What is your political affiliation?
Are you willing to go on television to condemn members of your party?
Are you willing to fight with our armed forces against your party?
Are you willing to put a noose around the neck of an active member of your party?
Are you willing to walk through minefields to clear them for our army?
In the summer of 1988, prisoners across Iran were brought before panels of judges that asked them questions like these. Several thousand prisoners did not answer to the panels’ liking, and were hanged. Their bodies were buried in secret; relatives were forbidden from marking their graves or holding funerals.
On Friday, one of those judges may become the next president of Iran. Ebrahim Raisi, who was then the deputy prosecutor for Tehran, now enjoys the backing of Iran’s clerical establishment, its conservative press, powerful economic institutions, Elliott Abrams, and, by all indications, the Guardian Council and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. It is unclear that Raisi actually enjoys the support of a majority of voters, but in Iran that is not necessarily an obstacle to victory. And so a man implicated in what Human Rights Watch branded “a crime against humanity under international law” might take the helm of one of the world’s most consequential states.
Raisi does not look like the sort of man one would imagine in the role of mass murderer. His voice is a touch high and thin, his enunciation taut; he often looks and sounds just a little bored when speaking. His forehead frequently shines with a film of sweat, and a damp lock sometimes slips out from under his turban. People would speak of Khomeini’s “merciless black eyes” and their piercing gaze; Raisi looks a bit like Droopy. And the accounts of the judges on the infamous death panels of 1988 often have a bland, bureaucratic air—while the jailers were torturing, raping, beating and staging mock executions, the judges are often seen conferring or ticking boxes on forms; the prisoners quickly became suspicious of their mild conduct. “The interrogators’ reactions made them uneasy,” reports the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center’s Deadly Fatwa: Iran's 1988 Prison Massacre. “When a prisoner admitted to disagreeing with the Islamic Republic’s philosophy or raised another contentious issue, instead of getting angry and making threats as in the past, the interrogators encouraged the prisoners to continue speaking their minds.” Raisi is not Hitler but Eichmann, a Schreibtischtäter—desk murderer.
There are some today, even beyond the regime’s supporters, who will defend or at least minimize the guilt of the 1988 hangings. Many of the victims were members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, Islamists with a Marxisant flair who had helped overthrow the shah (killing a few Americans before his fall) but then fallen out with Khomeini’s camp. The MEK then engaged in an assassination campaign, killing a number of senior regime officials (including the president, prime minister and chief justice) and wounding future president and supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who permanently lost the use of his right hand. The Mujahedeen then aligned themselves with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the summer of 1988, as that war was beginning to wind down, they invaded Iran. The attack was a disaster, cut to pieces within days. In this context, some of the massacre’s apologists argue that the killings were typical stuff for wartime—an almost understandable, perhaps even necessary measure against national enemies in a time of crisis.
The historical record contradicts this view. Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was one of the most senior figures in the regime at the time and who had lost a son to an MEK bomb, repeatedly confronted the death panel about its conduct even in the midst of Iran’s crisis. A tape of one of these meetings, at which Raisi was present, was released late last year; in the tape, Montazeri called the executions “the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic. History will condemn us for what was done at your hands, and your names will be recorded among history’s criminals.” He worried that posterity would, due to their actions, view Khomeini as “bloodthirsty.”
Montazeri may have been right: the executions were, according to the premier historian of the period, unnecessary, and may have been a power play by Khomeini. In a recent interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Princeton professor Ervand Abrahamian was asked why Khomeini issued the fatwa that led to the killings:
One interpretation is that he wanted to empty out the overcrowded prisons, but he could have done that by releasing the prisoners. Another interpretation is that the regime was so insecure, that it saw the executions as a way get rid of the opposition, to improve its security. But that doesn’t make sense either because the regime had basically just concluded the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and this was a time of relief, with no upsurge by the opposition.
