از ابتدای تشکیل نظام جمهوری اسلامی تا کنون، کسانی که در زندانهای سراسر کشور بر سر موضع نفاق خود پافشاری کرده و میکنند، محارب و محکوم به اعدام میباشند.» (رضایی و سلیمی نمین، پاسداشت حقیقت:147)



  1. PMOI members do not believe in Islam, while pretending otherwise.
  2. Due to their systematic military war in the northern, western and southern Iranian borders ...
  3. Due to their cooperation with Saddam Hussein in war against Iran ...
  4. Due to spying against Iran ...
  5. Due to their connections with Western powers ([acting against Iran's independence]) ...
all those jailed PMOI members who continue supporting PMOI and its positions are considered militant enemies and need to be executed."

Administering of the executions

In Tehran the special commission for the executions had 16 members representing the various authorities of the Islamic government - Imam Khomeini himself, the president, the chief prosecutor, the Revolutionary Tribunals, the Ministries of Justice and Intelligence, and the administration of Evin and Gohar Dasht, the two prisons in the Tehran area from which the prisoner were eliminated. The chair of the commission was Ayatollah Eshraqi. His two special assistants were Hojatt al-Islam Nayeri and Hojjat al-Islam Mobasheri. The commission shuttled back and forth between Evin and Gohar Dasht prisons by helicopter. In the provinces similar commissions were established, but less is known about them.[8]

The prisoners were not executed without any proceedings, but were "tried" on charges totally unrelated to the charges that had landed them in prison. They were interviewed by commissions with a set list of questions to see if they qualified as moharebs or mortads to the satisfaction of that commission. Many, if not most, of the prisoners were unaware of the true purpose of the questions, although later some were warned by the prison grapevine.

The victims were killed because of their beliefs about religion – because they were atheists or because they were Muslims who followed different versions of islam.

Isolation of the prisoners

Some scholarly examinations of the massacre argue that the planning stages of the 1988 Massacre began months before the actual executions started. According to one report: "prison officials took the unusual step in late 1987 and early 1988 of re-questioning and separating all political prisoners according to party affiliation and length of sentence."[10] The actual execution process began in the early hours of 19 July 1988 with the isolation of the political prisoners from the outside world. Prison gates were closed, scheduled visits and telephone calls were canceled, letters, care packages, and even vital medicines from the outside were turned away, the main law courts went on an unscheduled vacation. Even relatives of prisoners were forbidden to congregate outside the prison gates.

Inside the prison, cell blocks were isolated from each other and cleared of radios and televisions. Places where prisoners gathered communally, such as lecture halls, workshops, infirmaries, were all closed down and inmates were confined to their cells. Prison guards and workers were ordered not to speak to prisoners. One prisoner constructed a homemade wireless set to listen to the radio news from the outside but found news broadcasters were saying nothing at all about the lockdown.[11]

Dealing with the Mojahedin

The first prisoners to be interviewed or "tried" were the male Mojahedin, including those who had repented of their association with the group. The commission prefaced the proceedings with the false assurance that this was not a trial but a process for initiating a general amnesty and separating the Muslims from the non-Muslims. It first asked their organizational affiliation. If they replied 'Mojahedin', the questioning ended there. If they replied 'monafeqin' (hypocrites), the commission continued with such questions

  • 'Are you willing to denounce former colleagues?'
  • 'Are you willing to denounce them in front of the cameras?'
  • 'Are you willing to help us hunt them down?'
  • 'Will you name secret sympathizers?'
  • 'Will you identify phony repenters?'
  • 'Will you go to the war front and walk through enemy minefields?'

Not surprisingly almost all the prisoners failed to answer in the affirmative to all the questions. These were then taken to another room and ordered to write their last will and testament and to discard any personal belongings such as rings, watches, and spectacles. They were then blindfolded and taken to the gallows where they were hanged in batches of six. Since "hanging" did not mean death by breaking of the neck by drop through a trap door, but stringing up the victim by the neck to suffocate, "some took fifteen minutes to die. After the first few days, the overworked executioners requested firing squads. These requests were rejected on the claim that the sharia mandated hanging for apostates and enemies of God, though it is thought that the real reason may have been that the hanging was quieter than gunfire and would better preserve the secrecy of the operation.

