Enforced disappearances ongoing in Iran, while world turns a blind eye

As the world marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30, we call on the international community to end three decades of impunity for the clerical regime’s leaders in Iran and launch an international mission to investigate the 1988 massacre in Iran.

The Iranian authorities’ continued failure to disclose the fate and whereabouts of thousands of political dissidents who were forcibly disappeared and extra-judicially executed in secret during Iran’s 1988 prison massacres has sparked a crisis that for decades has been largely overlooked by the international community, said Amnesty International on August 28 in the lead-up to the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Thousands of the victims’ deaths remain unregistered and, across the country, there are thousands of missing bodies buried in unidentified mass graves. For more than 30 years, the Iranian authorities have failed to officially acknowledge the existence of these mass graves and concealed their locations causing immeasurable suffering to families who are still seeking answers about their missing loved ones, AI added.

There’s no crime crueler than the “disappearance” of a human being. Enforced disappearances are a tool of terror with a devastating impact that strikes not just individuals and their families, but entire societies leaving scars that are very difficult to heal. This is why they are a crime under international law, and if committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population, they constitute a crime against humanity.

For most relatives of the disappeared, the loss of the loved one continues to feel recent, even when logic tells them that the person is most likely dead. So long as there’s uncertainty, there will be hope. So long as there’s hope, they remain trapped in a torturous limbo, unable to mourn or move on with their lives. For parents in particular, abandoning hope feels like a betrayal, like they are killing their own child.

enforced disappearances
Families of victims of enforced disappearances in Khavaran Cemetery which is the site of several mass graves

The late UN Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, included in her report the complaints of families regarding the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners.

According to international law, the crime of enforced disappearance persists until the state reveals the fate or whereabouts of the victim, if the disappeared person is dead, the state must return the remains of the victim to his/her family.

Prosecution of families seeking the truth

Enforced disappearance is among the worst violations of human rights. People are snatched from their families by state officials or others acting on their behalf, who subsequently deny the person is in their custody or refuse to say where they are. Families are thus plunged into a state of anguish, desperately trying to keep their hope alive while fearing the worst.

Many Iranian families have been trapped in this limbo more than three decades after the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Families and relatives are not able to learn the truth and seek justice while many of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes hold senior government positions. Those who have dared to do so have faced consequences.

Maryam Akbari-Monfared was arrested in December 2009, and later sentenced to 15 years in prison. The judge told her that she would have to pay the price for her siblings who were executed in 1988 by the regime for their opposition.

In February 2017 while in detention, Maryam Akbari-Monfared filed a complaint with the UN, urging help to find out the truth about the fate of her siblings, Roghieh and Abdolreza, executed in the wave of killings in 1988. The Iranian regime verbally informed the family of the execution of their children, but never revealed their places of burial.

Roghieh Akbari Monfared
Roghieh Akbari Monfared

The UN Working Group on Involuntarily and Enforced Disappearances (WGIED) has recognized Roghieh and Abdolreza Akbari-Monfared as victims of enforced disappearances.

Raheleh Rahemipour, 65, has been sentenced by Tehran’s Revolutionary Court to one year in prison on April 9, 2019, on the charge of “propagating against the state.”  

Raheleh Rahemipour holding her brother’s picture

As the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances started to look into her complaint and inquired the Iranian authorities about her brother and niece, the regime began pressuring and harassing her.

Ms. Rahemipour’s brother, Hossein Rahemipour, a dentist, was arrested along with his pregnant wife in 1983. In spring of 1984, the Rahemipour family was informed that the child, Golrou, was born in Evin Prison but had later died. In late summer of the same year, Hossein was executed. His death was announced to his family by phone.

Ali Saremi was arrested and imprisoned in 2007 for speaking to a gathering of families of victims of enforced disappearances in the 1988 massacre at Khavaran Cemetery, the site of some of the mass graves where the victims were buried. Mr. Saremi was later executed in 2011.