Since there was no upsurge, we arrive at the interpretation that this was a way for the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, to really cement who was 100 percent behind the regime. By doing something as outrageous as the horrendous executions, he could divide the half-hearted, from the liberal, to the solid supporters of the regime.
Indeed, many of those executed were not hard-core fighters, but people who had been picked up years before for minor offenses, or people who had completed their sentences. Many were not even linked to the MEK. It was naked, willful, pointless injustice.
Khomeini, argues Abrahamian, “clearly . . . wanted the executions, so he appointed hardliners. He must have thought Raisi was a good person for that.” Indeed, Raisi passed the test with flying colors. Abrahamian notes that only one of the death panelists—not Raisi—“tried to bend the rules to save some people.”
And so thousands went to their deaths. Accounts from prisoners who survived are horrifying. One told the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (which put Raisi’s photo on the cover of a 2009 collection of witness statements) that “the intensity of the executions was so much that it affected the guards themselves. Even the cruel torturers, who had been tormenting and executing prisoners for years, were astonished by this level of cruelty and barbarity. Hajj Amjad, a guard . . . famous for his short temper and brutality, became unbelievably quiet and introverted after the carnage.”
Another prisoner, a member of the Tudeh Party, was beaten until she agreed to accept Islam, and then mocked by one of the panelists:
The day I finally said that I believed in Islam was a very painful day for me. I had lost my pride. If the whippings had continued, I would have surely lost my life. But I did not want to die defeated. I did not want to die like that. My urine was bloody and I was not in good physical condition. I remember when they untied me from my bed. I slowly dragged myself up the stairs and was about to enter my room when Naserian saw me and said, ‘You poor wretch! You are so stupid. If you had given in on the first day you wouldn’t have to crawl on all fours in front of me!’ I can’t forget that moment. I was wearing a chador. I was blindfolded and gagged. I was teary-eyed and bloody. Fluids were running from my mouth and nose. I was crying. And on the other end, they were laughing and making fun of me.
Other prisoners speak of seeing empty cell after empty cell in once-jammed prison wards, of realizing that the dozens of thumping noises they heard outside the prison building every night were bodies being loaded onto trucks, of the stench of rotting corpses. The relatives of victims recount days and weeks of growing dread as prisons went on lockdown and rumors began to circulate; often, they would be summoned to the prison and told that their loved one had been executed, but then would not be given correct information about where to collect the body. A desperate search would follow—one woman told Amnesty International how “groups of bodies, some clothed, some in shrouds, had been buried in unmarked shallow graves in the section of the cemetery reserved for executed leftist political prisoners. The stench of the corpses was appalling but I started digging with my hands because it was important for me and my two little children that I locate my husband's grave.”
There has been no suggestion that Raisi, if elected, will embark on another campaign of mass killings (although he did recently, in defense of his record, say that “my past was driving the ominous shadow of terrorism from the country,” in apparent reference to the executions). Iran will likely remain a world leader in executions regardless of who wins.
If anything, the choice—or really, the lack thereof—on Friday is a reminder of how deeply the regime was implicated in the crimes of 1988. President Hassan Rouhani could do no better than to indirectly allude to the fact that his opponent had been involved in executions; photos promptly circulated of Revolution-era newspaper clippings in which Rouhani praised earlier waves of executions. Rouhani recently won the vote of Mehdi Karroubi, now a reformist icon held under house arrest by the regime; Karroubi appears in Amnesty International’s 1990 report on the prison massacres, saying, “We have already sent so many people to the gallows because they were apostates and enemies of God, and we did it rightly. Now let us send two lots of capitalists to the gallows,” and adding, “It does not matter whether it [execution] solves the problem or not.” The Amnesty report, analyzing Karroubi’s comment, adds, “In some quarters in Iran the death penalty seems to have acquired the status of a virtue in itself.” And Rouhani’s own minister of justice, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, is arguably even more deeply implicated in the 1988 massacres than Raisi, having served as the intelligence ministry’s representative to the death panels.