At first this secrecy was effective. "One survivor admits that he thought he was being processed to be released in time for the forthcoming peace celebrations."[12]

Dealing with leftists

After August 27, the commission turned its attention to the leftist prisoners - members of the Tudeh, Majority Fedayi, Minority Fedayi, other Fedayi, Kumaleh, Rah-e Kargar, Peykar, etc. These were also assured they were in no danger and asked:[citation needed]

  • 'Are you a Muslim?'
  • 'Do you believe in God?'
  • 'Is the Holy Koran the Word of God?'
  • 'Do you believe in Heaven and Hell?'
  • 'Do you accept the Holy Muhammad to be the Seal of the Prophets?'
  • 'Will you publicly recant historical materialism?'
  • 'Will you denounce your former beliefs before the cameras?'
  • 'Do you fast during Ramadan?'
  • 'Do you pray and read the Holy Koran?'
  • 'Would you rather share a cell with a Muslim or a non-Muslim?'
  • 'Will you sign an affidavit that you believe in God, the Prophet, the Holy Koran, and the Resurrection?'
  • 'When you were growing up did your father pray, fast, and read the Holy Koran?'

Prisoners were told that authorities were asking them these questions because they planned to separate practicing Muslims from non-practicing ones. However, the real reason was to determine whether the prisoners qualified as apostates from Islam, in which case they would join the moharebs in the gallows.

Some prisoners saved from execution by answering the questions properly returned to their cells and passed along what the commission was asking. A leftist prisoner "who had at one time attended a seminary quickly grasped the theological significance of the questions" and "spent the night of August 30 sending morse code messages to other cells" by knocking on the prison walls. He pointed "out the hidden dangers." The questioners wanted to know why prisoners' fathers prayed, fasted, and read the Koran because the sons of those fathers who had not could not be called apostates. If they had not been raised in proper Muslim homes first and "exposed to true Islam," they could not be apostates. Another wrong answer was refusing to answer "on the grounds of 'privacy,'" which "could itself be taken as an admission of 'apostasy.'"[13]

All this was a surprise to the prisoners, one commenting, 'In previous years, they wanted us to confess to spying. In 1988, they wanted us to convert to Islam.'[14] It also meant there was no correlation between the length of sentence being served and the likelihood of death. "The first leftist to go before the Evin commission were those with light, and even completed, sentences." These had no warning of what was in store and many died.

Dealing with women

Mojahedin women were given equal treatment with Mojahedin men, almost all hanged as 'armed enemies of God.' However, for apostasy the punishment for women was different and lighter than that for men. Since according to the commission's interpretation of Islamic law, women were not fully responsible for their actions, "disobedient women - including apostates - could be given discretionary punishments to mend their ways and obey male superiors." Leftist women - even those raised as practicing Muslims - were given another 'opportunity' to reconsider their 'apostasy.' "After the investigation, leftist women were all given five lashes for every prayer missed [5 a day], half that meted out to the men. After a while, many agreed to pray. Some went on hunger strike - refusing even water. One died after 22 days and 550 lashes. The authorities certified her death as suicide - after all, it was 'she who had made the decision not to pray.'"[15]


According to Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, executed prisoner's families were told: 'For one year you shall refrain from holding a funeral, or mourning his death in any public way. If after one year your conduct is deemed acceptable, we will reveal to you his place of burial.' The justification given to these families for the execution of their loved ones was that the prisoner's name had appeared on notes pinned to PMOI members killed in the Mersad attack whose bodies had been recovered by Iranian Islamic officials. The notes listing the PMOI's supporters' in prison so the prisoners had been guilty of aiding the attack. Ebadi complained that aside from being improbable, this did not explain why the prisoners had not received a trial for the charge of giving support to the enemy.[16] A report by Geoffrey Robertson QC accused Tehran of continuing to deny relatives of the victims their right to know where their loved ones are buried.[17]