The cases of enforced disappearances in Iran are not limited to the 1980s. The ruling regime persists with the practice.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recently recognized the cases of Kurdish political prisoners Ms. Shirin Alam Holi, Farzad Kamangar, Ali Heidarian and Farhad Vakili executed in 2010, as enforced disappearances since their bodies were never turned in to their families and the regime has continued to conceal the truth regarding their executions and burial. The WGEID is now asking Iran’s authorities to submit evidence to determine the details of their fates and whereabouts.

Shirin Alam Holi
Shirin Alam Holi

In its December 2018 report, “Blood-soaked secrets,” Amnesty International said by continuing to systematically conceal the fate and whereabouts of victims of the secret extrajudicial killings of 1988 in Iran, Iranian authorities are committing the ongoing crime against humanity of enforced disappearance. The Iranian authorities have an obligation under international law to investigate these ongoing crimes and to provide victims with truth, justice and reparations. In any case of a death, the authorities have a duty to issue a death certificate, setting out accurately the date, location and cause of death. However, for victims of the secret extrajudicial killings of 1988 this has not happened in thousands of cases, the AI stressed in its report. 

The Iranian regime has not only not returned the bodies of any of the victims of the 1988 massacre to their families and refused to provide the whereabouts of their bodies, but they have made efforts on numerous instances to raze the mass graves, build constructions over them, and eliminate any trace of their crime against humanity.

Faces of the victims

Thousands of young women were among the estimated 30,000 political prisoners massacred in 1988 in Iran, many of whom were victims of involuntary or enforced disappearances. Following are brief introductions to only a handful of them:

Monireh Rajavi
Monireh Rajavi

Monireh Rajavi, mother of two young girls, was executed in the 1988 massacre for having family relationship with the leader of the Iranian Resistance, Massoud Rajavi. She was his younger sister and did not have any political activity. She served six years in prison before being killed and stands as the symbol of innocence of the victims of the 1988 massacre.

Maliheh Aghvami
Maliheh Aghvami

Maliheh Aghvami, 26, was raped before execution. Virgin young women were systematically raped before execution to prevent them from entering Heaven. She was reportedly executed on October 7, 1988, after which a young member of the paramilitary Bassij referred to her parent’s house, introducing himself as their bridegroom and handing them a box of sweets and 500 toumans as dowry of their executed daughter.

Nasrin Shojaii
Nasrin Shojaii

Nasrin Shojaii was also raped before being executed in 1988 in Isfahan.

Azam Nasabi
Azam Nasabi

Azam Nassabi from Kermanshah was 28 at the time of execution on August 27, 1988, in Gohardasht Prison in Karaj.

Ashraf Ahmadi

Ashraf Ahmadi was 47 and mother four children. She delivered her first child in the Shah’s prison, and her last one in the mullahs’ prisons. She had been in prison for seven years when executed on July 31, 1988.

Zahra Bijanyar
Zahra Bijanyar

Zahra Bijanyar was 24 and two months pregnant when she was arrested and sentenced to 10 years for her support of the PMOI. Bijanyar lost her baby three months after her arrest. She was kept in the residential unit of Ghezel Hesar where she was frequently raped and tortured according to her sister.

Farahnaz Zarfchi
Farahnaz Zarfchi
Fatemeh Zareii
Fatemeh Zareii

Farahnaz Zarfchi and Fatemeh Zareii were executed during the 1988 massacre after serving seven years in prison, each.

Fariba Dashti
Fariba Dashti
Fazilat Allameh
Fazilat Allameh

Fariba Dashti and Fazilat Allameh was executed in summer 1988 after serving seven years in prison.

Shekar Mohammadzadeh
Shekar Mohammadzadeh

Shekar Mohammadzadeh, 32 and a nurse, was executed after seven years in prison in summer 1988.

Sakineh Delfi
Sakineh Delfi

Sekineh Delfi was born in Abadan, Iran, in 1962. She was one of the first victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners who was buried together with seven other Mojahedin (PMOI/MEK) political prisoners behind the Ahvaz steel industry open lands and their mass graves were covered with a 30-centimeter deep cement to prevent access to their severely tortured and mutilated bodies.