“It is naive to show mercy to those who wage war on God. I hope that with your revolutionary rage and rancor toward the enemies of Islam, you can satisfy the Almighty.”

Ayatollah Khomeini, letter ordering the execution of political prisoners


In late July 1988, the National Liberation Army of Iran, the military wing of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, launched an armed incursion — Operation Eternal Light — into Iran from its bases in Iraq.

The Islamic-Marxist political organization had initially supported Ayatollah Khomeini but soon clashed with him because of ideological disagreements. As a result, they fought on the side of Iraq during the war.

Iranian military forces launched a counter-attack known as Operation Mersad. The Iranians easily and quickly repelled the ill-conceived and poorly executed attack.

In the immediate aftermath of the incursion, Iranian prisons entered an unusual state of emergency. All contacts with the outside world were ceased. Then, the killings of prisoners affiliated with the Mojahedin began.

The executions in Tehran likely began on July 27, 1988, in Evin and on July 30 in Gohar-Dasht prison.

On this day, Aug. 27, began the massacre of other prisoners not affiliated with the Mojahedin, in fact they opposed them and their collaboration with Iraq. What was the reason for this massacre that cost about 3,500 lives?

Although the incursion is often mentioned as the reason, it is clear that the truth lies elsewhere. Most likely, political inner power struggles caused the massacre.

With Khomeini’s death expected, Hashemi Rafsanjani began to see himself as the next center of Iranian power. But Ayatollah Montazeri, who was expected to succeed Khomeini, was standing in his way.

In recent years, Montazeri had defended the rights of prisoners and their situation had improved much.

Although not proven, it is suspected that Rafsanjani asked Khomeini to issue the fatwa against the prisoners. He must have anticipated that Montazeri would oppose the killings, and as a result, would be sidelined by the Supreme Leader.

What is certain is that Montazeri denounced the fatwa and that Khomeini chose another heir. Consequently, Rafsanjani, and his followers, emerged as the victorious faction.

Many observers believe that Pan Am 103 was bombed in retaliation for the downing of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes. The truth may be more complex than a simple act of vengeance.

Letter From Amnesty International

Twenty years after the then Iranian authorities began a wave of largely secret, summary and mass executions in September 1988, Amnesty International renews its call for those responsible for the ‘prison massacre’ to be held accountable. There should be no impunity for such gross human rights violations, regardless of when they were committed.

The organisation is also calling on the present Iranian government not to prevent relatives of the dead from visiting Khavaran Cemetary in south Tehran, on or about 29 August to mark the anniversary and demand justice for their loved ones. Hundreds of those summarily executed are buried in the cemetery, many of them in unmarked mass graves.

Amnesty International fears that the Iranian authorities may seek to impede or disperse any protests and reminds the Iranian government of its obligations under international law to allow for those who gather peacefully to express their views without fear of arrest.

International human rights law requires that the Iranian authorities carry out thorough and impartial investigations into violations of the right to life such as those which were committed during the ‘prison massacre’, which began in 1988 and continued into the following year, and to identify and bring to justice those responsible. The failure to do so to date and the time that has elapsed since the killings do not in any way reduce this responsibility.

Those responsible for the killings – one of the worst abuses to be committed in Iran – should be prosecuted and tried before a regularly and legally constituted court and with all necessary procedural guarantees, in accordance with international fair trial standards. If found guilty, they should be punished with appropriate penalties which take into account the grave nature of the crimes but which do not include the death penalty or corporal punishments. (1)


1) With revolutionary rage and rancor : a preliminary report on the 1988 massacre of Iran s political prisoners.


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