Estimates of fatalities

One anonymous ex-prisoner places the death toll in the 'thousands.' Another eyewitness puts in between 5000 and 6000 — 1000 from the left and the rest from the Mojahedin.[18] Yet another estimates it in the 'thousands', with as many as 1500 killed at Gohar Dasht prison alone.[19] A recent study using scattered information from the provinces places the figure at 12,000.[20] Amnesty International estimates that the national total is more than 2500 and describes the vast majority of the victims as 'prisoners of conscience' as they had not been charged with actual deeds or plans of deeds against the state.[21]

It is extremely difficult to get an accurate number since many killings were carried out in remote Kurdish and Azeri cities. It could be as high as 25,000 according to some Kurdish scholars.[citation needed] It is estimated that most of the executed were either high school or college students or fresh graduates, and over 10% were women.[22]



One of the consequences of the killings was the resignation of Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri as the heir-designate to Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of Iran. Prior to the killings, Montazeri "had taken issue with the diehard cleric on a number of subjects - the trial of Mehdi Hashemi, the anti-hoarding campaign ..." When he heard of the killings Montazeri rushed off three public letters - two to Khomeini, one to the Special Commission - denouncing the executions "in no uncertain terms." He also took the Special Commission "to task for violating Islam by executing repenters and minor offenders who in a proper court of law would have received a mere reprimand."[23]

Montazeri was asked to resign, with Khomeini maintaining he had always been doubtful of Montazeri's competence and that 'I expressed reservations when the Assembly of Experts first appointed you.'" But the Assembly of Experts had insisted on naming Montazeri the future Supreme Leader.[24]

The regime published letters between the two Ayatollahs but "the selection dealt only with the Hashemi affair and scrupulously avoided the mass executions - thus observing the official line that these executions never took place."[25]

Other criticism

One complaint made against the mass killings was that almost all the prisoners executed had been arrested for relatively minor offenses, since those with serious charges had already been executed. The 1988 killings resembled the 'disappearances' of prisoners in 20th century Latin America.[26]

According to Kaveh Shahrooz, writing in Gozaar, a publication sponsored by Freedom House, "it is baffling that two of the world's most powerful human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have simply never written full reports on a crime as widespread as the 1988 extermination campaign."[27]

While Amnesty International's report "Iran: Violations of Human Rights 1987-1990" published in 1990 devotes a few pages to the massacre, the human rights organization has never written a full report on the killings.[4] The Amnesty International report states:

The political executions took place in many prisons in all parts of Iran, often far from where the armed incursion took place. Most of the executions were of political prisoners, including an unknown number of prisoners of conscience, who had already served a number of years in prison. They could have played no part in the armed incursion, and they were in no position to take part in spying or terrorist activities. Many of the dead had been tried and sentenced to prison terms during the early 1980s, many for non-violent offences such as distributing newspapers and leaflets, taking part in demonstrations or collecting funds for prisoners' families. Many of the dead had been students in their teens or early twenties at the time of their arrest. The majority of those killed were supporters of the PMOI, but hundreds of members and supporters of other political groups, including various factions of the PFOI, the Tudeh Party, the KDPI, Rah-e Kargar and others, were also among the execution victims.[4]

Similarly, Human Rights Watch devotes a mere handful of pages to the massacre in a background report concerning President Ahmadinejad's cabinet picks.[28]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described the executions as "deliberate and systematic ... extrajudicial killings," and has condemned them as crimes against humanity. HRW has also accused Mustafa Pour-Mohammadi, Iran's Interior Minister from 2005–2008, of direct involvement in the killings.[28]

UN Judge and leading human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC has urged the UN Security Council to set up a special court, along the lines of the International Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to try the men involved “for one of the worst single human rights atrocities since the Second World War.”[17]


