Why and When the 1988 Massacre Happened in Iran


The clerical dictatorship in Iran, notorious for its deceit and falsehoods, constantly attempts to justify the mass murder of thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Many state officials struggle to deny or downplay their role in what some human rights experts describe as a “genocide.” And the reason is not primarily their fear of international accountability but their fear of the outrage of the Iranian people.

The impact of the 1988 massacre on the numerous families and acquaintances of the victims has turned this issue into a nationwide concern, and people are demanding answers regarding the fate of tens of thousands of Iranians across the country.

In an interview with the state-run Etemadonline on the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and its role in Iran’s society today, Javad Muguee, a documentary director close to the regime’s intelligence community, stated: “The main topic of the 2017 presidential election became the 1988 executions.”

This sentiment was also acknowledged by the state-run Rajanews on August 1, 2020: “In the 2017 presidential elections, Ayatollah Raisi’s rivals, with the help of foreign media, questioned his handling of the MEK issue by bringing up the 1988 executions. Even Hassan Rouhani indirectly referred to Ayatollah Raisi during his campaign in Urmia, stating, ‘People don’t want those who only dealt with prisons and executions.’”

The false NLA connection

In an effort to rationalize the 1988 massacre, numerous state officials and leaders have attributed the executions of MEK members to their alleged involvement in prison rebellions. They claimed that the MEK members and supporters were acting in coordination with the National Liberation Army (NLA), which had launched the “Eternal Light” military offensive and attacked Iran’s western border. This occurred during the period from July 25 to 28, 1988, when the NLA managed to penetrate approximately 170 kilometers into Iranian territory.

On September 18, 2013, the semi-official ISNA news agency quoted “Parsineh,” a student inquiry website affiliated with the regime’s Supreme Leader, as saying, “The executions were not aimed at getting rid of prisoners but rather in response to their rebellion in the prison, coinciding with the ‘Mersad Operation.’”

The Mersad Operation is the regime’s expression for Operation Eternal Light.

According to recorded testimonies by dozens of survivors of the 1988 massacre, there was never any occurrence of a rebellion, irrespective of the place of their imprisonment.

Despite the regime’s attempts to justify the massacre with these flimsy and irrational excuses, they fail to provide any specific details about the alleged prison disturbances or offer any evidence to support their claims. Moreover, the extent of the massacre across dozens of cities and counties throughout the entire country raises serious doubts about the logic behind the regime’s reasoning.

It is perplexing why the clerical dictatorship would choose to respond to a supposed rebellion or rebellions by exterminating every single member of the MEK who merely expressed loyalty to the organization. Such a widespread and indiscriminate crackdown nationwide seems disproportionate and unjustifiable.

Furthermore, the troubling aspect extends to the fact that the mass executions also targeted Marxist prisoners. This raises questions about how these executions are related to the so-called MEK-led prison rebellion, which was allegedly “synchronized with the NLA’s military operation.”

Khomeini’s fatwa

The deceptive nature of the regime’s justifications for the massacre becomes even more apparent when we examine the source of the massacre itself. Those familiar with then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini’s statements are well aware of his attempts to present himself as a sacred and caring religious figure. Despite his outward portrayal, he ordered crackdowns on various ethnic groups and political tendencies, including the Kurdish people and even liberals, while always providing religious and political justifications for his actions.

In the fatwa issued by Khomeini, which calls for the extermination of the MEK, he explicitly lays out his reasons for this decree. However, there is no mention or hint of any disturbances or unrest in a prison, let alone anything to justify the mass eradication of a political or ideological belief across the nation.

In his decree, Khomeini explicitly accuses the MEK of engaging in “classical warfare in the northern and southern fronts,” as well as “collaborating with the Baathist Party of Iraq and spying for Saddam against the Muslim nation.” Yet, there is not a single word about a full-fledged military assault that the regime’s authorities claim to have used to justify the massacre. This is simply because the fatwa was issued long before the NLA launched the “Eternal Light” offensive.

When it happened

Among the few survivors of the 1988 massacre, some individuals not only lived to tell their harrowing stories but have also returned to join the MEK. Some of these survivors gave testimonies in the Stockholm Court of Justice during the trial of Hamid Noury, a former prison guard involved in the mass executions, who was eventually convicted of crimes he committed in the summer of 1988.

According to the accounts of these survivors, the preparations for the massacre began as early as February 1988, indicating that the regime had planned to take decisive action. Mahmoud Royaei, one of the survivors who spent 10 years of his life in Ghezelhesar, Gohardasht, and Evin Prisons, shared his observations of how political prisoners were systematically categorized and segregated based on their political affiliations. This segregation aligns with Khomeini’s fatwa, which explicitly called for the execution of those who continued to support the MEK.

According to Hossein Farsi, who spent 12 years in Evin, Ghezelhesar, and Gohardasht Prisons, several months before the executions took place, there were transfers and relocations. Particularly in Gohardasht Prison, prisoners were categorized into groups based on their level of support for the MEK. Farsi himself was transferred to Gohardasht in early 1988, where he was severely tortured.

Majid Saheb Jam, a MEK member who spent 17 years in Evin, Ghezelhesar, Joint Committee, and Gohardasht prisons, revealed that the 1988 massacre was planned well in advance. According to Mr. Saheb Jam, evidence and documents indicate that from 1985 to 1987, the groundwork was being laid for the executions. Prisoners perceived to be affiliated with the MEK were categorized based on their sentences and charges before being sent to the “Death Committee” in the summer of 1988.

Gholamreza Jalal, a member of the MEK who was arrested in 1980 and released in 1986, testified that the 1988 massacre was not the beginning of the regime’s brutal path. According to him, from the outset, Khomeini aimed to eliminate all young people who resisted his rule. Prison officials began screening political prisoners in Ghezel Hesar and Gohardasht prisons, singling out those they perceived as steadfast in their beliefs. Mr. Jalal said that he and his fellow inmates were told by interrogators that no MEK member would leave the prison alive.

The living legacy

The clerical regime, marked by tyrannical rule at home and extremist terrorist activities abroad, has a notorious reputation for being dishonest. The untold truth about the 1988 massacre reveals a Supreme Leader who rejected peace initiatives with Iraq, vowing to continue a sacred war to conquer Jerusalem via Karbala and defeat Islam’s enemies.

Khomeini had always harbored the desire to annihilate the MEK as the nationwide movement that sought freedom, believed in Islam, and was the exact opposite of everything his fundamentalist regime stood for. Testimonies, statements, and facts prove that he had made the preparations for the 1988 massacre many years in advance.

He was waiting for the right moment to spring into action.

Before the massacre, the well-organized Iranian opposition army, NLA, had dealt significant blows to the regime’s low-morale troops, leaving Khomeini with a choice between inevitable defeat or personal humiliation. Khomeini likened his accepting a cease-fire with Iraq on July 18, 1988, to “drinking the chalice of poison.” Following his disgraceful retreat revealing that millions of Iranians have been killed, maimed, and displaced in vain, in response to internal challenges and to silence dissent, he ordered the annihilation of those he perceived as the greatest threat to his regime’s survival, evident in his explicit fatwa.

Despite attempts by Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, to lie about the motives behind the mass killings, the taboo of the 1988 massacre has been broken, with justice seekers gathering at the destroyed mass graves to demand accountability for this heinous crime. Three decades of deceit have failed to subdue new generations, who choose defiance over surrender and carry on the legacy of those who fought for freedom. No matter how brutal and savage the regime might be, it has already been defeated by successive generations of Iranians who have triumphed over death itself.


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