Why Iran’s 1988 massacre is a crime against humanity |

In the investigation of the 1988 massacre and the reports of prisoners being relocated with gross violations of human rights, such as “physical and psychological torture” using various inhumane methods, as well as “systematic execution and crimes” against prisoners, we encounter two characteristics of crimes against humanity.

In the ethical teachings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, natural rights are synonymous with justice, and the violation of these rights is considered a crime. International law, which is derived from these teachings, asserts that in any crime, anywhere in the world, it is humanity that is harmed. In other words, crimes have global implications. Based on this understanding, international criminal courts were established in Nuremberg, Tokyo, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia to prosecute crimes against humanity.

The 1988 massacre is not exempt from being included in this category.

What are crimes against humanity?

A crime against humanity refers to violent acts that undermine human dignity. It includes state-sponsored oppressions to eliminate dissenters. It is also applied to extensive operations aimed at the extermination of specific groups. In other words, it involves systematic actions committed by perpetrators to destroy a group, involving torture, indignity, political, racial, or religious killings. Massacres, group extermination, enslavement, forced exile, persecution, political, racial or religious killings, as well as internal and state-sponsored political and governmental killings of people within a country and other inhumane act, all fall under the category of crimes against humanity.

Initially, crimes against humanity were considered part of war crimes. The Armenian genocide in 1915 changed this perspective. Since then, crimes against humanity have been distinguished in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Charters and later in the courts of Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court.

Four criteria determine the classification of a crime as a crime against humanity:

  1. The crime is committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack, affecting many victims.
  2. The attack targets a civilian population. In this definition, even if among 100 individuals, 10 are military personnel, they are still considered civilians under the definition as long as they were not engaged in armed conflict.
  3. The attack is carried out pursuant to a state or organizational policy.
  4. The perpetrators are aware of the crime being committed and are fully aware of their actions.

With this definition, the killing of 30,000 defenseless political prisoners in the summer of 1988 is considered a crime against humanity in every aspect. In the summer of 1988, a systematic and planned massacre by the government was carried out with the aim of exterminating political prisoners, resulting in 30,000 executions. These individuals, during the mass executions, were not military personnel. Some of them had been through so-called state courts and served their sentences.

This massacre was conducted with a clear plan, program, and policy based on a fatwa issued by then–regime supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Hence, its scope not only affected the prisoners of the 1980s, not just political prisoners in general, not just the Iranian generation(s), but it wounded all of humanity. It has far-reaching consequences.

Conformity of the 1988 massacre with the criteria of crimes against humanity

Based on the issued order, political prisoners have been collectively executed under the charges of supporting or being members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), and due to their allegiance to their beliefs:

1- The 1988 massacre was part of a widespread or systematic attack and resulted in the death of 30,000 victims. It was premeditated, and the highest authorities of the ruling regime, including Khomeini himself, were informed and approved its implementation. In clearer terms, it was not a reaction to a military operation by the MEK or an ordinary feud that occurred in regular conflicts. Instead, it displayed distinct organization, systematic planning, and continuity.

2- This attack targeted individuals who were not engaged in armed confrontations. According to the statements of religious jurists and prosecutors of this regime, the verdict for those arrested on the scene of armed clashes was execution on the spot, and the case did not proceed to prisons or formal courts.

Verdicts and quotes

Mohammadi Gilani, the religious judge under Khomeini in the 1980s ordered:

“A mohareb (an enemy of God) cannot have his repentance accepted after arrest. The punishment is the same as determined by the Quran. They should be killed in the most severe way, hanged in the most embarrassing manner. Their right hand and left foot should be amputated. Islam allows the arrest of those who engage in armed demonstrations on the streets and shoot them on the spot, right there next to the wall. According to the principles of jurisprudence, it is not necessary to bring them before a fair trial. Since they were mohareb… Islam does not allow the wounded bodies of these criminals to be taken to hospitals; they should be executed. Islam allows it, even if they lose their lives under torture, nobody is held accountable, as it is Imam’s fatwa.”

Hossein Moussavi Tabrizi, the prosecutor of revolutionary courts in the years 1981 to 1984: “One of the decrees of the Islamic Republic is that anyone who stands against the state and its righteous Imam must be killed. Their captives must be executed; their wounded must be wounded even more severely until he is killed.”

3- The 1988 massacre was carried out to implement the regime’s policy of annihilating its political and ideological opponents. This policy continues to this day.

Khomeini speaks in such a general manner about his opponents and the MEK that it seems they have no human rights, and their punishment is an eternal and everlasting harsh retribution, including dreadful tortures and death:

“Opposition to this government is opposition to the divine law; uprising against the divine law. Uprising against the government based on divine law has its punishment in our law, in our jurisprudence, and its punishment is severe. I warn those who imagine that they can act against this government or that God does not want them to rise against it, I declare to them that their punishment is severe in Islamic jurisprudence. Insurrection against the government of God is a revolt against God; insurrection against God is blasphemy” (Sahifeh Khomeini, Vol. 6, p. 59).

He establishes this decree and considers it applicable indefinitely. His successors have turned this issued decree into law to make it enforceable regarding future cases as well.

According to Article 186 of the Islamic Republic’s Penal Code:

“Any group or association that engages in armed uprising against the Islamic government, as long as its central core exists, all its members and supporters who acknowledge its position and actively contribute to advancing its goals shall be considered as mohareb (enemies of God), even if they are not involved in the military branch.”

4- The perpetrators and agents of the 1988 massacre, including Hamid Noury, were fully aware that they were committing a crime and were fully informed about it. On July 25, 2019, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a member of the Death Commission, confessed to the crime in an impudent and demanding tone during an interview with Mossalas and seeks further retaliation against the MEK:

“We haven’t settled the score yet, and after settling the score, we will respond to these accusations. We’re not kidding. They have to come and answer for their treacheries and crimes… All the hypocrites are criminals and must be tried in court… They must be sentenced to the harshest punishment.”

In his decree, Khomeini labeled the MEK as hypocrites and issued a mass execution order against them. To emphasize this decree, he added:

“Mercy for the mohareb is naivety. The decisiveness of Islam against the enemies of God is an undeniable principle of the Islamic system. I hope that with your revolutionary rage and hatred towards the enemies of Islam, you will gain the satisfaction of God Almighty.”


“Anyone who is engaged in hypocrisy [affiliated with the MEK] at any stage must be sentenced to execution.”

Even in his will, Khomeini does not refrain from threatening the MEK with death:

“The decree of the God Almighty has determined your responsibility. Turn back and repent. If you have the courage, accept your punishment and save yourself from the severe punishment of the God Almighty, or else do not waste your life any further.”

These facts leave no doubt that the 1988 massacre was a premeditated and thoroughly planned crime against humanity. After decades of silence, it is time for the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice.


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