Scholars disagree over why the prisoners were killed. Ali Akbar Mahdi believes the intense overcrowding of Iranian prisons and the July 1988 Mojahedin Operation Mersad offensive "had much to do" with the massacre.[29] Ervand Abrahamian believes the "regime's internal dynamics" were responsible - the need for "a glue" to hold "together his disparate followers" and a "bloodbath" to "purge" moderates like Montazeri and prevent any future "détente with the West" from destroying his legacy.[30] In particular the killings destroyed any ties, or possibility of ties, between populists in the Khomeini movement on the one hand, and non-Khomeiniist Islamist and secular leftists on the other. Khomeini had been concerned that "some of his followers had toyed with the dangerous notion of working with the Tudeh Party to incorporate more radical clauses into the Labor Law as well as into the Land Reform Law" earlier.[31]

See also

References and notes

  1. ^ Iranian party demands end to repression
  2. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, University of California Press, 1999, 209-228
  3. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), 210
  4. ^ a b c http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE13/021/1990/en/5c32759d-ee5e-11dd-9381-bdd29f83d3a8/mde130211990en.html
  5. ^ Memories of a slaughter in Iran
  6. ^ Khomeini fatwa 'led to killing of 30,000 in Iran'
  7. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), 218
  8. ^ a b Abrahamian, Ervand, Tortured Confessions, University of California Press, 1999, p.210
  9. ^ Pasdasht e Haghighat by Mohsen Rezaee and Abbas Salimi-Namin. Page 147. 2002
  10. ^ Kaveh Sharooz, "With Revolutionary Rage and Rancor: A Preliminary Report on the 1988 Massacre of Iran's Political Prisoners", Harvard Human Rights Journal, Volume 20, p.233
  11. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.209-10
  12. ^ 'Interview with Two Survivors of the Mass Killings,' Ettehad-e Kar 41 (August 1997), quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.212
  13. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.212
  14. ^ Editorial, 'The Islamic Law of Repentance,' Aksariyat 18 May 1989] quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.212-3
  15. ^ E. Mahbaz (pseudonym, 'The Islamic Republic of Iran - The Hell for women: Seven Years in Prison" (unpublished paper, 1996), quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.215
  16. ^ Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House New York, 2006, p.87, 88
  17. ^ a b . http://www.doughtystreet.co.uk/files/Iran%20Massacre%20Report.pdf. 
  18. ^ Anonymous, 'I Was Witness to the Slaughter of Political Prisoners in Gohar Dasht,' Cheshmandaz, n.14 (Winter 1995): 68, quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.212
  19. ^ K. Homayun, 'The Slaughter at Gohar Dasht', Kar 62, (April 1992), quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.212
  20. ^ N. Mohajer, 'The Mass Killings in Iran' Aresh 57 (August 1996): 7, quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.212
  21. ^ Amnesty International. Iran: Violations of Human Rights, 1987-1990 (London, 1991) 12
  22. ^ Ebadi, Shirin, Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Random House New York, 2006, p.90-1
  23. ^ Editor, 'Montazeri's Letters,' Cheshmandaz, n.6 (Summer 1989), 35-37, quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.220
  24. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.220
  25. ^ Ranjnameh-e Hazrat Hojjat al-Islam va al-Muslman Aqa-ye Hajj Sayyed Ahmad Khomeini beh Hazrat Ayatollah Montazeri (Tehran, 1990), quoted in Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.220
  26. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.217
  27. ^ Twenty Years of Silence: The 1988 Massacre and the Quest for Accountability, Gozaar
  28. ^ a b HRW - Pour-Mohammadi and the 1988 Prison Massacres
  29. ^ Review by Ali Akbar Mahdi of Tortured Confessions: Prison and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, in International Journal of Middle East Studies © 2000, p.417
  30. ^ Abrahamian, Tortured Confessions, (1999), p.219
  31. ^ Abrahamian, Ervand, History of Modern Iran, Columbia University Press, 2008, p.182

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