The Forgotten Mass Execution of Prisoners in Iran in 1988

The Forgotten Mass Execution of Prisoners in Iran in 1988


The massacre of political prisoners by the Iranian regime, which took place in the summer of 1988 has never been acknowledged by Tehran and remains one of the darkest stains in recent history, although it is relatively unknown in the West.

The executions began in late July and continued for several months. As many as 30,000 political prisoners or more, the overwhelming majority of them activists of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK) were slaughtered.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a decree in July 1988:  “Whoever at any stage continues to belong to the PMOI must be executed. Annihilate the enemies of Islam immediately!” He went on to add: “… Those who are in prisons throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for PMOI are waging war on God and are condemned to execution…It is naive to show mercy to those who wage war on God.”

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The executions soon began and every day hundreds of political prisoners were hanged and their corpses were buried hurriedly in unmarked mass graves in all of Iran’s major cities, in particular in Khavaran cemetery in south Tehran.

Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, a cleric who had for ten years been the designated successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, strongly protested against the mass executions and called for a moratorium, but Khomeini insisted that there should be no mercy shown and ordered that all prisoners, including even teenagers and pregnant women, be put to death immediately.

Because of his opposition to the killings, Ayatollah Montazeri quickly fell out of favor with Khomeini and was eventually sacked in March 1989. In December 2000, Montzaeri published his memoirs and revealed shocking details about the massacre and the brutality of Khomenei.

In 2008, on the 20th anniversary of this massacre, Amnesty International renewed its call for those responsible for the “prison massacre” to be held accountable, stating “there should be no impunity for such gross human rights violations, regardless of when they were committed.”

The Iranian regime continues to deny the 1988 elimination of political prisoners. None of the perpetrators have yet been brought to justice and none of the regime’s senior officials, including the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, have been held accountable.

The new so-called “moderate” President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, was Deputy Commander-in-chief of the regime’s armed forces at the time of the massacres and, since 1982, was a member of regime’s Supreme Defence Council, so was fully aware of the crime and in full conformity with it.

In another report in 2009, Amnesty International called on “the Iranian authorities to immediately stop the destruction of hundreds of individual and mass, unmarked graves in Khavaran, south Tehran, to ensure that the site is preserved and to initiate a forensic investigation at the site as part of a long-overdue, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into mass executions which began in 1988, often referred to in Iran as the “prison massacres”. The organization fears that these actions of the Iranian authorities are aimed at destroying evidence of human rights violations and depriving the families of the victims of the 1988 killings of their right to truth, justice and reparation.”

On the 25th anniversary of one of the most hideous crimes against humanity since the Second World War, time has come to call for those responsible for to be held to account.

Struan Stevenson is President of Friends of a Free Iran intergroup (FOFI) in European Parliament.  FOFI was formed in 2003 and enjoys the active support of over 300 Euro MPs. Follow Struan on twitter: @struanstevenson or


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